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Endeavor’s Ari Emanuel Credits His ‘F—ed Up Mind’ for Success Beyond the Agency Business

A conversation with Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel was the grand finale to the two-day Venues Now Conference, held at the Beverly Hilton on June 19 and June 20. During the wide-ranging interview, which was conducted by Oak View Group president of events and conferences Ray Waddell, the veteran executive and entrepreneur regaled the crowd — comprised mainly of executives and professionals in the live entertainment industry — with tales of his years as a young agent and his admiration for fellow chief executives like Disney’s Bob Iger (“a great thinker”) and Live Nation’s Michael Rapino (“one of the great executives in our business”).

He also talked about his own business, which has in the last decade expanded far beyond talent representation into media financing, distribution, sports training, league management, fashion, and much more. Emanuel emphasized repeatedly that it’s been his “crazy mind” — “It’s f—ed up in there,” he cracked — that has guided his vision for the former William Morris Agency. And it’s resulted in a 23-year run that has seen the company grow to house one of the biggest, most well-rounded portfolios in entertainment.

“Yes, we started out as an agency, we’re still the best agency,” Emanuel boasted, but with properties that include rights to major sporting events, movies, television music, and theater, “that gives us pretty good insight into where the world is going,” he said. “A viewpoint of where to point the targets as they relate to ownership.”

Indeed, properties like UFC, Professional Bull Riders, and Miss Universe allow for new approaches to what was once a traditional sales business. “A lot of people didn’t see what we saw in the assets,” said Emanuel, who noted that a common criticism was that they “overspent” for IMG. “We’ve done pretty well,” he downplayed.

Emanuel got more animated as the conversation veered to current events, and not of the Trumpian kind, mercifully. Speaking of the mega-deals just cleared and on the horizon — the AT&T-Time Warner merger, and Comcast and Disney’s bids for Fox — Emanuel said: “I didn’t estimate that the world would blow up. … I was at the table and got dealt [a] four.”

Speaking of the movie business, Emanuel sounded cautiously optimistic, pointing to the entry of MoviePass, and potential competitors to come in its wake, and the international market. But he added that we “have to redefine what a movie is” — both the experience of seeing a movie (with costs associated for parking, food, the kids) and its overall impact on the population at large when “the window is only three weeks and you really have to force them in for the first two weeks.”

On the music front, Emanuel pointed to the 30,000 concerts and 900 events his company is involved in annually, of which “people will take pictures and post them — that’s a tactile moment” — but questioned whether a new album drop event by Kanye West, like the rapper recently staged in Montana, could draw a live pay-per-view audience (the room seemed to answer, “no”).

Emanuel quipped about Jewish-isms and described his four-decade relationship with longtime business partner Patrick Whitesell as, “we’ve been married for a long time and happy.” He also reflected on his early years as a Hollywood newcomer. At 27, well out of the typical mail room employee range, he got that very job at CAA for 15 cents an hour. “My father, an immigrant, almost lost his s—,” said Emanuel. Recalling the moment he realized “distribution was becoming commoditized,” a young Emanuel’s roster of television writers quickly shot the pay scale up.

Still, the agency wars meant having your wits about you 24/7. “It was a two-horse race,” he said. “They got handed the best in the world and only f—ed it up. I realized, I gotta run fast, so we started running.”

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