The demonstrators outside the WME offices Monday provided a reminder that the role of the talent agency is undergoing a radical change – one that is reverberating on varied fronts.
In part, the demonstrators’ presence is a response to the budding relationship between Ari Emanuel and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. These ties could result in a Saudi investment of $400 million in the talent emporium — a move with both financial and political ramifications. Emanuel, however, is not shy about politics: Last week, Endeavor Content, a new arm of the agency, emerged as the production entity for a project based on Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s ferocious book about Donald Trump. Endeavor is not just agenting the show; having acquired TV and film rights, it is effectively producing it and has signed Jay Roach, a client, to direct it. Roach directed Game Change, which is a good title for this business arrangement, since Roach arguably will be working for his own agent.
I’m not arguing here that there’s anything wrong with Endeavor re-imagining its role in the entertainment spectrum, but it’s all happening so fast that the creative community hasn’t had a chance to assimilate it. Which brings us back to 32-year-old bin Salman, who is also bent on re-defining his nation. The Crown Prince wants to open his country to (some) of the influences of an open society, which means, among other things, Hollywood films and talent. According to several reports, Emanuel has been making some helpful introductions to facilitate that objective.
But here’s the sticky part: While many endorse the Crown Prince’s goals, many also point out that Saudi Arabia still carries some nasty baggage. It is strongly opposed to the U.S. nuclear pact with Iran. It is leading relentless bombing missions against Yemen. And while Bin Salman wants to give Saudi women permission to drive, women still need male permission to get a passport or travel. As one Saudi expert, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, reminds us, the country “has no tolerance for even minimal dissent.”
So will Hollywood be comfortable with the potential Saudi link? Certainly its resources as well as its box office potential seem appetizing. The Saudi prince says he wants to spend $64 billion on entertainment initiatives — stakes in film funding, theaters, concert venues and content suppliers. A majority of its 32 million citizens are under the age of 30 and could generate $1 billion in annual box office receipts. All this spells rich opportunity for a complex entity like Endeavor, which increasingly aspires to be a multinational exployer as well as a talent rep. The old-time William Morris agents endlessly hung out in clubs and theaters, hungry to discover new acts. The new talent mission is more complex — witness the Fire and Fury deal.
The talent guilds, among others, increasingly seem nervous about this expanded appetite. The Writers Guild is quietly trying to renegotiate its franchise agreement with the Association of Talent Agents, which governs revenue splits, among other issues. Studio business affairs executives fret that, in the brave new world of dealmaking, a mammoth agency and its packaging partners could end up with a bigger cut than a writer-producer or even a distributor. Industry veterans recall the decision of the fabled Lew Wasserman to resolve his conflicts by opting to assume ownership of Universal Pictures rather than function as an agent. Today’s aspiring Wassermans, looking globally, might select the opposite role.
Meanwhile, it is Prince Mohammed bin Salman who may end up with the broadest perspective on the future of entertainment. His Hollywood visit encompasses meetings with Rupert Murdoch, Kevin Tsujihara and Bob Iger, along with Tim Cook of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. According to the New Yok Times, Emanuel even arranged a meeting with David J. Pecker, the Trump ally and tabloid mogul, who has diligently (if ineptly) sought to protect the President’s media image. Pecker, who publishes the National Enquirer, has widely circulated a glossy magazine titled The Magic Kingdom touting Saudi Arabia’s riches (Bob Iger may not appreciate its title).
Which raises this question: If Endeavor mobilizes Saudi resources to package and finance entertainment content, will some of its fabled clients express doubts about Prince Mohammed and his present and future positions? Endeavor’s clout around the world stems in large part from the combined muscle of its clients. But isn’t this resource famously fussy about its image and aura — a resource that is all but impossible to package and control?