Emanuel, O'Connor, Berkus and Berg share stage at USC Law symposiumSat Oct 17, 2009 @ 05:06PM PST
By Matthew Belloni
Given the uncertainties and animosities in the agency world these days, we wondered whether they'd all show up. But today's Institute on Entertainment Law & Business at USC Law School did indeed play host to an historic gathering of sorts, as top execs at the Big Four talent agencies--WME co-CEO Ari Emanuel, CAA managing director David O'Connor, UTA's chairman and co-founder Jim Berkus and ICM chariman and CEO Jeff Berg--sat on a panel together to talk about the future of their business.
We couldn't find anyone in the packed Bovard Hall who could remember a public discussion among the string-pullers at the majors--"a panel never seen before and possibly never to be seen again," said Assn. of Talent Agents exec director Karen Stuart, who moderated (and gave this humble blog an appreciated shout-out from the podium).
So what did they say? Not much, actually. It was a mix of unified support for such standard talent-side issues as increasing antipiracy efforts/job creation/curbing studio consolidation and some gentle ribbing amongst longtime rivals.
After Berg opened with a brief history of the Talent Agencies Act, Emanuel jumped on the antipiracy soapbox, calling the effort to enact tougher content protection laws "the most important thing for our business." Ari wants Congress to pass something similar to France's controversial "3 Strikes and You're Off the Internet" law, which allows a juge to take away Web privileges after three citations for illegal activities. A constitutional council found the first version of that law unacceptable but a second version was passed last month, and Emanuel thinks the U.S. should follow suit. "We created the interstate highway system, and there are rules on that," he said. "There should be similar rules" on the information superhighway, the superagent urged.
Emanuel also said it was "a little absurd" that as few as four companies could soon control most of the the country's content, echoing the widespread discontent in the representation community over the disappearance of buyers over the past few years.
Taking that cue, Berkus offered his take on what it's like to be an agent in a changing business: "We used to spend the vast majority of our time looking for a job for our clients. Today we spend the vast majority of our time trying to create jobs for clients."
(Berkus also made the mistake of refering to "William Morris," which prompted Emanuel chime in with a helpful "William Morris Endeavor. William Morris Endeavor." That got perhaps the morning's biggest laugh, just ahead of Emanuel recounting the story of him interviewing with Berkus when he was just starting out and Berkus telling him he wouldn't be successful because he wasn't a lawyer.)
O'Connor talked about CAA's strategy in getting into sports representation. "All you have to do is look around today and realize the number one show on NBC is "Sunday Night Football" and "Monday Night Football" just achieved record ratings for a cable broadcast," he noted before discussing the agency's diversification strategy.
That's about it. For how often they steal each other's clients, the quartet stayed fairly civil. The most awkward moment might have been when Berg noted the challenge of first getting projects financed before agency clients can find jobs on them. Emanuel then asked whether ICM's financial backer is in the production/financing business.
"Yes," Berg replied.
"I guess that's how you do it," Emanuel responded.