By DAN TURNER
In the movie "Jerry Maguire," a sports agent who is disgusted with the ruthless competition among agents and the shallow relationships that result has an epiphany one evening and writes a memo to his colleagues that ultimately gets him fired. So he sets off on his own.
Christopher Barrett's story has certain similarities. After working as an actor and then in a talent agency, he became disgusted with the way most agents operate. So he formed his own agency with two partners in 1982, and when his partners still resisted doing things the way he wanted, he took full control of Metropolitan Talent Agency in 1993.
Metropolitan is certainly different from most Hollywood tenpercenteries. The company has an unusual compensation structure in which its 14 agents split credit for commissions with each other; when a client gets a job, a percentage of the commission goes to the agent who originally signed the client, a percentage goes to the agent who currently represents that client, and a percentage goes to the agent who actually signed the deal.
Agents also share information freely about clients and projects at Metropolitan, a highly unusual practice at talent agencies.
Metropolitan isn't the biggest agency in Hollywood, but it has a respectable roster of about 120 actors and 80 producers/directors/writers. Barrett won't reveal who they are, but outside sources say Metropolitan represents such notables as Jane Seymour, Kirstie Alley, Kate Mulgrew, James Brolin and Ned Beatty.
Question: What did you think of the movie "Jerry Maguire"? Did it seem like the story of your life?
Answer: There were certain similarities, but I never worked at a big agency that was so ruthless to its clients that it spawned a Jerry Maguire.
Q: But there were obviously things about the way big agencies operate that you didn't like.
A: Well I had been an actor and a writer for 15 years before I became an agent, so there were absolutely things about agencies big and little that I didn't like. So since I formed my own agency, my entire career has been a reflection of my ideas of how I think the agency business should run in its relation to clients.
Q: When you were an actor, did you feel you weren't being represented properly?
A: Yes, absolutely. In fact, the teachers who taught me how to be an agent were my agents. I just studied what they did and did the opposite, and that was a great guide to me. If I have trouble with a decision now, I think about some of the agents I had when I was an actor and what they would do, then do the reverse and I'm almost always right.
Q: What did they do wrong?
A: First of all, they didn't like any of the people they represented. They chose to live their lives only for the pursuit of money or advancement, and that's a mistake in my opinion. Since they didn't value people, they were happy to have short-term relationships.
When I was an actor, I met with an agent from a major talent agency, I won't say which one. I asked him to get me in as a client, and he said it would be the kiss of death. I asked him why, and he said "Because the attitude of this company is that you have short-term relationships with clients. No matter what you do, they're going to fire you within 18 months anyhow. So there is no point in building careers, no point in dispensing advice about what the correct thing to do is. The only point is to optimize your income on a monthly or yearly basis."
Q: It sounds like what the big agencies are about, then, is getting the already established "name" actors, rather than building their careers.
A: I think that's true. He also said to me, "We're not in the business of developing young talent, we're in the business of stealing talent when it has matured into important talent." But I think that's really too facile. I think the big agencies do that, but I think they fall prey to having their clients pilfered more than anybody else. They live in a very fearful, toxic environment.
Q: It seems like the danger you run in your situation is, if you're not poaching clients but the other agencies are, then you're going to end up developing talent and then a bigger agency is going to come in and steal it.
A: As I said before, that's too facile. Do we lose clients to other agencies, big and moderately sized? Yes. Do they lose clients to us? They do.
Let me put it this way: We're not making a moral judgment on people who think the nature of this business is to go out and spend vast amounts of their time and treasury to steal clients. If they want to do it that way, that's fine, that's their life. My theory is, if you sign a contract with a client and you are their livelihood gate, that's a pretty serious issue. They didn't sign with you so you could spend large amounts of time not being available to them and their careers.
My competitors spend a lot of time in meetings they call "hit" meetings, determining how they're going to steal a client and where the client is and so forth. I think that if they took that time and put it into working on the careers of the clients they've committed to, the incidence of being fired by clients would dwindle dramatically. I'm not saying we don't get fired this is show business, they're creative people, and it happens. But we enjoy very long-term relationships with many, many clients.
Q: Are the clients more fickle than they used to be? It seems like there's an awful lot of switching going on.
A: You know, in all the years I've been an agent, it seems like every year I read an article about the greater fickleness of clients, or the greater competition, or the take-no-prisoners attitude. I don't think this business has really changed that much. Fifteen years ago I opened an agency with two partners, and we were fortunate in that from Day One, we had important clients. And from Day One, our competitors were trying to steal those clients.
The newspapers like to write about it in this very cut-and-dried, black-and-white way that all the power is with the four big agencies, all the stars that matter are with them, and there's more fickleness going on than there ever has been. This is just how the newspaper people like to keep score, but it's not the reality.
Q: You have a unique structure here in terms of compensation. Why do you operate that way?
A: I'm a deep believer in the incentive-based system. I think the concept that this country has worked under for too many years is antiquated. It harks back to the 1850s and the Industrial Revolution and the concept of cheap labor.
I do believe that as we go into the future, not just this industry but pretty much all industries across America are going to have to come to grips with the idea that an "us versus them" mentality is not good for the bottom line. A disgruntled employee base is not a productive or healthy one.
If companies develop a more cohesive attitude, there will be more productivity, there will be less sickness, drug addiction, less pain and suffering in families, a happier and far more loyal work force. The companies that are figuring that out, and it's obviously not just this company, are enjoying more stable relationships with their work force.
Q: You also share information here about clients and projects, something most other agencies don't do. Why is that?
A: Most agencies have accepted the concept that they're in competition with each other. In fact, they've got something called the "internal signing," which they applaud. It's like, "Oh, you got a signing, and you took it from your friend down the hall. Good for you, that shows great aggressiveness." They go into staff meetings, and they don't even want to explain what's going on, because they're afraid they may give their competitor their next door neighbor useful information.
Therefore, at many of these companies, there is a wall between a client and pitch within the agency. If you share all the data, if you share all the clients, if you have an incentive-based system where people are increasing their salaries by 50 percent a year or more and teamwork makes it great, there's really no reason to get into that kind of form. Pitting one's colleagues against each other is too feudal for me.
Organization: Metropolitan Talent Agency
Position: President, owner
Born: New York City, 1949
Education: Pace University, N.Y., bachelor of arts degree
Career Turning Point: Landing a role in "The Act," a Broadway musical directed by Martin Scorcese, in the mid-1970s
Hobbies: Working on the computer, spending time with his daughter
Personal: Married, one daughter
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