”Now it’s the Big Two-and-a-Half. What does a half do to be full-sized?“ one insider asks after CAA and ICM’s merger plans
Since CAA’s surprise deal to acquire ICM Partners last week, speculation about the next most obvious potential mega-agency consolidation — Endeavor absorbing United Talent Agency — has been swirling among entertainment industry insiders.
The buzz grew louder when Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel said at Vox Media’s Code Conference that the parent company of WME agency had no reason to consider acquiring UTA. Emanuel boasted that the representation side of Endeavor has been “growing double digits year-over-year” and is “the core feeder of our business,” and that his newly public company doesn’t need to acquire another agency.
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However, insiders with knowledge of both CAA and ICM said that the statement — what another insider called typical of the “Ari Emanuel swagger” — is disingenuous considering the rocky post-pandemic state of Endeavor’s finances. As of June 30, the newly public company carried a debt burden of $5.35 billion and therefore is unlikely to be in a position to make any acquisitions.
“They are so laden with debt, don’t know they are in a position to buy UTA. I don’t think they can,” one insider told TheWrap, though adding that the future of UTA definitely falls into the “who knows?” category following the CAA/ICM deal. Endeavor did make a major acquisition in recent days: On Sept. 27 it was announced that the company was acquiring sports betting platform OpenBet for $1.2 billion.
Others dismissed Emanuel’s “sour grapes” dismissal of ICM as a past-its-prime Hollywood player with “five incredible TV writers… a very good book business and a very good soccer rep business out of Europe.”
“That was such bulls—, saying they basically represent five writers and a soccer agency,” said one high-level agent who asked not to be named. “They generate way too much money for that, and they have a great book department. Good for them. I guess I was a little surprised that he would say that.”
Whether or not there is a merger in UTA’s future, the CAA-ICM deal has focused all eyes on UTA’s next step. “People say The Big Three. Now … it’s the Big Two-and-a-Half,” Chapman University Film School dean Stephen Galloway said. “What does a half do to be full-sized?”
UTA did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment, but insiders called it a mistake to assume UTA is struggling and therefore might be looking to bulk up via acquisition. Like most talent agencies, UTA suffered layoffs and furloughs during the pandemic, but “they are not vulnerable,” one insider said. He added that UTA has “excellent clients and good agents. They’re not on the same field, but in the same game, as CAA. They have A-list people in every position.”
Founded in 1991 and led by CEO Jeremy Zimmer since 2012, UTA boats a client roster that includes Paul Rudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Will Ferrell, Jason Sudeikis, Issa Rae, Chris Pratt and Ewan McGregor. In 2019, UTA took a stake in Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports (Paul is now head of UTA Sports and sits on the company’s board). Paul’s client list includes his longtime friend LeBron James as well as Anthony Davis, John Wall and Trae Young.
In fact, UTA has made a splash in recent years as an acquirer, rather that a target for acquisition, albeit on a smaller scale than the CAA/ICM deal. In 2019, after a failed attempt to acquire Paradigm Talent Agency for $250 million-plus, UTA acquired leading influencer firm Digital Brand Architects. And last March, UTA announced that it had acquired London-based Echo Location Talent Agency.
But as consolidation has dominated Hollywood, UTA may have good reason to shy away from merger talk. “UTA might be able to sell a lot of its clientele on being the kind of standout and with a more traditional composition, that ‘Hey, we’re here focusing on client representation, meanwhile our competitors are out there trying to be multimedia conglomerates in the public market,” Matt Bilinsky, a tech and media attorney at Weinberg Gonser in Los Angeles, told TheWrap. “Taking the contrarian track might be attractive to them. Or they could get swamped… they might be left without a seat, once the merger music stops.”
Bilkinsky noted that the impulse to merge has ramped up since William Morris and Endeavor combined in 2009. “We’ve seen that two major scaled-up agencies can combine,” he said. “Can three? Does it work with three, or is a three a crowd? It’s tough to say.”
Some insiders dismissed the idea of a marriage between UTA and Endeavor for other reasons — having to do with institutional culture.
And other smaller agencies see an opportunity in the fact that Hollywood’s biggest players are getting bigger — allowing mid-size and boutique agencies to sign talent — and agents — who may feel left out of the big agencies’ focus on A-listers and top-dollar deals.
“It’s good for them, and it’s great for us,” said Jim Gosnell, CEO of the mid-size APA agency that represents such stars as Gary Oldman, Mel Gibson, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Ronny Chieng and Eddie Izzard. “I do believe this consolidation creates opportunity, it’s a tremendous opportunity that doesn’t come along but once every 15 or 20 years.”
Some clients are going to find the more hands-on approach of a smaller agency more appealing. “People are going to realize they want a different touch point,” he said, noting that mega-agencies “may not be the answer for everyone. We’re in the right place at the right time.”
Others agreed that the dynamics of ever-bigger agencies don’t work for everyone. “It’s the most powerful agents who are going to get to put their clients up first,” David Offenberg, an associate professor of finance at Loyola Marymount University with an expertise in entertainment, told TheWrap. “Those lower-ranking agents are going to have a harder time getting their clients in front of the studios and the producers — that’s already an issue.”
Whether or not UTA becomes part of a future merger, talent agencies of all sizes are facing financial constraints due to the pandemic shutdown of production and live events, as well the imminent loss packaging fees since new deals agencies signed in the last year with the Writers Guild of America.
“The profits must be way down,” David Chidekel, a partner at Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae who advises and represents his clients in the media and entertainment industries, told TheWrap. “And that kind of stress can cause mergers.”
Brian Welk and Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.