The lightning strike by United Talent Agency in stealing five agents from Creative Artists Agency is one of the most daring moves in the talent business in years, placing the smaller agency on a path to a rising profile and sending CAA reeling from the sneak attack.
Losing the agents was one thing (and within hours several more agents followed – a total of 11 are expected to defect). More important, it was the list of clients on the table that left the Hollywood talent community gasping for air and agents reaching for their phones: Chris Pratt, Melissa McCarthy, Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jim Parsons, Vin Diesel, Olivia Munn, Jason Sudeikis and others were clients of the agents who left.
Where would the A-list talent end up? By lunchtime on Tuesday, Pratt had confirmed he would join his agent Jason Heyman at UTA as an agency insider confirmed to TheWrap: “We’re very confident that a number of the high profile clients will come with us.” Shortly thereafter Will Ferrell confirmed he’d go to UTA too.
More are sure to follow.
Observers noted that it was a quantum leap for the smaller agency run by partners Jeremy Zimmer, Jay Sures and David Kramer and an uncharacteristic blow to CAA, which for two decades was the dominant player in the talent agency world.
“If you lose Melissa McCarthy and Chris Pratt — those two alone are huge enough,” said a veteran industry insider familiar with the agency world. “Those two kinds of clients could be the start of an agency itself.”
The CAA-UTA rivalry escalated this past week, with UTA signing Grammy-winning artist Kanye West away from CAA, as TheWrap first reported.
In losing Heyman, Martin Lesak, Gregory McKnight, Greg Cavic and Nick Nuciforo CAA was apparently caught off guard in a move that was reminiscent of the way the leading agency was started 40 years ago by Mike Ovitz, Ron Meyer and others (though those agents had no clients at first), and how Endeavor was started in its day — by a group of agents sneaking out in the dark of night.
But it was also notable in signaling a real change in the balance of power among Hollywood talent agencies. There was a time when no agents would countenance leaving CAA for a third-running UTA.
Times are changing. For one thing, CAA is focused on growing its corporate clients as star salaries have shrunk to a fraction of their previous heft and the $20 million paydays of previous decades have disappeared. CAA is no longer the largest talent agency, since William Morris Endeavor swallowed the sports marketing behemoth IMG in 2013.
Asked why the agents left CAA, one insider noted: “They didn’t feel that the focus at CAA was on the best interests of the clients as much as what was the future of CAA to be.” Agents wavered on “whether the priority of the agency was the representation business or building its own franchise,” said this individual.
For UTA, the move solidifies the agency’s already dominant position in comedy, having for more than a decade represented the comedy network led by Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller and their many spin-offs and proteges. (Stiller is now at WME with his agent Nick Stevens, but Stevens built the comedy network at UTA.)
UTA will argue, apparently with some success, that while WME and CAA focus on sports and building business with national brands, they remain service-oriented and focused on talent.
Said a UTA insider who declined to speak on the record: “We think the world is changing for all talent. There are lots of different avenues and opportunities. We remain bullish on the talent business and on representing really exciting, talented people.”