CAA CAANT WME

WME insiders surprised by prank meant to be humorous; rivals see opportunity amid hostilities

The war between Hollywood’s two largest talent agencies has truly become a street fight.

Sources confirmed Tuesday that WME was responsible for placing a smattering of posters and at least one display ad around Hollywood and Century City that mock rival CAA, turning the percentery’s red-and-white logo into the word “Caan’t.”

SEE ALSO: Talent Agencies Rocked by Biz Changes

The move set tongues wagging as word spread from bizzers citing them on social media and via Variety’s first report on the poster sightings. The fact that WME was behind the posters caught many even within WME by surprise. Sources said the elaborate plan was the brainchild of a clutch of WME heavyweights including co-CEOs Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell.

WME would not comment on the matter. Sources said the WME insiders thought the prank would be read by industryites as funny and was in keeping with aggressive advertising campaigns in politics and other industries. Internally, it was seen as a throwback to the scrappy entrepreneurial mindset that drove Emanuel’s Endeavor agency to become successful enough to swallow up the larger WMA in 2009.

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The stunt and the associated caant.com was inspired by a blind item in the May 13, 2013 edition of the New York Post’s Page Six gossip page that posed the question, “Which recently nominated Oscar director loudly groused in a high-level meeting about being frustrated with his Hollywood agency by yelling: “They should be called Caan’t! Caan’t, Caan’t, Caan’ttttttt!’?”

Sources said WME insiders got many guffaws out of that item and one even went to the trouble of mocking up the faux CAA logo. The plan to spread it around via outdoor advertising mushroomed from there, but the details were kept quiet among the small group. Sources said WME went to the lengths of acquiring the rights to the Internet domain name Caant.com, which already existed. On Tuesday morning, the Web page at that address featured the mock logo and the Page Six item.

Even senior WME execs were caught off guard as word spread that the agency was behind the posters pasted up on visible street spots. At least one poster was placed inside a column-shaped outdoor kiosk at the Westfield Century City mall, just down the street from CAA’s headquarters on Avenue of the Stars.

By the early afternoon, the kiosk ad at the Westfield mall was scheduled to be taken down at CAA’s request — a move that was not blocked by WME even though it paid for a longer placement.  Industry insiders said they could not recall such a public display of competitive taunting among talent agencies.

SEE ALSO: Ari Emanuel Sheds Light on Fierce Competition

The ads recalled the stunt Fox staged in May 1995 at a time when it was battling the Eye for affiliation deals with local stations. Fox erected two huge hot-air balloons declaring “Fox Beats CBS in Adults 18-49″ and “For a Future Call Fox” on its lot in a spot visible to CBS affils who were gathering at the Century Plaza Hotel for their annual meeting.

At CAA, the general reaction was largely confusion, with a dose of bitterness at being turned into a high-profile punching bag. “Doesn’t seem like a classy way to spend your money, does it,” observed one CAA insider.

The incident underscores the intensity of the competition between CAA and WME, who have emerged as the superpowers of Hollywood talent agencies. WME’s motivation for slamming CAA was questioned by many insiders given that WME has been on a roll of snaring CAA clients, including Carey Mulligan, Brett Ratner and Oprah Winfrey. CAA, in turn, just poached “Arrested Development” creator Mitch Hurwitz from WME.

Many in the biz said WME’s move was a head-scratcher because it had an air of desperation that is unwarranted given WME’s strong overall position in the talent realm. Others noted that the sophomoric jab in the eye of its largest competitor came at a strange time as WME is expanding its various business activities and moving in corporate and high-finance circles, particularly after bringing on private equity firm Silver Lake as a minority partner.

But those changes may well have fueled the desire by Emanuel and others to orchestrate a wacky, even risky stunt. WME-ers take pride in the number of colorful characters at the agency, from Emanuel on down. “This business is supposed to be fun,” one noted.

CAA, on the other hand, is known for keeping even its top leaders out of the spotlight and for emphasizing the strength of the agency’s collective might over individuals. At the same time, there’s no question that CAA reps play down-and-dirty hardball just like their WME counterparts in wooding clients of all stripes, developing new businesses and yes, even attempting to sabotage each other’s projects.

WME insiders were quick to express frustration at what they characterize at CAA’s “imperious” approach and attempts to portray the agency’s reps as above the fray. By late afternoon, the sentiment coming out of WME was “hey it’s harmless, nobody’s really getting hurt.”

CAA and WME rivals were mostly amused by the flareup of tensions, with one noting that the hostility between the two alpha dogs of the percentery world could lead to openings for other shops. “I’d like nothing better than this to become an all-out war,” said one rep at a prominent boutique agency. A senior leader at a larger shop opined: “What does this have to do with representing clients?”

CAA had a different view, naturally, especially early on before it was clear who was behind the posters. Like most businesses, the agency and its clients regularly field threats of varying degrees of intensity from individuals and organizations. The emergence of the posters initially raised security concerns that someone was incredibly determined to spread a CAA-bashing message.

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“You have to take it seriously on some level because you never know when it’s going to be a real threat from crazy people,” said one source close to the situation.

Once it became clear that the posters were the byproduct of biz rivalry run amok, CAA leaders decided not to give WME the satisfaction of issuing any internal or external statements. Some in the biz speculated that CAA might take legal action against WME for trademark infringement or libel, but that’s likely a long shot as it would only prolong the impact of WME’s stunt.

Still, industry insiders said there was no doubt that “round two” would be coming out of CAA’s polished steel edifice in some form. The trenches already dug out around both agency’s buildings will probably be a little bit deeper by Wednesday morning.

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