“Mixed signals.” Those are the two words that perhaps best define the Hollywood ecosystem at the moment. A case in point: When I screened a charming little movie this week titled The Peanut Butter Falcon, I noticed that the lead presentation credit belonged to Endeavor Content. In an earlier era, someone like Cecil B. DeMille or Alfred Hitchcock would annex a presentation credit, but today that slot will likely belong, not to a filmmaker, but to talent agency affiliate.
Since members of the Writers Guild have been faithfully firing their agents lately as part of their protracted dispute, it’s good to know that agents are willing anyway to help fund their creative output. But if agents are now financing films, shouldn’t the Academy start granting them the right to vote at Oscar time? Or at least claim credit as individual producers?
Managers, after all, are widely claiming “producer credit,” and, for that matter, so are writers: It’s an open secret that top writers, while technically firing their agents, are re-signing with them as “producers.” They’re even splitting credit with their managers, who have been quietly “agenting” their deals, since agents officially can’t.
All of these mixed signals, to be sure, have added to the complexities of the WGA clash, which has become as turgid as an old Cecil B DeMille movie; also, on one level, as anachronistic. The entry of the major talent agencies’ affiliated production entities – Endeavor’s WME, CAA and UTA – into the production and financing of “content” is reminiscent of the conflicts of 1962, when the Justice Department forced Lew Wasserman to choose between continuing on as agent or owning Universal Pictures.
Wasserman initially argued that his dual role lent his clients more clout in the marketplace – a point now being echoed by today’s top agents. To many stars and filmmakers, however, it also represented a clear conflict of interest, not to mention an antitrust violation.
Toward the end of his career I would have monthly lunches with Wasserman – at that point, a gracious and thoughtful man – and often heard him express regret at surrendering his role as a super-agent. He had loved crafting deals for his stars, demanding profit percentages and even presiding over their noisy divorces. Still, as a brilliant corporate executive, he also understood the potential conflict of interest and grew to distrust the power plays of Michael Ovitz, an agent who hungered for a more dominant role on the world stage.
“Ovitz wanted final cut over both the deal and the content,” Wasserman would tell me.
Ari Emanuel and his brethren don’t share Wasserman’s concerns, however. The sprawling Endeavor entity that is prepping an IPO in September is now an important player on many stages, ranging from music to sports to fashion. That means it won’t just produce and stage a show, but it will also own it. Hence Endeavor Content’s 200 employees now function in film, TV, documentaries and podcasts and claim responsibility for investing in some 100 shows annually. Among its 10 movies in production or post are Just Mercy, a Michael B Jordan vehicle; in TV it’s also behind several shows with Peter Chernin’s company and owns a stake in producer Bruna Papandrea’s slate. (The financing entities are structured as separate companies occupying separate offices with separate staffing).
The long-term strategies of the agencies remain vague and it may be in their interest to keep it that way because of the risks involved – risks involving the talent guilds as well as the top clients. As writers raise protests about conflicts of interest, will stars follow suit? For that matter, if a top star sees his vanity project rejected by the top studios, wouldn’t he press for his agency to step in with some backing? How would a top showrunner feel if his agency kept funding competitive projects?
Lew Wasserman was a man who liked businesses to be structured and orderly, so he might have been impatient with the mixed signals resonating across today’s Hollywood. I remember one lunch when he sent back his egg salad because he found foreign fragments in it. “Please return it, when and if someone manages to clean it up,” he instructed the server.
I think he’d want a lot of things cleaned up today as well.