Johnny Depp has signed with CAA, the agency announced this morning. This is a shocker, and an exceptional development on multiple levels starting with the fact that stars long tenured with one agency, who’ve carried billion-dollar franchises, don’t often move. Some will simply read this as a big “get” for CAA in a continuing rivalry with UTA that ratcheted up last year when nearly a dozen CAA agents jumped to UTA and took clients including Will Ferrell and rising star Chris Pratt. Others will see this as a star in a crisis moment making a course change after recent movies didn’t work, and a loud marital breakup cast him in an unflattering light in the tabloid cross hairs.

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Disney

Others who follow the dynamic between talent and reps will focus on the end of one of the most enduring relationships between an agent and a movie star. That would be the three-decade collaboration between Depp and his UTA agent Tracey Jacobs, who signed Depp after watching his heartthrob turn as baby-faced undercover cop Tom Hanson on the Fox series 21 Jump Street. Together, they transitioned Depp into a globally bankable movie star whose films have collectively grossed more than $7 billion. She was a ferocious advocate for Depp and they were indelibly linked, down to the gold plaque bearing her name that Depp displayed in a prime booth at The Viper Room, when he was part-owner of the Sunset Strip nightspot.

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Fox

His ascension to stardom was a neat trick in that Depp didn’t do it like most big stars, who played variations of the branded persona their audiences wanted to see. Depp brought an art house sensibility to mainstream movies, and he was willing to go all in to disappear into eccentric and distinctive characters, some inspired by influences in his life. That worked to the maximum effect when, much to the initial trepidation of Disney, he channeled Keith Richards into the ghostly, tipsy buccaneer Jack Sparrow in the multi-billion-dollar global grossing Pirates Of The Caribbean series. Less effective was the channeling of his gonzo journalist pal Hunter S. Thompson in the films The Rum Diary and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Along the way were lauded performances in dramas like Donnie Brasco, Blow and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and audaciously daring turns with director Tim Burton that included Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Alice In Wonderland. He was thrice nominated for Oscars, for Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, Finding Neverland and Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl.

Johnny Depp in Black Mass
Warner Bros

Unfortunately, taking the risky road hasn’t been as kind to Depp in recent years. He has starred in numerous movies that were expensive and either under-performed or flat-out flopped. An expected return to Oscar form in Black Mass as Boston gangster Whitey Bulger didn’t resonate as strongly as was hoped. The failures that pleased neither audiences nor critics included Mortdecai, Transcendence, The Lone Ranger, and Alice Through The Looking Glass, the sequel to the billion-dollar grossing Burton-directed Alice In Wonderland (James Bobin directed the reprise). The last two were particular troubling: Disney famously put the brakes on The Lone Ranger to bring down the budget, but it still cost a reported $215 million and only grossed $265 million worldwide; the Alice sequel cost a reported $170 million and grossed $299 million worldwide, far from its predecessor. Another Burton collaboration, Dark Shadows, grossed $245 but cost a reported $150 million.

Adding to those woes was an image hit to a notoriously private actor when when the he-said she-said ugly breakup of his marriage to actress Amber Heard exploded in the press. UTA wouldn’t comment on why Depp left, but historically, this kind of perfect storm of uncertainty creates insecurity for artists, and makes them vulnerable to other agencies that court stars on Depp’s level. CAA has fixated on Depp for a long time; after vacillating for the past week, he finally made the jump late last night.

“We had a great 30-year run with Johnny and we wish him well,” said a UTA spokesman this morning.

Depp’s signing is a coup for CAA because in an age where the star system has been de-emphasized by studios in favor of brands and concepts, stars who’ve registered strongly on a global scale like Depp are few and far between. The onus on CAA will be to rebuild his standing with big hits. The pieces are already in place for a potential second wind for the actor, and those commissions will stay with UTA. Depp reprises Sparrow in Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales next summer, and he is booked to play the iconic lead character in The Invisible Man, one of the linchpins in Universal’s plan to build new franchises from its classic movie monster library. He also recently signed on to star in Fox’s Murder On The Orient Express, a Kenneth Branagh-directed revival of the Agatha Christie whodunit that also stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and Judi Dench. He also stars in Labyrinth, the Open Road drama that explores the murders of hip-hop stars Tupac Shaur and Notorious B.I.G.

Depp continues to be managed by Christi Dembrowski, his sister and producing partner in Infinitum Nihil, and he’s lawyered by Jacob A. Bloom at Bloom Hergott.