One night lastMarch, Tony Award–winning playwright Richard Greenberg ( Take Me Out ) received a call from his agent, George Lane, the 52-year-old head ofthe William Morris Agency theater department, who had become the paladin of Broadway deal-making during his 16 years at the storied New York talent agency. Mr. Lane told Mr. Greenberg that he was leaving William Morris and, in what would come as a shock to the Broadway community, said that he was joining the first New York office of Creative Artists Agency, the Beverly Hills–based firm founded 29 years ago by Michael Ovitz. Last week, Mr. Lane and C.A.A.’s staff, who had been operating out of temporary midtown offices, moved into permanent space on lower Fifth Avenue.
“I found out about it at 9:30 the night before the announcement,” said Mr. Greenberg. “George called me from the car and said, ‘There’s an announcement going to be made.’ I thought, ‘All right, well, I guess I’m with C.A.A. now.'” Three months later, virtually all of Mr. Lane’s clients had decamped from William Morris to C.A.A., including directors Sam Mendes ( Gypsy ), Robert Falls ( Long Day’s Journey into Night ) and Michael Mayer ( Thoroughly Modern Millie ); writers Kenneth Lonergan ( This Is Our Youth ), Martin Sherman ( The Boy from Oz ), Suzan-Lori Parks ( Topdog/Underdog) and Eve Ensler ( The Vagina Monologues ); and actor and writer Eric Bogosian. In 2003, C.A.A.’s stable of directors represented by Mr. Lane and fellow agent Michael Cardonick helmed 13 of the 32 shows running on Broadway.
C.A.A.’s new home in New York is on the sixth floor of a prewar building on lower Fifth Avenue, across the street from Restoration Hardware and Club Monaco. Mr. Lane, who stands above six feet and favors dark, stoic pinstripe suits, used to have a regular table at Michael’s; now he can choose to do business at Union Square Cafe, Craft and Gramercy Tavern.
“People on Broadway have been asking C.A.A. to be involved in New York for years. If you’re thinking of opening a New York office, you would want to open an office for someone who has some sort of power,” said Richard Kornberg, the head of a public-relations firm that represents Hairspray and Rent . “By bringing George Lane into this quotient, you get sort of edgy writers, you get directors who are important, and you get George’s encyclopedic knowledge. And it was a very smart move for C.A.A. to do.”
Mr. Lane, who declined to be interviewed, is said to be fanatically devoted to his clients and to have something of a temper, though the volume has been lowered recently.
“No one describes George as warm and fuzzy,” said producer Hal Luftig. “George is a tough agent. He knows what his clients want, and he just gets out there and states it.”
“When George got married and had a wife, I thought, ‘My God, he has another life?'” said Mr. Kornberg.
Mr. Lane’s friends and associates say he’s mellowed.
“George and I at times had a confrontational relationship,” Mr. Kornberg said. “George, basically, he can be fucking rude. And I can be someone who answers someone back as well. But he finds a way to get things done. I don’t know many other agents who are that dogged.”
“He doesn’t even do the yelling anymore. That’s the young George of 15 years ago,” said Mr. Bogosian. “As passionate as he gets sometimes on the phone, I know it’s all an act. It’s very fun to sit in his office and watch him do it; often he’s laughing while he’s yelling at people.”
“I have noticed continually over the past few years that every year, George gets more self-confident,” said producer David Richenthal, whose version of Long Day’s Journey into Night won the 2003 Tony for Best Revival. “And I think that was true again, having this adventure at C.A.A.; it is something he has more control over by running the whole office, compared to just running William Morris’ theater department. George is C.A.A. New York.”
The fact that C.A.A. is in New York at all is a bit of a surprise. “I think it’s kind of an interesting development that C.A.A., who had absolutely no interest in the theater in the [Michael] Ovitz era-and, furthermore, was at least reputed to actively discourage their clients from theater … that they would do this means they must feel there’s some money in it,” said The New York Times’ Frank Rich. “Now does this mean that the theater is in fantastic financial shape? Is this a great bonanza for Broadway? Not at all. What it does mean is we’re going through one of those periods-and it’s happened in the past-when movie studios take a great interest in Broadway, for whatever reason. And it’s exemplified by Disney, but also Warner Brothers, Universal and Fox-they have all been involved in recent Broadway productions.”
Recent examples would be Miramax’s $45 million screen version of Bob Fosse’s Chicago (six Oscars, including Best Picture; $170 million at the box office) and HBO’s $60 million version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America . Mr. Kushner’s latest stage production, Caroline, or Change , opens on May 4; the success of HBO’s Angels has generated more-than-usual buzz for the show. This December, Warner Brothers will release a screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera , directed by Joel Schumacher.
All this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll suddenly start seeing C.A.A. clients such as Julia Roberts, Tobey Maguire, Adrien Brody, Cameron Diaz and the Toms (Cruise and Hanks) gobbling burgers at Joe Allen’s. (Though C.A.A. client Nicole Kidman famously undraped in David Hare’s play The Blue Room in 1998.)
“I have a theory, which is: Really big stars come to Broadway for the most part to prove an artistic point, or to revive careers that need repositioning, or for some kind of character rehabilitation,” said Mr. Rich, noting the recent appearances of Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh, Christian Slater in Side Man and Edward Norton in Burn This . “Theater pays more like HBO than starring in a Hollywood movie.”
George Lane was born at St. Vincent’s hospital in Manhattan in 1952 and grew up in an adopted family. He attended Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y., and, after graduation, worked on Governor Hugh Carey’s 1976 campaign. He soon ended up in the William Morris mail room, the same place that Mr. Ovitz began in 1968. Mr. Lane rose through William Morris by bargaining hard and showing up everywhere his clients happened to be. “When George and I have done several shows that started at the Goodman Theater, I always find George at the first preview or the opening in Chicago. And then back in New York. He finds a way to be involved in the whole process,” said Mr. Richenthal.
William Morris has alrready taken steps to counter C.A.A.’s New York expansion which includes the market research firm Youth Intelligence that C.A.A. acquired last year, its advertising division and its music-touring department. Now, William Morris has bulked up its theater department, installing Peter Franklin and Jack Tantleff to lead a group that represents Full Monty writer Terrence McNally, Hairspray book writer Mark O’Donnell and Avenue Q book writer Jeff Whitty, among others.
“The point is, William Morris has a stronger list now than when George was here,” said Mr. Tantleff. “George has his own way of working, and it works for George, but it’s not how Peter or I like to work. When we joined William Morris … we are both old enough to remember the days when the William Morris theater department had no equal. Nobody even came close. If you were in theater in any capacity-a playwright, a director-this is where you wanted to be. Our vision is to restore it to that, and you don’t do that with a kind of take-no-prisoners modus operandi . William Morris didn’t get that way by beating other people up.”
“I see competition among the agencies as a good thing,” John Breglio, a prominent entertainment lawyer, said. “The more players, the better; more and more Broadway producers are looking to Hollywood’s talent and titles to bring to the theater, and it’s helpful to have a C.A.A. presence in this community. For William Morris and I.C.M., more competition means competition will be rather fierce among a few agents. All the agents are now vying for the best clients.”
“I’ll tell you, there are four kinds of agents: nurturers, deal-makers, schmoozers and sharks,” Mr. Franklin said. “The great agents can be all four things. But if all you can do is nurture, your clients will grow up and leave home. If all you can do is schmooze, you’re going to be a hand-holder and you’re not really going to be the agent. If all you can do is make a creative deal, you won’t be able to hang onto your clients. And if all you are is a shark, eventually the buyers will kill you .”
And while the return of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick to The Producers has injected Broadway with a jolt of media attention (the show grosses more than $1.3 million per week), New York theater is still struggling to recoup from a post–Sept. 11 economy that has seen the number of international tourists attending Broadway drop from 12 percent to less than 5 percent, according to Jed Bernstein, the president of the League of American Theaters and Producers. Last fall, the comedy Bobbi Boland, starring Farrah Fawcett, closed during previews; Rosie O’Donnell’s $10 million Boy George musical, Taboo, will close on Feb. 8 after critics savaged the show, which has played to 60 percent capacity. Overall, according to Mr. Bernstein, Broadway attendance was down 5 percent in 2003, though revenues were up slightly, reflecting higher average ticket prices. Mr. Bernstein said the presence of C.A.A. and Mr. Lane in New York may help revive the theater-especially if he can lure C.A.A.’s Hollywood talent east.
But Mr. Lane, for one, isn’t talking. Which is the way he likes it.
“I was really taken aback, because I knew nothing about his decision to leave William Morris,” said Carol Shorenstein Hays, the producer of Mr. Greenberg’s Take Me Out and Mr. Kushner’s Caroline, or Change . “It’s so like him; he plays things very close to his chest, I find that incredibly shrewd, honorable and powerful. I mean, Richard Greenberg didn’t know, Suzan-Lori Parks didn’t know-and those were his clients . ”