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‘It’s Quite a Special Place’: CAA Insiders Talk Industry Drama, TPG’s Influence and Ties That Bind

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Minnaert

What makes CAA tick? How do top agents see the dealmaking environment? How deep are the wounds from the WGA battle? What has it meant to have private equity in the house for the past decade?

Nine senior CAA agents and executives and the co-CEO of parent company TPG opened up to Variety on these questions and more. Here are highlights from those conversations.

On CAA’s competitive advantage:

Maha Dakhil (co-head of international film group and co-head of motion picture): I did not think I could possibly fit in by all that I had read about (agencies). I did not see myself as a natural fit, but what’s true is that this is not a monolithic place. The communication and the way we share information make people on the outside feel that we’re all so connected, and that we’re of the same mind — but we are truly a rambunctious, individualized group of people.

Joe Cohen (scripted TV head): What’s kept me inside the company was the fundamental culture. The company was set up in such a way that it’s about something bigger than any one individual. It’s a collective of disparate, quirky people who have the same kind of goals. We’re interested in helping artists.

Tiffany Ward (board member): The opportunity for us is that we’re able to match the buyers’ scope and scale because we are a global company. The critical thing is matching that scope and scale with personal relationships. That’s what keeps the ethos of this company strong.

Jim Burtson (chief financial officer): The fluidity that you see across all areas of the agency and the ability for people to seamlessly bring other colleagues into the conversation about clients is amazing. Increasingly the opportunities that our clients have are not narrow — they’re wide. We have the agents and the expertise that helps gets clients comfortable to do that. I think we do that better than anybody in terms of activating clients across our platform. I didn’t understand until I came here how powerful that was.

Risa Gertner (co-head, motion picture group): Something that was most significant and special to me. I had only been an agent for seven years and I had only been at CAA for a month. I went to Richard (Lovett) and said I though there were some things that we did better in staff meetings at UTA that we should do here. Rather than get the slightest bit defensive, he was immediately open to examining it. They are constantly re-examine how to make this the best place to work.

Rob Light (head of music): There’s not a meeting I’ve ever taken where I needed a partner, one of the three guys on the phone, that if I called Kevin, he says, yes. He has never said no, never said I’m too busy, right? When I need to pick someone’s brain, when I’m sort of at that wall of ‘I don’t know what to do here’ — and you would think, ‘Well, geez, Rob, you’ve been there 40 years’ — I can call Bryan and just have that really cerebral ‘let’s pull all the threads apart and put ‘em back together.’ … I’ve got to say, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a call with Kevin trying to sign a client that we didn’t close, because when he’s on the phone, we can close! He’s that good. But he’s never said no. Ever. It didn’t matter if it was a brand new artist or a superstar. And so the three of them sort of add this dimension– we’ll use the word humanity — that allows you to do your job even better. And that passes down. And you learn from the people you work with to do the same thing for the next generation. And it’s passed on for 25 years.

Roeg Sutherland (co-head, media finance): A culture has to be so ingrained for it to still continue to function (amid the pandemic). It’s not miraculous but a major part of what we’ve been taught for 19 years. In that way, we felt almost prepared for the pandemic.


CAA Next in Line

CAA Next In Line

 

Ward: Every day we have people bringing back information on what every buyer and every streamer wants. We know what every opportunity is for artists. Part of what distinguishes (CAA) is that we are encourage and rewarded for reciprocal information. We’re better informed and better able to be strong advocates for our clients because of that information.

Burtson: This business model evolves in real time with the marketplace. It was astounding to me to see how we can look around the corner and see where the (entertainment) business is going.

On the broader business landscape for film and TV deals:

Cohen: We’re in a consolidated environment. Selling shows and how things get made has gotten more and more challenging with all the rapid-fire changes. The lack of transparency at all these streaming companies and how people get paid is a challenge. This is down to us to protect and to serve our clients and help them curate great material that becomes indelible. 

Joel Lubin (co head, motion picture group): The difference between then and now is that now we look at it as — where do artists want to lend their voice? People are consuming things in different ways. We were probably more segregated in the past when it comes to film and television. It’s much more holistic now. We look at the voice, and the best place to lend that voice. It could be in the context of a 90-minute film, it could be a limited series, or it could be on-stage, in short form, and that’s part of the curation we do. To help determine where we guide our clients in this changing landscape.

On working in the pandemic-battered marketplace:

Dakhil: In that moment where we didn’t know if this would be two weeks or two months, as none of us had the imagination it would go longer. At first it felt like school burned down, it was kind of fun, but (Lubin) led with this grace and humility and strength. … Roeg couldn’t stand that Cannes was cancelled, so he went out and made a virtual market. It was a really bright spot. There are countless examples of areas we’ve aligned ourselves. We never stopped working. We refocused our efforts on everybody. Specifically and strategically to help these people we care tremendously about see their future beyond the pandemic.

Lubin: There was a pause in the exhibition business, and then a pause in production because the protocols didn’t exist initially. At the same time, there was intense demand for content. Those are major opposing forces. For us, who represent storytellers and artists, what we do was actually intensified. We had all the streamers in addition to studios, who were still active, wanting more content. We’re naturally optimistic but the world didn’t stop for us. We could feel the marketplace was expanding, but we had this pause for exhibition that will take some time to get through, and the artists are still creating and generating. There’s a timeless need for that. The adjustment was really working from home, because we’d never done that before.

Emma Banks (co-head, music internationa): At the start of lockdown, or within a month of lockdown, there was a poet in the U.K. called Tom Roberts who wrote a poem called “The Great Realization.” He did a video for it. It went viral globally. And by the start of September, our book department had gotten book deals for him. And the hardback book of the poem had been released and was selling hot potatoes. And that’s how fast… and maybe it doesn’t sound fast to you, I don’t know. But in terms of how the industry goes, it’s unprecedented, really, to get book deals done that fast and turn them around. But the breadth of relationships that the team has can do things like that. So it’s been so relevant and personal. And to be able to do those things at a time where businesses are pretty much shut down in some sector I think is phenomenal.

On the split the battle with the Writers Guild of America:

Cohen: This was completely avoidable. We’re in the business as representatives who care to be part of writers’ lives and grow careers for the long term. I would never have imagined that there was such little understanding of the kind of relationship that we have with artists where they always have the opportunity to fire us if they don’t think we’re transparent or don’t think we’re doing the job. We’re in the business of conflict resolution. It’s been incredibly disappointing. I fundamentally believe there should have been a deal to be made. I think you’re always going to have to be managing some kind of perceived conflict. That’s managed by what kind of character you have. Ultimately you live and die by that — your character.

Gertner: There’s no other way to describe it but painful and incredibly frustrating. I don’t believe it had to come to this. I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years. I’ve ever seen anything like this. There were always fights with studios and deals that couldn’t make. But it’s always worked out. This has been awful. And it’s hurting the clients’ business way more than it hurts our business.

Dakhil: We know the difference between the flickering heartbeat of a movie actually taking off after many, many times stalled — and what the role of an agency is in holding the pieces together. Because we are not producers, we actually get more credibility to hold these together because we’re invisibly behind the scenes gluing every piece. We’re behind the scenes bringing every party to the table, who might not otherwise have common ground to execute a vision on behalf of our client. That is because of the constant, 24/7 nurturing and caregiving we apply to each of these projects. We know for a fact, a lot of these movies wouldn’t have a chance otherwise because we’re going against the current to get them made. It starts with the client having a story, an idea, a script and then piecing together how to get there is very much on our shoulders.

On how TPG’s investment changed CAA:

Cohen: It’s only been good. They’re there when we need them. It’s been helpful but there hasn’t been anything noticeable about how the company has changed. Having experienced every facet of management at this company, I can say that (the TPG relationship) has been terrific.

Ward: The average agent does not feel it on a day-to-day basis.

Cohen: They trust us to run our business. That’s been our mantra from the beginning.

Michael Levine (co-head, CAA Sports): We’ve had interaction at high levels with TPG from the beginning. We were only a few years old (in 2010 when TPG first invested) and they understood the growth potential that sports had for the company. They got to know us while they were doing their research and diligence on the business. It’s been the same leadership group the whole way through that has watched us for over a decade now.

Howard Nuchow (co-head, CAA Sports): They were really helpful in creating innovative compensation packages for employees so we could retain our best employees. The fact that capital is always available is very motivating. Anything that comes across our desk we can look at and have always been encouraged to do so. We never felt there was an opportunity we couldn’t bite off.

Levine: (TPG’s) David Bonderman and Jim Coulter are both sports fans. David’s a minority owner of the Boston Celtics. We’d worked with them on media rights. Our investment banking group has been a sounding board  and an advisor to them on all sorts of fronts. We’re here as resources for them and they’ve been resources for us.

Jim Coulter (TPG co-CEO and founding partner): What some people have missed from the beginning is that we invested in CAA not to make it into something different but because of what it was. It’s quite a special place.

(Pictured: CAA’s 12 board members. Top row: Emma Banks, Joe Cohen, Maha Dakhil and Paul Danforth. Middle row: Risa Gertner, Lisa Joseph Metelus, Michelle Kydd Lee and Michael Levine. Bottom row: Joel Lubin, Sonya Rosenfeld, Rick Roskin and Tiffany Ward)