UK Agents Express Concern & Resolve Over Growing Flow Of U.S. Reps To London As WME Sets Brit Expansion

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EXCLUSIVE: As globalization of the film and TV business continues apace, London has become increasingly attractive to U.S. talent and management firms. We spoke to local film and TV agents about the changing ecosystem, which we can confirm is soon to include a handful of WME film and TV agents who are relocating from LA.

WME, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners (in 1991 the former ICM became Independent Talent in the UK) have long had a presence in London, primarily with a focus on music, books, events and formats. The limited film and TV footprint has partly been out of deference to the local agencies. WME’s affiliated production and distribution company Endeavor Content has one of the biggest film and TV presences in the city today, but that’s a separate line of business to agenting.

In the past 18 months, smaller U.S. agencies have grown their presence in London, including Abrams Artists most recently. Well-heeled LA-based management firms such as Anonymous Content and Zero Gravity have also entered the market in the hunt for talent and UK-originated content. Blighty’s rich talent pool, shared language, inward investment boom (which includes the rapid growth of the streamers here) and minimal barriers to entry make it easy to see why.

Rumors have been swirling for months that mega-agency WME intends to increase its film and TV footprint in the UK capital by sending over a group of agents spearheaded by high-level lit agent Rich Cook who already has a strong UK and European roster.

Today, we can reveal that Cook is now based in London and that a handful of LA-based agents will move over to join him this year. The relocating film and TV agents will have lit and talent backgrounds. The idea will be to source UK talent but also to use London as a springboard for building on international relationships. WME has confirmed the move, which is a significant one for the local landscape.

The increased flow of traffic to London is plain to see as the search for talent intensifies and as agencies diversify their businesses following infusions of private equity and against the backdrop of the ongoing WGA standoff. In response to the trend, the mood among the local agents we spoke to was a combination of concern, intrigue, fatalism and resolve.

“It’s fair to say that all the major agencies have been displeased by the rumors,” one well-known UK agent told us about the WME expansion before it was confirmed.

“I’m sure feathers are being ruffled, but it can’t be that much of a surprise,” said another. Fatalism was a common thread in conversations.

“The party line to date has been that this WME move will only be one agent and their focus will be niche,” said one experienced agent at a leading local firm. “We haven’t really bought that. The U.S. agencies are running models about global expansion and they want to challenge boundaries. There’s an idea that the U.S. and UK agents work globally in unison but there has been a blurring of the lines in terms of who is running what. It’s no surprise that a team is potentially coming over.

“The danger is that filmmakers may say ‘why would I need a UK and US agent if my US agent is based here in UK’? There’s a feeding frenzy around TV talent. The need to get them early is sharper than ever given the huge deals on the table.”

The agent continued, “There is a small level of anxiety around how aggressive any expansion may be and around bottom line, but in my experience, local producers have enjoyed working with local agents who don’t have the same pressures of a major corporate machine behind them. It doesn’t bode particularly well for us but we’re still on a fact-finding mission about the whole thing.”

Last month, we explored the thirst for international growth among the U.S. agencies and how this relates to the WGA standoff. It’s useful to note that the WGA has already warned UK-based agents they must adhere to the guild’s Agency Code Of Conduct when it comes to future WGA-covered work.

Some UK reps we spoke to embraced the changing landscape. One seasoned professional mused, “Disruption is good in any business and this move is certainly disruptive, and potentially very damaging to a lot of the larger U.K. agencies’ core business. The reality is that the business is now global and changing so quickly that only the nimble and entrepreneurial, or those with global scale will remain relevant and survive.

“I see it as positive disruption, and an exciting development…but I’m also pretty confident they’ll find it too cold here in coming months and be back home by Cannes,” they quipped.

There has always been a delicate working balance between U.S. and UK agents, many of whom collaborate and interact on a daily basis. Some are friends. Frustration is not uncommon, however. Some successful U.S. agents will privately lament sharing fees on major U.S. deals they cut for their UK talent. Conversely, some UK agents point to the years of nurturing they do of local talent only for stateside agents to take control once their charges achieve major success.

The long-term fear from local agents is that they’ll be cut out or asked to work for less. A couple of reps we spoke to told us Brit agents were already feeling left out after not being invited to WME’s London summer parties and events, which it hosts for UK talent. “It seems minor, but it’s divisive,” they said.

For others we spoke to, the increased presence of U.S. reps in the market reflects a broader cultural and economic shift whereby the UK has become a pre-eminent service sector, willing to sell off local assets to the highest-bidder with little consideration for sustainability. According to one established Brit agent we spoke to, it’s a trend with dangerous consequences.

“We need British agencies to be strong. They are part of an infrastructure which nurtures talent. We have public subsidies for drama schools, theaters, film schools, regional theatres. It might sound antiquated but it’s very important. For the biggest agencies, nurturing talent is less of a priority than making money via packages, launching new companies, making investments, global growth etc.

“I often collaborate with the U.S. agencies and there are a number of very good agents I work with. But the answer for UK agents is to educate clients about what you do and make sure you can offer the same services as the American agents. In the last 5-6 years it has become increasingly difficult to attract and retain clients when the Americans have an expert sales blurb about how innovative, 360, and dynamic their business is. British agents must recognize that they need to change their business practices. Many of the biggest U.S. actors don’t have UK agents, for example. Maybe they should. There needs to be a cultural rethink among local agents.”

This new reality isn’t helped by Brexit, the respected agent cautioned.

“Welcome to Brexit land. The idea of Brexit was to take back control. What it means in practice is that we take what little control we had and burn it in front of our eyes. We’re all about to experience the entertainment industry equivalent of chlorinated chicken.

“None of the UK politicians have thought it through. What seemed like wonderful amounts of money being spent here, may turn into the BBC becoming an irrelevance in 10 years. If we sit here with our legs akimbo and welcome all the big U.S. companies, where’s the long-term ownership and stakeholder element for local tax payers?”

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