Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business. We took Easter off and to the column runs today. It will move back to its regular spot this weekend.
BART: Whenever I visit CAA or WME I feel like I’m going to Goldman Sachs. Maybe I’ve read too much about TPG Capital or Silver Lake or other money guys who’ve invested in the agency business but here’s the message I receive: It’s all about money, not talent. That’s likely what prompted the big defections from CAA to UTA last week. And that is also why many of us talk about the resulting confusion (and litigation) with some amusement, as though it were a sports event.
FLEMING: When we broke that story last week (by two minutes, an eternity in the digital age), it was a genuine shocker. You mention the corporate vibe of CAA and WME headquarters and by comparison UTA’s corner of tranquility off Santa Monica Blvd feels like a fortress of solitude. I am sure it cost UTA a lot of dough to hire all those agents (well at least the ones with the big client lists), but it led to a crazy couple of days. If you want to keep your plans secret, most agents don’t tell their clients, not because it’s borderline illegal but because there are too many managers, and publicists for someone not to slip. So some clients found out by reading it on Deadline. And then it becomes a burden for them. Do they jump? Do they relent to a “save meeting” by the agency they are still aligned with? It’s a measured process, not a spectator sporting event, even though UTA did strike fast by landing Will Ferrell, Ed Helms and especially Chris Pratt. The latter was huge for UTA because of the way he has grown into leading man roles. CAA will have a strong argument for commissions on Guardians of the Galaxy sequels, perhaps less so for the Indiana Jones movies if they happen.
CAA was quick to file lawsuits and arbitrations for what it claimed was a “lawless midnight raid.” But isn’t that how Mike Ovitz, Ron Meyer and others formed CAA and Ari Emanuel, Tom Strickler and others formed Endeavor? Since WME and CAA are the reigning top dogs, isn’t late night plundering part of a rough and tumble growth curve? This is going to be a long, twisty lawyer-laden process but UTA instantly earned bragging rights; nobody could think of a larger exodus of agent bodies in one shot like this.
BART: I wonder how Will Ferrell, Chris Platt or the others caught up in the defections to UTA will view it. The UTA building is, after all, easier to get to than CAA, the parking is better, the art on the walls is more people-friendly and partners own the place, not Wall Street capital. Does that have any impact on how good their next movies will be or the heft of their next pay check? Some years ago I remember asking Tom Hanks how he felt after leaving the old William Morris agency for CAA. He shrugged and said, “my agents are a lot taller now.” I don’t begrudge talent agents for making a lot of money – so long as they remember that talent is the real currency. And it’s evanescent.
FLEMING: It might take 60 days to see the full extent of client movement. I’d heard today that as many as 150 total clients are likely to uproot, when I wrote about the moves of Zach Galifianakis, Lennon & Garant, James Bobin and few others. It’s a wake-up call to CAA to examine why these agents exited abruptly (it’s usually about money as much as culture.) Many I spoke to felt it is better when stars aren’t concentrated among one or two agencies, but rather are spread around a bit. Agents are practically producers in the way they package nowadays for distribution slots, and UTA will be a lot more effective in that capacity now. We’ll watch the client fallout happen in real time and sometimes it is hard to handicap who’ll leave and stay, though it sure seems like Jason Heyman and Martin Lesak’s clients have remained loyal. CAA has rep teams surrounding major clients, and that can be a protection mechanism in a situation like this–Paul Feig’s loyalties to longtime TV agent Renee Kurtz probably keeps him at CAA, I’ve heard. Some clients have mitigating circumstances that could make for awkwardness (Mindy Kaling just left UTA for CAA last month), and other clients might hang in long enough to challenge CAA to convince them to stay. Others need time because they are busy working jobs their agents booked them in; Rawson Thurber is 10 days from starting production on Central Intelligence with Kevin Hart and The Rock. He’s being courted by everybody.
BART: Next topic: in reading the accounts of Michael DeLuca’s departure from Sony last week, I noticed that several writers invoked my least favorite expression — “talent friendly.” When journalists struggle to describe the talents or idiosyncrasies of executives, they fall back on those two vague words as though they conveyed some deep insight. DeLuca, we are told, is talent friendly. So, supposedly, is Universal’s Donna Langley, under whom DeLuca will be working. Adam Goodman, who lost his job at Paramount recently, is described by some as not talent friendly. Some say that about Tom Rothman as well.
FLEMING: Some have said the same thing about my coverage, that I am too talent friendly.
BART: Having served as an executive at three studios in years past, I think “talent friendly” is pure mythology. An executive is talent friendly when he presides over a slate of hits and thus writes big pay checks and takes nice meetings. When things don’t go well, the ‘friendly’ mythology disappears. Amy Pascal was renowned as the most talent friendly of studio executives. As she once told me, this meant she genuinely liked the filmmakers who came to pitch their projects even though she knew that, if they got a green light, they wouldn’t follow her ground rules or take her suggestions. When you are in a position to green light movies and write checks everyone wants to be your friend. Mike DeLuca occupied that role at New Line, then at DreamWorks, then at Sony. He was downright talent friendly. Now that he’s a producer again he will still be friendly, but maybe the talent won’t be.
FLEMING: Some executives are easy with talent, and some executives think bracing is the way to go. Several people have told me that the money De Luca will make producing those Fifty Shades sequels is too life changing to stay in a studio production co-president post. After Pascal left, there were rumors De Luca might share the top job with Doug Belgrad. Had Michael Lynton given De Luca a bigger job, things might be different, but he chose Tom Rothman and that was that. For De Luca to watch a far less experienced exec like Marc Evans step into a bigger title at Paramount, why would he stay? Mike and I once tried to write a book on his coming of age at New Line (we shelved it), and the talent I spoke with deeply appreciated how he backed them. In his short Sony tenure, De Luca won most of the auctions he competed in and Sony should get some movies out of those scripts and pitches. Even if it was illusion, Pascal and De Luca were the faces of a talent-friendly studio. Rothman, Belgrad and Hannah Minghella will have to work hard to convince artists and their agents that still will be the case.
BART: Next topic. My nominee for the bravest executive of the month is someone I’ve never heard of – Michele Ganeless of Comedy Central. She and her colleagues ventured way into the outfield last week to name Trevor Noah, a South African comic, as Jon Stewart’s successor. “As a comedian, I’m paid to have a tough skin,” Noah promptly announced. I hope Ganeless has a tough skin as well. She knows that no one can take the place of Stewart or, for that matter, of Stephen Colbert. Noah already is suffering through a “trial by tweet” because of the non-PC nature of his earlier jokes. Noah admits he is taken aback when people say he does not look like he comes from Africa. “Africa is not a color, it’s a place,” he replies. As far as his audience is concerned, Noah is from outer space. “I’m not a big Hollywood guy – I don’t know how the machine works.” He’s going to have to learn quickly.
FLEMING: Judging whether a stand- up comedian is worthy of hosting a humorous fake newscast by the contents of his Tweets takes political correctness to an absurd level. He’s a comedian. He tells jokes. They might not all be good jokes, but they don’t convey whether or not he’s fit to hold down that pretend newscaster job. Remember, Daily Show wasn’t that much more of a prestige gig than Talk Soup until Jon Stewart turned it into something.