Abrams Artists Agency, the boutique firm that Harry Abrams grew out of his successful endeavors as a commercial agent, will be turning 40 this year. A lot of this success has come from, to paraphrase from his colleagues in the ad world, his ability to “think small.”
Through the years, Abrams Artists has grown a reputation for its client roster of talented voice-over artists, actors both kid-size and adult, playwrights, alternative programming stars and those in pretty much every other facet of the stage and screen businesses to become a go-to resource for industry movers and shakers. And the agency did it by prioritizing talent over flash.
“I mean I’m not representing Coca-Cola and the newest actor out of Juilliard, right?” says Marni Rosenzweig, senior VP of Abrams’ adult talent division in Los Angeles, of her ability to craft actors’ careers. “In my role, I’m representing actors of all ages. I’m not having to split my time trying to figure out how to make a buck on representing brands or representing reality stars, because we have departments that do that. For my department, we can just focus on really the art. It sounds so cheesy, but it’s true.”
Instead, Rosenzweig works closely with such coworkers as Pamela Fisher, VP; Domina Holbeck, VP; and Fatmata Kamara of Abrams Talent and Emerging Youth Division to continue what she describes as their company’s “core values.” Fisher says when clients including Disney Channel all-star Dove Cameron or “Hamilton” and “Dancing With the Stars” breakout Jordan Fisher want to forward their careers, “you don’t just graduate, your team grows.”
The youth commercial department, spearheaded by Bonnie Shumofsky, VP, in New York and Jeremy Apody, VP, in Los Angeles, has seen similar successes over the years.
“The core philosophy is really just the appreciation of working, representing actors and making them a priority on a daily basis,” Rosenzweig says. This is “opposed to branching out and diversifying so much, which I think other companies have done. That takes away from what we’re really here to do, which is just to connect really good actors with really good material. And, I think sort of boiling it down to those basics, at least for me, has been, has like kept it exciting and kept it interesting.”
That diversity in both its melting pot of a client roster and niche departments has helped with some of Abrams’ biggest success stories. Rosenzweig says some of her own proudest accomplishments have come from pushing unorthodox talent options, including getting a Latina considered for a role originally written for a white man or a middle-age woman a part written for a twentysomething. She’s glad that she hasn’t pigeonholed such clients as Cleopatra Coleman, who is getting to show different sides of herself between roles on Fox’s “Last Man on Earth” and Showtime’s “White Famous,” and Shaun Toub, a fan favorite from Showtime’s “Homeland” as well as “Iron Man.”
“Even beautiful young women don’t want to only play beautiful young women, you know?” Rosenzweig points out. “They want to play something else; they just happen to be beautiful.”
Tracey Goldblum, senior VP of Abrams’ commercial division in New York, says she knows the business has changed considerably since she started at the company in 1983 — and that’s a good thing.
“In the commercial department, everyone we sent out for auditions looked very all-American,” she says. “They were professional commercial actors and the successful ones made a lot of money. Now the look of commercials is much more varied, more real and more reflective of the entire American landscape. People of all ethnicities are in demand; the ad people are open to all shapes and sizes and lifestyles. There’s more ability to be creative about whom we submit and inclusive about whom we represent.”
This commitment to spotlighting unique voices and backgrounds isn’t just for those who work with on-screen talent.
“It’s funny because it’s nothing new to us, but it seems to be in vogue now,” says Paul Weitzman, a VP and co-head of Abrams’ TV and film lit department.
His partner, Brad Rosenfeld, says: “Paul and I have been on the diversity bandwagon for probably for 20 years; I mean it’s been a big part of how we actually built a TV business.” He cites their involvement with movies including Ice Cube’s “Barbershop” franchise, Cedric the Entertainer’s “The Honeymooners” adaptation and 2005’s “Roll Bounce” with Bow Wow and Nick Cannon. Today, their clients include a healthy mix of sitcom, drama and kids’ TV writers.
Richard Fisher and Paul Reisman, the VPs and co-heads of Abrams’ talent division in New York, say they’ve always been more interested in abilities than looks.
“We represent many actors of different ethnic backgrounds and orientation,” they said in a joint email. “For us, it will always come back to talent. That is our focus and that is why they are with us. We all know there is a still a lot to be done but at Abrams we are proud of our inclusiveness not only with the clients we represent but within our own organization.”
Most likely because many of the executives come with backgrounds in, and love of, theater, they talked about their respect for talent and for helping in different ways. Examples range from veteran voiceover and commercial agent Neal Altman realizing early in his career that he could sign stage actors to do voiceover work for commercials when they didn’t feel comfortable being on screen and eventually expanding that branch of the company into other arenas, to Pamela Fisher, who likes the youth division because she get the opportunity of “being there when the dream is fresh and new and untainted by you know any of the negative sides of this industry.”
A lot of this open-mindedness comes from Harry Abrams himself. Having grown his business after seeing a need for more opportunities for his commercial clients in New York, the now Los Angeles-based Abrams still reportedly maintains a first one in, last one out mantra and that helps with staff longevity. Most of the department heads have been with the company for at least a decade, many for much longer than that.
“We’re able to hire good assistants at an entry level position, and train them,” says Robert Attermann, the co-chief operating officer of Abrams Artists Agency and co-managing director of its New York office with Altman. “Through their development and with the existing agents here, we can judge their ability and whether they have potential to become agents. We pride ourselves on really growing our assistants to becoming agents, department heads, and then training new people under them to constantly have good, strong support systems.”
Altman adds that Abrams also maintains a “very active and successful agent-in-training program” that focuses on “promoting our trainees up to bright and capable young agents.”
Many also have stories of Harry Abrams’ own readiness to grab hold of the changing marketplace.
“Abrams Artists has been incredibly successful with putting clientele, both scale and celebrity, as spokespeople for brands over the years,” says Kristin Nava, Abrams’ VP and head of on-camera commercials and celebrity endorsements. “Additionally, various commercial clients’ theatrical careers have skyrocketed after working with certain directors on a commercial as well as being spotted and recognized within the television and film industry from their commercial work. Overall, commercials provide an additional stream and sometimes a mainstream of income for actors. It’s heartwarming to know that we assist actors as they realize their dreams and it’s a true team effort.”
Brian Cho, the company’s CFO and the managing director of the Los Angeles office, says the top-down ethos that “the client comes first.”
Talent agent Rosenzweig mentions Agents of Change, the philanthropic division she started five years ago and works with community outreach organizations such as Heal the Bay and the Los Angeles Unified School District Homeless Education Program.
Charles Kopelman and Sarah Douglas, the co-heads of the literary department in the New York office, say they are peppered with emails several weeks before any of Abrams’ visits east asking to know what plays he should see. “And not just Broadway,” says Douglas. “He’ll climb up 40 flights of stairs to some little hole-in-the-wall.”
Abrams and his teams’ forward-thinking and need to explore new ideas are also what helps his company to preserve, the agents say. Douglas and Kopelman’s client rosters include artistic directors including Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Bill Rauch and Steppenwolf Theater a.d. Anna Shapiro in Chicago, as well as — in Kopelman’s words — “writers, composers and lyricists … scenic designers and lighting designers who are making innovative choices in their world that are impacting others who are coming behind them.”
Mark Turner, an Abrams VP and the New York head of alternative programming, digital media, branding and licensing, says: “What I often look for is what’s not on your resume. This means, what are your passions and areas of expertise? Do you have a unique family situation like having a twin? Do you have a side business?
“The experts have to be truly credentialed in their world,” Turner says of the clients in his department, which include TV hosts and broadcasters, experts, reality personalities and digital influencers. “They must have big personalities. Typically, we don’t want talent who have been over-exposed to the networks and production companies already. We want fresh and new.”
Agents also spoke to founder Abrams’ willingness to mentor promising up-and-comers. When Alec Shankman came to him in the early 2000s — nearly fresh off the freeway from Columbus, Ohio — and said this reality TV thing is taking off, Abrams encouraged him to explore it. The time paid off and, after some time away to explore his own enterprises, Shankman is now the senior VP of alternative programming, unscripted/reality, digital media, branding and licensing in Los Angeles. His clients include reality stars and digital innovators and the agency’s Los Angeles offices have a state-of-the-art recording studio that their clients can use.
Lit agent Weitzman has known his boss since birth; the elder percenter was a close friend of his late father, legendary literary agent Lew Weitzman. The two met for lunch after his dad’s death and Abrams offered him and Rosenfeld an interesting proposition: Leave Preferred Artists Agency, the lit-focused company his dad founded, and join with Abrams Artists to mold the film and TV department while also exploring the packaging options that become available when talent is added.
“If we’re going to leave a company, which my father built, we’re going to do that with somebody who had the kind of reputation and business acumen like Harry,” he says. “Harry is just a really good guy. He’s not your typical Hollywood dirtbag. He is just a very well-respected guy.”
Commercial agent Goldblum says she’s always looked up to Abrams, but also laughs because working in the very department in which he made his mark can have its drawbacks.
“Within the office, he has served as a wonderful teacher [and is] always willing to discuss the minutiae of a deal and the finer points of negotiating … although, as far as I know, nobody has ever actually been able to negotiate a 13th use hold on a commercial agreement. That is his signature achievement,” she says, referencing the elusive and obscure provision that she says would mean “re-use rates would not go down after the 13th use, as they normally would under the SAG code. He would always quiz us about whether we also got the 13th use hold. But nobody ever did. Ever. He used to get them, though, since he is a super negotiator! He set a very high bar.”
She adds that Abrams is “an agent down to his bones, but also a wonderful human being and a father figure to the many long-serving staffers who grew up at the Abrams Artists.”
This is also probably why those at the company are both excited about Abrams’ 40th anniversary and thinking ahead to the potential that awaits its 50th.
Weitzman and Rosenfeld vow to be on the board by then. Shankman says that, while there will always be a need for scripted content and traditional talent, digital is just in its infancy and “we’re just at the tip of the iceberg as far as what social and digital media is going to be.”
Probably not surprising, it’s the finance guy who is the most pragmatic.
“We will continue to be strong in developing rising talent and making them stars; be it on stage, on the large or small or digital screens, in front of or behind the camera,” says CFO Cho. “As an independent agency, we want to continue our reputation for having a keen eye for talent and for ways to help our clients grow personally and professionally through an industry that is continuously changing.”