Film: The rogue traders of the film industry

British talent agents used to be gentlemen. Now an American invader has shattered the old ways. By Tim Adler
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The Independent Culture
And so my very first client jumps out of a first-floor window and breaks his leg, thinking I'm not about to be buggered by some neo- Nazi theatre director." Duncan Heath, London chairman of International Creative Management (ICM), one of the most powerful talent agencies in the world, laughs and finishes another outrageous story.

Heath has already told me a scurrilous anecdote about Gary Oldman and Joan Plowright, and another highly amusing tale about how he founded his company with the winnings from a racehorse. Heath's gap-toothed grin and mop of blond hair give him the appearance of a mischievous schoolboy, but the truth is that he is a highly respected figure in the world of film and television whose clients include Hugh Grant and Anthony Hopkins.

The slightly chaotic atmosphere of Heath's office is underlined by its country-house door and by the twin Labradors lying at his feet. The only clue that you haven't strayed into the sitting room of a country manor is the pile of felt-tipped scripts on Heath's desk. However, people in the film industry say that Heath has been unnerved by the relaunch of ICM's chief competitor, the William Morris Agency, and in particular by the arrival of Charles Finch, son of actor Peter Finch, who has been flown in from Los Angeles to run the London office.

Producers say that before William Morris's relaunch last summer the British talent agency scene had a cosy, tweedy atmosphere. Finch's arrival, they say, shook the business by the scruff of its neck. "Charles Finch definitely made the other agents in the UK sit up and take notice," says Phil Alberstat, an entertainment lawyer.

Finch certainly hit the ground running last summer, announcing that William Morris (who include John Hannah and Emanuelle Beart among their clients) had "packaged' its first European movie, Rogue Trader, starring Ewan McGregor as disgraced City financier Nick Leeson.

Packaging - whereby a talent agency represents the star, the director and the writer on a project and then sells it on to a studio for an all- in fee - has been around a long time in America. It dates back to the 1920s when talent agency MCA (whose clients included James Stewart and Fred Astaire) offered entire radio shows - stars, producers, gag-men and so on - to the broadcast networks.

By the 1980s packaging had become commonplace in Hollywood and led to such turkeys as Legal Eagles, starring Robert Redford and Debra Winger and directed by Ivan Reitman - all of whom were represented by the same talent agency, CAA. Between 1976 and 1986 CAA itself calculates that it put together at least 170 films - only a few of which are remembered today.

Heath rubbished William Morris's groundbreaking claims, pointing out that ICM had been helping its clients put their own projects together for years. "What other agencies call packaging, we call facilitating," he explains.

But observers say that what really rattled Heath was William Morris's decision to break a decades-old gentleman's agreement between both agencies not to steal each other's clients. The understanding had been that it was fine for a dissatisfied client to approach another agency, but on no account should an agency court business.

Again, the practice of stealing a rival's clients is well established in Hollywood. One talent agent talked about the walls vibrating with the rush when his company poached Kristin Scott-Thomas, star of The English Patient, from another agency. "Some call it capitalism - I call it natural selection,"' talent agent Gavin Polone told US film industry magazine The Hollywood Reporter. "It's like being out in the jungle. The bigger gorilla gets to have more food and more female gorillas. That's what happens when you're the Alpha male."

Here in Britain the gloves came off at the beginning of this year when Michael Foster, Heath's co-chairman, announced that he was quitting ICM to look after the business interests of disc jockey Chris Evans. William Morris went into overdrive, sending bouquets of flowers to actors and actresses all over London. Foster sent his own bouquet back, but now appears to be represented by his former rival. ICM threw the next punch, wooing literary agents Alan Radcliffe and Michael McCoy from William Morris and hiring Lyndsey Posner, Lord Puttnam's former lawyer, to package projects on behalf of its clients. William Morris, meanwhile, moved out of its cramped offices in London's Soho into new Mayfair headquarters, firing most of the existing staff. Finch then hired Luc Roeg, a young, well-liked producer, to make friends with the film-making community and go eyeball- to-eyeball with Posner.

The feeling is, however, that Finch failed to land the knock-out blow when Foster announced his departure. None of Foster's clients decamped to William Morris and Finch is unlikely to be presented with the same opportunity again.

IN PERSON Charles Finch is so full of energy that you half expect to get a shock when you shake hands with him. He takes me around his swanky new offices, showing off a memento from a recent climbing expedition with Eric Fellner, the man behind Bean and Fargo. The tobacco-coloured leather walls and understated Conran furniture whisper large overheads. Finch takes me out onto the roof terrace to show me the view looking down Piccadilly. I estimate that we must be close to where Alexander Korda, the only film mogul to have come out of England, used to have his offices. It occurs to me that in some way the baton has been passed from the flamboyant entrepreneurs of the 1930s and 1940s to the sober-suited deal-makers of today.

Further down the avenue, the unmistakable glow of film lighting pours out of one of the windows of the Ritz Hotel. Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts are across the street shooting the follow-up to Four Weddings and a Funeral and Finch suggests that we join them. Suddenly, a verse from the New Testament pops into my head, the passage where Jesus is taken high up a mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the world. The thought frightens me and I am glad when we turn to go back inside.