Major Talent Agencies Step Up Global Expansion As WGA Standoff Continues

The television business is becoming increasingly global, fueled by the rapid expansion of the major streaming platforms. That also goes for the major Hollywood talent agencies.

Reps have always looked for opportunities beyond the U.S. But now, because of the increased demand for locally produced international content, they have stepped up their efforts. Also factoring into the acceleration is the ongoing impasse (and legal battle) between the Big 4 talent agencies and the Writers Guild of America which in April ordered its members to fire their agents if they hadn’t signed the guild’s new Code of Conduct.

With literary agents having more time on their hands and a need to develop new revenue streams to make up for writer commissions and packaging fees, agencies have sharpened their focus and doubled efforts in pursuing international opportunities over the past eight months.

“The WGA situation forced all of the big agencies to do something we all know we have to do anyways,” one agent said.

That goes beyond signing international talent, production companies and formats. CAA and WME, the agencies that have been the most aggressive in pursuing affiliate production, have been reportedly looking to buy local production companies or production services outfits through their affiliates, including Endeavor Content.

For instance, Library Pictures International, a content financing entity organized earlier this year by CAA Media Finance to fund local-language productions, today announced an investment by Legendary Pictures. The venture’s deals cover India, Latin America and Spain, with Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam and China among the territories targeted for expansion.

That is something streaming companies have been doing, acquiring local production companies and facilities. And U.S. talent agencies may be taking another page out of streamers’ playbook by putting boots on the ground. Netflix, Amazon and Apple all have executives around the world and major offices in London.

I hear WME has been exploring a similar move, mulling a well-staffed office in the British capital. According to sources, plans are still in flux as they would involve people uprooting their lives. But there has been persistent speculation that high-level lit agent Rich Cook is being eyed to anchor the London team, joined by a half-dozen or so more junior agents from the U.S. offices.

The rumored WME London expansion has cre.ated a lot of anxiety among local UK agencies which have been abuzz about it. While all major U.S agencies have London offices, for decades there has been a gentleman’s agreement between UK and Hollywood rep firms. They have been partners, with British agencies handling local talent’s UK-based business and their American counterparts making deals in Hollywood.

By establishing a strong local branch, U.S. agencies would be competing against UK agencies. While that may be considered a hostile move, industry sources argue that this is not much different than what U.S. streamers are doing, and that the process is inevitable.

“Agencies will be global in a way they haven’t before,” one agent said. Ultimately, international branches of U.S. agencies would also employ local agents.

In Hollywood, agents always follow the money and go where there is money to be made. Right now in television, one of the areas with the most upside appears to be non-U.S. local production. And its out of the jurisdiction of the WGA.

“This is really just the beginning,” Kelly Luegenbiehl, Netflix’s VP international originals, said this week in London about the platform’s push for non-English language programming, while Netflix CEO Reed Hastings today announced in New Delhi his company plans to spend a whopping $420.5 million on producing and licensing content in India this year and next.

The streamers have found success with European, Latin American and Asian/Indian original series and have already set sights on territories with less developed broadband infrastructure like Africa.

With the U.S. streaming market reaching maturity, global streamers — Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV+ and Disney+ — will be looking more and more abroad for growth potential. The demand for local series already is going up, leading to fierce bidding wars among U.S. SVOD players that is driving up prices. (For instance, Indian series Delhi Crime, which today won big at the Asian Academy Creative Awards, was acquired by Netflix in a bidding war with Amazon.)

American agents want to get in on the action, representing hot local creators and actors and prolific production companies who have the potential to go global. The expansion won’t be easy but is necessary, reps say.

“A lot of it is not lucrative now but over time, it will become more lucrative,” one agent said. “We have no choice but to do it.”

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