Rise of the Anti-CAA Talent Agency

bill weinstein
Bill Weinstein was elected as the first C.E.O. of Verve, a bespoke talent agency. Photo: Randall Slavin
Matthew Belloni
January 23, 2023

In the talent agency wars, is it possible to be small without being second class? That was the question posed by Verve, which Endeavor’s Bill Weinstein, Adam Levine and Bryan Besser launched 13 years ago as a “boutique” for writers and directors like Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Star Wars) and Victoria Strouse (Finding Dory). Now Verve has grown to more than 50 agents, with divisions for talent, non-scripted, publishing, theater, film finance, and audio, and clients like Rings of Power showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, and WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer. It’s tiny compared to the Big 3 in CAA, WME, and UTA, but the Verve partners now hate that B-word, preferring “bespoke.” And this week, they elected Weinstein as the company’s first C.E.O. With the agency landscape in upheaval—CAA buying ICM Partners, Verve’s writer clients ending the lucrative packaging business and now threatening to strike—it seemed like a good time to check in with Bill on how he plans to compete, and grow, but not grow too much. I edited this interview for length and clarity.   

Matt Belloni: Why’d you guys decide to have a C.E.O.?

Bill Weinstein: Just acknowledging the growth that has taken place. It was very organic.  

What is Verve’s place in the agency landscape now, where big players are consolidating, raising V.C. money or trying to go public? There are a lot of smaller players, but it feels like the Big 3 are pulling away.

I have a lot of respect for the legacy agencies, but the narrative has gotten so one-note on them. It’s about capital infusion, the assets that they are acquiring, and the plans to get returns on those assets. We’re in a different lane. We are in the advocacy business and the business of partnering with clients. The legacy companies make acquisitions that are good for a small number of clients and are very good for the agency, which then allows them to sign more clients, but only a small number of [existing] clients benefit. We want to expand our ability to serve all our clients.

So part of your mandate is to find companies to merge with or acquire.

We’ve done one acquisition. A agency called New Deal MFG that Paul Smith started with a specialty in TV directors. We’re open. But that’s not the mission. And we’re not for sale.  

You’ve never taken on money, right?

Never. We took on City National Bank, a loan and a line of credit. (Laughs.)

How has the end of TV packaging impacted your business?

Being in the 10 percent business has been a growth center for Verve in its entire history and will continue to be…

Yeah, but the legacy agencies are built on those power packages. And part of the reason you guys were looked at as a smart move in the beginning—other than the talent you had—was because packaging was so lucrative. But now it’s a percentage business.

It’s a percentage business we’ve been in and will continue to grow at a healthy rate.

Writers demanded Verve and the other agencies end packaging, and you guys were one of the first shops to go along with their request. Yet now many writers I’ve talked to aren’t exactly loving having to pay commissions. How much do you fight back the temptation to say, “Well, you asked for this”?  

No temptation whatsoever. We just keep marching forward.

Diplomatic. There was that year and a half period where Verve had settled with the WGA but the big agencies were still fighting over packaging and their writer clients had fired them. Did that period help you compete for business and grow?

We grew responsibly and sustainably. We never said we would represent a single person for a single deal. We want to build longstanding partnerships. During that period, when the other agencies were not online, we said let’s get to know each other, come up with the proper strategy. And what we found is that the people who we partnered with, the John Augusts and Adele Lims of the world, are still part of our organization and are doing well.

You’re close to these things. What’s the latest thinking among writers on whether a strike will happen?

I heard you predicted on your podcast that you thought it would happen.

Yes, I believe it will happen. They are so far apart, and I get the feeling from writers that if not now, when? Don’t you get that sense?

I agree there are very clear issues on the table. I agree that the culture in general—politics, media, social media—there’s not a lot of measured conversation. People take hard positions. I’ve learned not to make a prediction. I’d like the conversation to begin as soon as possible.

The guild can do things that you can’t as an agent, like limiting mini-rooms and such. What would you like to see the WGA accomplish in the coming negotiation?

More information and transparency from the streamers as to how they make money using the content that WGA members create. You’ve written about the Hollywood ecosystem that got hooked on the “heroin” of upfront buyouts. Most of the creative people we look after are both entrepreneurial and willing to bet on themselves. They’re not looking to be paid more than they’re worth, but they definitely don’t want to be paid less. If the content they are creating is valuable to the studios/streamers, let’s develop a common language around how that value is determined so we can be true partners in success.

Where do you want to see Verve in five years? Doubling in size?

Well, we are moving into new offices in Hollywood. (Laughs.) We don’t put numbers on it.

Chris Silbermann at ICM got pretty rich selling to CAA. You gotta think about that at some point, right?

(Laughs.) Hollywood agencies have not done succession right. I think we are building a hundred-year company.