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Songs For Screens: UTA’s Maxim Karlik Brings A-List Music Moments to ‘Aladdin,’ ‘Aquaman’ and Beyond

The co-head of the agency's Music Crossover division sits at a unique intersection of music, TV and film.

As co-head of UTA’s Music Crossover division, Maxim Karlik sits at a unique intersection of music, TV and film.

Serving as a conduit between UTA’s music clients, TV and film teams and showrunners and directors, Karlik and his department has helped secure original song placements for artists including DJ Khaled (an update on “Friend Like Me” for 2019’s “Aladdin”), Muse’s Matt Bellamy (“Pray” for HBO’s “For The Throne” album) and Pitbull (“Ocean To Ocean” for 2018’s “Aquaman”); acting roles for DJ Khaled (“Pitch Perfect 3,” the upcoming “Bad Boys 3”) and Action Bronson (Netflix’s Martin Scorsese-helmed “The Irishman”) and composer roles for Phil Lawrence (Netflix’s Christmas musical “Jingle Jangle”), Bret McKenzie and Bo Burnham.

The common thread for each project, Karlik offers, is the ability to help musicians flex their creative muscles outside their known lanes. “I think songwriters get pigeonholed sometimes for their previous work,” he says. “I love when somebody gets a chance to do something a little bit different and really deliver on that.”

And to further solidify UTA’s role in the synch pipeline, Karlik has also taken on a growing roster of in-demand music supervisors as clients, including Robert Lowry (Freeform’s “The Bold Type,” Hulu’s “Ramy”), Brienne Rose (Netflix’s “Russian Doll,” TBS’ “Search Party”) and Stephanie Diaz-Matos (Netflix’s “Someone Great,” Lionsgate’s “Uncle Drew”), whose music cues have been among the year’s most-buzzed about.

“When I was first pitched by [UTA CEO] Jeremy [Zimmer] on this job, he said, ‘Figure out a way to get music into film and TV.’ And being sort of naïve to this business I hadn’t yet realized how complicated it was,” says Karlik, 31, an Australian native who got his start at UTA as Zimmer’s assistant. “I went out and started representing music supervisors so we could take a vested interest in their lives and careers, and get into their minds to see what they were looking for when they’re pitching for television and films and be able to secure some great opportunities for our clients.”

As the use of music in movies, TV and commercials continues to rise (synch royalties surged 23% in 2018, according to the RIAA) and musicians continue to become multi-hyphenates to expand their fanbase, Karlik spoke with Variety‘s Songs For Screens about the ever-shifting landscape of music on film.

Variety: There’s no shortage of players involved in music for screens deals, from labels and publishers and PROs to studios, networks and directors. What made you want to get involved in such a complex part of the marketplace?
Maxim Karlik:
There are projects where I’m not always front and center of the actual deal-making process because of the complications with rights to music, but for me it’s about being the one who can find the opportunity. It doesn’t matter whether a deal is worth $10,000 or $500,000, the ability to bring something to the table for the artist is really valuable. So when you bring over a client like Pitbull, who’s been to multiple agencies and has been told they have someone like myself in this department focusing on soundtracks and synchs, he says he doesn’t want to hear about it because he’s been pitched before and nobody does anything. And then to get him a song in “Aquaman” and show that we do what we say we’re going to do is very important.

You have a unique role for a talent agency. What was the first deal you worked on that made you realize there could be a real opportunity in pairing musicians and TV/film properties?
I always believed UTA had a great culture in terms of agents helping other agents and other clients, and I became particularly fond of a band we work with called X Ambassadors. Their management came to me wanting to do something a bit different for one of their music videos, “Low Life,” and getting a particular actor in that. We threw out some of our clients as ideas, including Liev Schreiber. I thought with the song being called “Low Life” and being a big “Ray Donovan” fan, it could be a great fit. So I walked into Liev’s agent’s office and said “Hey, I got this great song, the band are big fans,’ and luckily Lie had just finished directing the first episode of the season. So we got him on the phone and he said “I love this, but I’m obviously very busy. If we could have this song in the end credits of the first episode then I’ll do it.” And I said, “Well that’s the crossover dream, let’s get Live in there in a Ray Donovan-esque character and get the song in the show.” X Ambassadors is a band that loves cinema and their music is made for synchs, so it was great situation to show what we can do when a client wants to use the full breadth of the agency.

It does feel like everyone’s getting into the original song/score game these days. What market conditions do you contribute to this trend?
I don’t know if it’s because the original musical is back in a big way with the success of “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman,” or soundtracks like “Black Panther” which was a massive success. It just seems like the perfect time for music on-screen. I think the studios and the directors and producers and everyone are really starting to realize the power of songs and the built-in marketing and influence an artist can have.

We are in a new Golden Age of award-winning young composers who’ve found success writing for the screen. Who on your roster has the capability of joining those ranks?
We signed a singer-songwriter Phil Lawrence about 12 months ago. He had a lot of ambitions outside just recording music, and had been on tour with Bruno Mars forever and decided he wasn’t gonna do that anymore and wanted to expand his business. Phil and his team are such talented songwriters and producers, and he had written some songs for [another project] that got him the attention of the director for this Netflix film, “Jingle Jangle,” and it ended up ballooning into a much bigger relationship. The director became a big fan of Phil, and he’s now written close to what may be 10 songs for this original musical with Forest Whitaker, which another client of ours Harvey Mason Jr. is executive music producing. In this business you hear a lot of the same names, the Lin Manuel Mirandas, the Pasek-Pauls, the Alan Menkens – it’s something really hard to crack into. But I’m really excited for this next chapter for Phil.

How did DJ Khaled become such a key part of the Disney music stable, between his song for the 2018 soundtrack to “A Wrinkle In Time” and his work on the new version of “Friend Like Me” for “Aladdin”?
Khaled as an artist is so family-friendly, he’s got a great brand and has a son with a bigger social media following than all of us put together. He’s just such a proven entity, and he had actually just worked with Will Smith on “Bad Boys 3,” which he did a role for, so it all kind of made sense. It’s a tricky one, taking a song like “Friend Like Me,” a Disney classic, and making it contemporary. It’s a big band-sounding song, and for him to put his spin on it, I think he did an incredible job and the studio is super happy and told me they would work with him again and again. He’s just continued to deliver for them, and they just continue to get this stuff so right with their marketing and music tie-ins.

Outside of the superstars, whose lesser-known songwriting talents have you helped exploit through your role?
We have a client Jon Lajoie who’s known as an actor on that show “The League.” He was in the office one day and we were introduced by his agent, and he said, “You know what, Jon would like to write a song for an animated film.” I said, “Great, well there’s a lot of people who would like to do that. But you know, it just so happens that ‘Lego 2’ is taking demos.’ So I pitched him to the team at Warner Bros., and they really liked him, thought he was really funny and they took a chance. The next thing you know, he ends up doing five songs for the film. Now he’s very much in the Warner family and it’s a totally new chapter in his career.

There’s also a project coming up with Bo Burnham that hasn’t been announced yet, but it’ll be the first time he’ll be writing original songs for somebody else’s film, which I think will be wildly successful. I also signed this songwriter Brett McLaughlin, whose songwriter name is Leland. I received a phone call form a colleague in the talent department who’d seen this movie “Sierra Burgess Is A Loser” and told me “You gotta sign whoever did the music.” I found my way to Brett, he was just supremely talented, and we ended up getting him on a Comedy Central show called “The Other Two” with our clients, and he wrote song of the songs for that. Now they’re doing an Emmy campaign for a song he did called “My Brother’s Gay And That’s OK,” and he just wrote an original song for [an upcoming film]. He’s one of those people very much in the songwriting system, he’s written for Troye Sivan, Selena Gomez and Carrie Underwood, who can find great success in the TV and film world as well.

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