The Talent Agency Hunger Games

CAA's Bryan Lourd and Richard Lovett. Photo: L. Cohen/WireImage
Matthew Belloni
September 25, 2022

The fiscal year ends on Friday, which means it’ll be bonus season at the Hollywood talent agencies. Get excited! CAA typically goes first among the majors, in October or early November, doling out the chum of the year to its sharks. The CAA leaders—Bryan Lourd, Richard Lovett, and Kevin Huvane—have been telling people it’s been a record year, though I’ve never met an agent who was totally satisfied with their bonus. And this year there’s an added wrinkle: All those ICM Partners people that came over in the acquisition—many of them on one-year contracts that replaced a big chunk of their ICM salaries with discretionary bonuses—are about to find out how much their new business daddies love them.

CAA’s $750 million acquisition of ICM only closed in June, thanks to that lengthy government review, so most of the bonus calculations for those agents will be off pre-CAA deals. But remember, it’s discretionary, taking into account not just the value of an agent’s book of business but their perceived value to the company. And it’s pretty clear from my check-in chats with about 20 people at CAA, as well as WME and the other agencies over the past couple weeks, that in this time of crazy change throughout the representation industry, those ICM hires are extra-nervous. They should be.

If CAA wants to eventually go public with bigger margins, it needs to filter these ICM people, keep the clients who matter, and get rid of the agents who don’t. At ICM, many agents have clients who straddle that threshold of mattering, and many were overpaid because the agency was always so concerned about losing people. Now, some of those same agents are making less in salary and are essentially on a one-year audition for their own jobs. Who will survive? With their bonuses (or lack thereof), those agents are about to get a big data point. (CAA declined to comment, and the usual disclosures here: CAA’s majority owner is TPG, which is an investor in Puck; WME represents Puck.)

After shedding dozens of agents—APA alone took 11 from ICM— the overall CAA-ICM integration has been chugging along over the summer, with cocktail receptions, dinners, and, eventually, an office reshuffle that will put the ICM people (some of whom are still back in the old office) next to their colleagues with similar jobs. How it’s going seems to depend on which department you’re talking about. Talent, with all those new agents, seems fine—I heard praise for the company culture from several new employees—although there are said to be a few rolled eyes when an ICM person talks up his guy on a Netflix show as if he’s Tom Cruise. “Intimidating” is how a couple ICM talent reps described the CAA meetings.

CAA’s scripted television group has ballooned to about 60 agents, which has changed the dynamic. But Ted Chervin, ICM’s No. 2, is said to be a regular and helpful presence in meetings. (Surprise: he likes to talk about his star client, Ted Lasso co-creator Bill Lawrence.) Meanwhile, Chris Silbermann, the former ICM C.E.O., is not. I still think Silbermann, who is fresh off a massive sale for client Vince Gilligan to make two seasons of a Rhea Seehorn show for AppleTV+ and Sony TV, will stay at CAA well into next year. But others believe he’ll be out at the end of this year, perhaps for a consulting gig related to the company. (Silbermann didn’t return my text asking to chat.)

There’s still a lot of animosity toward Chris among the ICM people who both did and didn’t make the CAA move. Many think he sold out the company. But Crestview, ICM’s backer, basically told him to find new financing, and when he couldn’t, the warm embrace of Lourd & Co. seemed like a great option. And Crestview was quick to note that it had doubled its money on ICM, so this wasn’t just Silbermann’s decision.

Speaking of Lourd, he seems to be embracing the King of Hollywood thing, right? He’s been signing like crazy, and a cattle call of C.E.O.’s lined up to kiss the ring in a CNBC profile that posted today (no doubt aided by CAA’s P.R. department). It’s one of those stories where the subject “declines to participate” yet all his powerful friends are quoted (all men, incidentally) and there are flattering details from major deals that would never be disclosed by the parties unless, shocker, Lourd is actually participating. Whatever, it’s a good story for him.

Back to the ICM integration: the one area of tension so far seems to be the book publishing division, one of ICM’s strong points. As I revealed Thursday, that leadership team will now be ICM’s Sloan Harris and Jennifer Joel, and CAA’s Michelle Weiner, with former ICM co-head Esther Newberg segueing back to full-time agenting. Newberg is a legend in New York publishing, so this move has not gone over well with the ICM folks. Some say it’s the beginning of the full CAA makeover, and suspect that—similar to Endeavor’s merger with William Morris in 2009—CAA people will soon be dominant in all the departments, even the few where ICM shines. An area to watch is soccer, where CAA (Base Soccer) and ICM (Stellar Group) both made big acquisitions of rival agencies before the merger. Now they’re all under one roof, and, according to the Times, it’s reshaping the landscape there.

CAA isn’t the only agency in shake-up mode, of course. UTA partners and staff all got big checks a few weeks ago, thanks to that Swedish private equity firm, EQT Partners, which bought about a third of the company. And then, a few weeks ago, Endeavor replaced Lloyd Braun, the veteran TV executive, who was brought in as a steady hand to run WME as its parent prepared to go public, with new co-chairmen, Christian Muirhead and Richard Weitz. They’re both homegrown—Weitz was part of the original Endeavor TV department, and Muirhead came to WME as Jim Wiatt’s P.R. guy in the William Morris merger, only to become Ari Emanuel’s mouthpiece and 5 a.m. sounding board for the past 13 years.

Some in agency land have expressed surprise at the coronation. Muirhead, 43, was a publicist used to dealing not with asshole clients but with asshole journalists like me. And Weitz, 53—while a veteran agent, with Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais and L.L. Cool J among clients—was known not as a company manager but rather for his big deals and his “Quarantunes” virtual concerts during the pandemic, which raised a crazy-sounding $37 million for charities. (And before that, his out-every-night Instagram pics, which have unfortunately stopped lately.) Now these guys are essentially on the same level as the Lourd-Lovett-Huvane trio, all much more experienced, and the UTA guys, Jeremy Zimmer, David Kramer, and Jay Sures—albeit without ultimate control of the company, and with oversight from Endeavor president Mark Shapiro.

But as the new WME leaders make the rounds for meetings—they’ve recently been in L.A., New York, and in Aspen at last weekend’s Endeavor business development retreat—those who have met with them say they’re direct and unapologetically no-bullshit: change is coming, they are promising, and the pandemic era of lax oversight is over. Muirhead has worked across different parts of the company, so his goal is to leverage its full assets to take advantage of the scale. Weitz knows the business of talent agencies looks very little like it did 10 years ago, with influencers often out-earning movie stars; meanwhile, branding, Web3, and podcasting divisions, and even Endeavor’s fashion representation business, are now all part of WME. Tons of opportunity, but tons of risk and competition. 

It’s telling that I spotted Lourd in D.C. this weekend with client George Clooney, who was speaking with wife Amal at the HistoryTalks event. Emanuel, by contrast, was in Aspen with Elon, Sergey, Arianna Huffington and more at The Weekend, his version of Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley mogul camp. Ari has delegated his agency, and is grooming for the future. The CAA guys are consolidating and solidifying their power after nearly three decades in charge. Just the new normal of the agency business.