Inventive comic talent fuels a thriving agency

The spirit of Andy Hardy lives on in Peter Principato and Paul Young. When in doubt, they put on a show.

While the manager-producers have assembled TV shows, films and Web series, behind the scenes they have employed short film presentations to goose the development process for their clients.

These stealth productions have paid off in a number of TV deals and a secret project that Sony is unveiling at Comic-Con. The film, produced by Principato-Young Entertainment and Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez shingle, sprang from six minutes of Principato-Young footage. The duo considers it a major validation of their strategy and a bridge to their future.

During an expansive interview at their Beverly Hills office, the pair — best known for repping comedic talent, including Jonah Hill, Ed Helms and Will Arnett, among others — stressed that they like the big score for their writer, director and actor clients as much as anyone in Hollywood, but also want to create as many opportunities for them as possible.

At the very least, Principato says, these short films show networks and studios what clients can do. At best they can lead to a greenlight with cast and creator vision intact.

“As managers, you want to protect the artistry of your clients, but you also want to take that artistry and turn it into commerce,” says Principato. “The more traditional ways of getting things done like selling a spec script or selling a TV idea and having them develop it as a script and all that stuff, it’s just not enough any more.”

Adds Young: “We’re working with clients to prepare as much as possible so we can show execs as much as possible. It’s critical in this time when studios and networks are more fiscally conservative, and when the business is so tough that risk tolerance is very low, that we do what we can to make the presentation undeniable by showing it to them in a way that’s very inexpensive.”

So far the company has produced six presentations of no more than 15 minutes, for $50,000 to $150,000, with the lower end being the norm. They keep the costs down by using in-house talent.

The strategy appears to be working. Spike TV gave “Players” a 10-episode order after Principato-Young shot a 15-minute sample.

The company used a similar strategy to convince CBS/Paramount to shoot a Rob Riggle pilot. The network ultimately passed on “Hardaway,” a newsroom comedy, but gave the former “Daily Show” correspondent a new deal and developed three shows for him this year.

Principato-Young has a deal with Sony TV to produce three $50,000 presentations and is finishing up a $75,000 presentation for MRC on a potential series starring “Flight of the Conchords” thesp Rhys Darby.

Writer-directors Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko landed several pics since shooting sample footage for Principato-Young: They directed a feature for Sony, wrote a thriller called “The Last Exorcism” that Lionsgate is releasing next month and are writing and directing another thriller called “The Other Woman” for Strike Entertainment.

Principato-Young first learned how useful the show-and-tell strategy could be with “Campus Ladies,” a show that aired on Oxygen from 2006-07, and “Hollywood Residential,” a 2008 Starz skein. In both cases, Principato-Young staged live performances of the pilot to get the pilot order, and went on to self-produce the show.

The company also produces Internet series by in-house talent, such as David Wain’s “Wainy Days” and Rob Corddry’s “Childrens Hospital.” Wain used the Internet exposure as a springboard to direct “Role Models” and “Wanderlust” for Universal. The WB.com ordered 10 episodes of Corddry’s sendup of medical shows, which has since migrated to Adult Swim.

The goal, Principato and Young say, is to continue broadening the scope of the company until it resembles a latter-day Brillstein-Grey.

“We’re known for comedy, of course, but that is not the only thing we do,” Young says. “There are a lot of things we’re passionate about.”

From the start, the pair has shared a multihyphenate sensibility. At William Morris, Principato chafed at the compartmentalized way the agency approached representation and eventually started his own boutique management company as a division of Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video.

Young, who had left Paramount to manage writers, had optioned the book “You’re Going to Prison” and set it up at Beacon Pictures when he hired Tom Lennon and Ben Garant, veterans of MTV sketch show “The State,” to write the screenplay. Principato already repped Lennon; Young signed Garant.

They got to know each other as they co-managed the writing team and discovered a shared desire to represent actors, writers and directors for work in film and television.

Using seed money from Young’s spec sale of “Just Like a Woman” to New Line and a loan from Principato’s father, they set up shop in 2000.

“The first three years were the toughest,” Principato says. “We were always in the black, which is really rare starting a business. But we really cut our salaries.”

Things improved when Comedy Central picked up Lennon and Garant’s “Reno 911!” and Principato-Young landed a first-look deal at Dimension that helped cover overhead costs. It subsequently had a first-look deal at Fox and got into production with its Internet series and “Campus Ladies.”

Over the years, it has built its client list to include Hill, Helms, Justin Long and “Hangover” writer Jeremy Garelick. Arnett, who had years earlier been represented by Principato as an agent, retained him as a manager 10 years ago.

“It’s the best thing I could have done,” says Arnett, star and exec producer of Fox’s upcoming “Running Wilde.” Besides the series, exec produced by Principato-Young in partnership with Mitch Hurwitz’s Tantamount shingle, Arnett is also developing sponsored digital content through DumbDumb, a shingle he runs with Jason Bateman.

Gurland says Young is very good at telling writers the truth about their work even if they don’t want to hear it. He says he has helped them shape projects to appeal to studios.

“Paul and Peter are so great at setting the table,” Gurland says. “You feel like all you have to do is put the cherry on top.”

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