I’d Like to Thank My Agent

The Academy Award nominees were announced this morning, with “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar” leading the pack at 9 nominations each. When the winners step up to the stage next month to thank the people who helped make their dream possible, they will likely thank family, colleagues, and perhaps, an agent. Here, Tom Kemper, author of Hidden Talent, writes about the first time an Academy Award winner thanked an agent in an acceptance speech, and the agent’s role in the making of Hollywood.

As early as the 1930s, agents like Myron Selznick and Charles Feldman had the power to make a star or send one tumbling into obscurity, Kemper finds. The success secrets of these studio-era business and networking geniuses lay hidden for decades in extensive office archives, until Tom Kemper brought them to light in Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents, a book Leonard Maltin calls “groundbreaking and valuable”.
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I’d Like to Thank My Agent

by Tom Kemper, author of Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents

The announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominations reminds me of the tried-and-true tradition of winners thanking their agents. It happened for the first time in 1962. And the press took notice. When Ed Begley won for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in “Sweet Bird of Youth,” reports noted that he “surprised Hollywood by thanking his agent, George Morris, from the stage.” Another article called it a “Hollywood first.” Little did they realize it would become part of the standard Oscar script.

This event coincides with a lot of standard beliefs about the emergence of Hollywood agents. In popular opinion—in journalism, fan culture, and places like classic movie channels—and even academic circles (in histories and textbooks) it has been assumed that agents first hit the scene around this time and then surged in the 1970s with Armani-clad power brokers like Mike Ovitz, the rise of CAA and ICM, and right on up to Ari Emmanuel (aka Ari Gold). I assumed much the same when I began my project. When I dug around in various historical sources and archives to see what agents were doing in the 1930s, the classic Hollywood studio era, I thought this material might serve as the preface to the book. What I found completely surprised me: agents were there at the start of the studio system and played a crucial role to its functioning as a big business. These discoveries became the entire book.

Certainly, the studios (and even the Academy of Motion Pictures) resisted the role of agents. I document those battles in the book. But major agents like Myron Selznick, Leland Hayward and Charles Feldman established tremendously successful agencies (their salaries surpassed many studio execs), while managing huge talent like Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Alfred Hitchcock and others. I was equally surprised by how these agents gained their clients percentage points on film profits, independently packaged clients for productions, and gained limited contracts with powerful clauses (script approval, star approval, final cut, and such) for their clients—all conditions we associate with the modern era of Hollywood. On Turner Classic Movies and in many historical books we hear about the iron-clad contracts of the studio era. So I was surprised not only to discover the incredible role played by agents in this era, but also by the many exceptions to these contracts and the degrees of autonomy held by so many great Hollywood artists. Claudette Colbert made It Happened One Night thanks in part to her agent’s work on contracts. Howard Hawks produced probably his best work when he signed up with a new agent. I also have to admit that Charles Feldman, the agent in question in these two particular cases, had charisma like money in the bank, and his charming persona came through to me even in the archives all these years later.