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Hidden Talent

Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents

Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Hidden Talent
    Book Description:

    Katharine Hepburn, John Wayne, Lauren Bacall—behind each of these stars was a hidden force: the talent agent. In this first-ever history of Hollywood agents, Tom Kemper mines agency archives to present an insider's view on their tooth-and-claw rise to power during the studio era. It's a tale of ambitious characters, savvy calculation, muckraking, financial ruin, and ultimate triumph, and establishes the agent's vital role in the Hollywood business world. Existing studies characterize agents as a product of the 1950s, but Kemper revises the record to show how agents emerged from the primordial film industry during the late 1920s and carved themselves a permanent niche. Through case studies of key figures like Myron Selznick and Charles Feldman, we see that the agent's character and social relationships functioned within a business structure—a good reputation and powerful connections were his most precious assets. With wit and precision, Kemper locates Hollywood agents at the crossroads of talent and profit, and captures their central and enduring role in the burgeoning film industry.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94474-9
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. 1. City of Agents: The Power of Place
    (pp. 1-24)

    In 1930, as suddenly as a swarm of locusts, talent agents descended on Hollywood, infiltrating every crevice of the studio system. Headlines screamed in terror. Industry players demanded action. Editorials called for reform.

    “More rank impositions,” one besieged critic raged, “are practiced by agents than by all other classes of people who make their living on the outer boundary of motion picture activity.”¹ Articles and pamphlets proffered tales of supposed underhandedness, “semi-legal trickery,” racketeering, and double dealing by these newly arrived tricksters.

    Agents belonged to that strange new breed of businessmen that included advertising pitchmen, real estate agents, loan sharks,...

  7. 2. Revenge of the Agent: Myron Selznick
    (pp. 25-52)

    For Myron Selznick, the leading Hollywood agent of the 1930s, the decision to embark upon his career “ruined his life,” his sister-in-law reported. “He loathed every minute of it.”¹ This sweeping summary by Irene, daughter of veritable Hollywood royalty, Louis B. Mayer, and wife to Hollywood’s reigning independent uberproducer, David O. Selznick, offers a serene, even weary, yet no less trenchant perspective on Myron’s brilliant career. Myron’s triumphant bravado and brinkmanship deal making seethed with an estranged loathing, a streak that was expensive not only for producers but also for his personal life. Chafing at the outsider status of Hollywood...

  8. 3. A Percentage of Power: Small Agents
    (pp. 53-72)

    Myron Selznick’s successful strategy in staking out a position in the industry—his exploitation of his deeply embedded social connections and business affiliations—stands out all the more strongly when contrasted with the efforts of Ivan Kahn and Edward Small, two minor pioneering agents who were operating independently in early Hollywood. In practice these agents followed many tactics similar to Selznick’s in tapping established ties and ingrained business relations for both clients and potential employers, and their overlapping strategies illustrate the rules and principles governing industry practice and the work of agents therein. The limitations of Kahn and Small, however,...

  9. 4. Charisma and Contracts: Charles Feldman
    (pp. 73-103)

    Charles Feldman fashioned a distinctive character for the role of the classical Hollywood agent, cutting a sharp contrast with the rather sullen, combative role played by Myron Selznick. Dapper, gregarious, and All-Pro, Feldman sported an expansive demeanor, in both his business dealings and his social engagements in the world of Hollywood. His manner served him well. In an enterprise where reputation counted as much as anything, Feldman’s racked up interest like money in the bank. For if agents serve in the commercial fabrication of individuality, honing their clients into distinctive commodities, then agents also fashion their own sense of personality...

  10. 5. Numbers and Niches: Boutique Agencies
    (pp. 104-123)

    Feldman’s success, and that of his colleagues—Myron Selznick, Leland Hayward, and Arthur Lyons (Lyons handled Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Jean Arthur at various times)— masked the high degree of risk in the agency business. The struggles and failures of small agents tell us as much or perhaps even more about this occupation than do the smooth operations of Feldman’s rise to power. While the agency business remained a service industry, it was also a vocation marked by chance, debt, compromise, and loss. Even those rare and short-lived agents who cut their overhead to nil—those working out of...

  11. 6. Sealing the Deal: The Contract Industry
    (pp. 124-143)

    Studio contracts were not fixed once and for all in the 1930s. They mutated and evolved during this rapid, complex decade of transformations in the film industry. Following the introduction of the standard studio contract in the late 1920s—hotly contested even then—agents and talent began carving out new contractual provisions and innovative arrangements. These changes began adding up, accruing definition and habitual force in the negotiation process (bargaining for story approval, for example, or for rest periods between productions), establishing models for more aggressive champions of their careers and their partners: more aggressive agents. Contracts grew bulkier and...

  12. 7. My Man Myron: Power and Persuasion
    (pp. 144-163)

    In 1938, to house his growing talent agency, Myron Selznick financed the construction of a luxurious, modernistic one-story office building, a big investment and a conspicuous symbol of his success. One article called it a “showplace in the land of showplaces.”¹ Laid out in a circle, with Selznick’s office at the center, and the general work area surrounding the core, the design provoked the writer-client Harry Kurnitz to crack, “All this place needs is an electric rabbit.”² It didn’t need one. In Hollywood circles everyone knew that Selznick was winning the race; his office was widely recognized as far and...

  13. 8. What Made Myron Run?: The Whole Equation
    (pp. 164-196)

    All of Selznick’s headline-worthy deals, those inspired by and fostering new managerial approaches, the radical new production arrangements, complicated percentage deals, personal production plans, tensions, conflict, and confusion did not distract from the daily business of his agency, which was providing tactical advice, administering contracts, and facilitating employment for more than a hundred clients. The agency continued to fish for new clients; it continued to deal regularly with studios on standard transactions and ordinary contracts. Humdrum matters like option dates, tax advice, and minor loan-outs, as well as negotiating production start dates, proper credit, and roles continued unabated while Selznick...

  14. 9. Tall in the Saddle: Agents in the Producer’s Chair
    (pp. 197-216)

    The purchase of Myron Selznick’s talent agency completed Charles Feldman’s ascension to the top of the agency business. David O. Selznick suspected that owning the agency of his former rival was at least as important to Feldman as its strict financial value. In private communication with his lawyer, David, as executor of Myron’s estate, fretted about the symbolic loss to Myron’s reputation and the whiff of victory he detected in Feldman’s ambition for the remnants of Myron’s agency. Feldman expressed little interest in signing all the remaining clients and seemed more enthralled with the nominal purchase of assets, particularly Myron’s...

  15. 10. The Deal Factory: New Fortunes in the Forties
    (pp. 217-238)

    Agents navigated the war years of the early 1940s by more or less staying the course. After the major studios signed a 1940 consent decree agreeing to include no more than five films in a block-booking arrangement, they decreased their annual output. On the one hand, this meant fewer opportunities for agents. On the other hand, it meant the studios would have to make pictures of higher quality because they couldn’t palm off the dogs in a batch that included a surefire star vehicle. Thus studios proved more willing to negotiate higher salaries for talent, particularly actors who had enough...

  16. Epilogue. The Corporate Era: Changing Channels
    (pp. 239-248)

    In the 1950s Feldman continued to straddle two worlds—his production business and his talent agency; his staff and advisers continued to press him to consider a stronger focus. In this vein an adept and promising agent wrote to his boss with alarm:

    It is ridiculous that an office with . . . prestige and standing . . . still is operating under the illusion that motion pictures are the only source of revenue in the agency business. This would be well and good if motion pictures were still the darling of the entertainment world. However, today, personal appearances, Broadway,...

  17. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 249-250)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 251-274)
  19. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 275-278)
  20. Index
    (pp. 279-293)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 294-294)