Wherever there are thrones, there are games. In the early 2010s, the leaders of Hollywood’s most powerful talent agency, CAA, began telling senior agents that the kingdom would someday be theirs. The timing certainly checked out. CAA’s trio of cochairmen—Bryan Lourd, Kevin Huvane, and Richard Lovett—had already led the agency through a 15-year period of tremendous growth, and their contracts were set to expire within a half dozen years. But the new generation soon realized that coronation day was further off than they expected. Lovett began reminding staff that 60 was the new 40, according to two sources. “I was like, Fuck no, it’s not,” says one of them, who recalls thinking, Oh, you guys are never going to leave.
Lovett, Lourd, and Huvane are now in their 60s. They seem more engaged than ever, having just guided CAA through a turbulent few years that saw a ferocious battle with Hollywood writers, a crippling pandemic, and a $750 million acquisition of rival agency ICM Partners. So CAA’s leaders-in-waiting asked themselves if they wanted to stick around another decade or two to inherit the agency, at which point some of them would be pushing the new 40.
The defections, sparked by factors beyond succession in some cases, started with a trickle. In 2018, überconnected talent rep Michael Kives headed out on his own. So did Peter Micelli, the cohead of CAA’s television department, who departed to join independent studio Entertainment One. Leaving CAA felt “much like a divorce,” Micelli tells me. “It’s a hard change. I had an incredible business there and left at the height of my career. I was giving up a lot and risking an enormous amount. But it was coupled with this new opportunity to learn and sit on the other side of the table.” Movie agent Jim Toth and top sports rep Nick Khan left for new opportunities too. The flood came in 2020, when four top agents—who repped Margot Robbie and Chris Hemsworth, among others—announced that they were quitting to reunite with Micelli. He was flush following Entertainment One’s $4 billion sale to Hasbro and launching a new talent management firm. In a pitch deck that leaked to the press, the company—later named Range Media Partners—trumpeted, “We have never seen more high-end representatives ready to leave these institutions.”
All the major agencies have suffered a steady stream of exits over the last three years amid what a former agent tells me is a “generational shift.” At WME, a number of high-powered agents of color walked out the door, while UTA said goodbye to several leaders in digital and new media. Due respect to the memory of Entourage’s explosive madman Ari Gold, but a lot of hard-driving agents decided there was a better way to generate power and better places to hug it out. “It’s just an ever-changing time in the industry,” says another person who recently left a plum agency job. “Traditional power structures are shifting because what clients want is shifting.” Some agents were clearly part of America’s Great Resignation: Facing layoffs and pay cuts because of the pandemic—and suddenly stripped of the power lunches and premieres—they simply reconsidered their careers. As a leader at one top agency says, “COVID was the hundred-year flood, and I think people made decisions about their lives at a scale that you’ve never seen before.”
But the pandemic didn’t cause the departures, it just accelerated them. Forget that the last three years even happened, and it’s still arguably harder to be an agent right now than at any other time. “Agents wear nice suits and drive fancy cars, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” says a source. “It’s definitely a less desirable job today.”
In the event you’re weeping for them, the average midcareer agent can make between $400,000 and $600,000, not including a year-end bonus, while successful partners pull in millions. But the rise of streaming, the decline of cable, and the erosion of the theatrical business have cut into those fat paychecks. People are also insisting, as they seem to do every few years, that the movie star is dead, which means fewer new clients. And that’s assuming that talent even want an agent. After the agencies’ fight with the Writers Guild of America, during which thousands of writers fired their agents, some (like Lost cocreator Damon Lindelof) never hired them back. Some industry heavyweights—Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio among them—have done without them for years.
To keep up with the changing landscape, the agencies have chased growth. CAA has expanded into seemingly every business with even a passing connection to entertainment, adding a sports division to rep stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and launching a venture capital fund. To fuel the expansion, the company opened its doors to a private equity investor, TPG Capital, which now owns a majority stake in the agency. Ari Emanuel’s Endeavor, meanwhile, has bought up assets as far-flung as UFC, the Miss Universe Competition, Professional Bull Riders, and New York Fashion Week.
The ballooning of the agencies might be good for business—and for enriching leaders like Emanuel, who made $308 million following Endeavor’s IPO in 2021—but it’s fundamentally changed the day-to-day for talent reps. Multiple current and former agents say that the agencies used to feel like a family, at least the kind of family that ritually hazes the youngest kids. Now these places have hundreds, if not thousands, of employees who have to wear name tags to corporate retreats so they can recognize their own colleagues.
What happens when someone wakes up one day and realizes they don’t want to be an agent anymore? If they don’t run screaming from the industry altogether, some become executives, others producers. But many pivot to management, where they can focus more on building a client’s career and less on landing them their next job. Theresa Kang-Lowe, formerly a powerful WME agent, now manages Alfonso Cuarón, Lena Waithe, and others while producing television like the Apple TV+ epic Pachinko. Phil Sun left WME and brought Michael B. Jordan and Donald Glover to a new management firm, M88, focused on a diverse clientele. Two former agents from UTA and WME, Ben Jacobson and David Stone, recently launched the Framework Collective to manage TV writers.
The distinction between agents and managers can seem nebulous, but there are key differences. Agents often represent dozens of people in a specific area of the business (think film roles but not television ones, or brand deals but not public speaking engagements) and focus on landing their clients new work. Managers typically have a smaller roster for whom they provide career guidance. While they’re barred from negotiating deals—that’s the domain of agents and lawyers—they can do things that agents can’t, like producing and personally investing in a client’s tequila empire, say. That means managers can potentially make more money, especially at a time when stars all seem to crave the same new status symbol: a billion dollars. “You become their partner versus just a rep,” says an agent turned manager.
The men—and, yes, they’re still all men—who run the top agencies know better than to act alarmed about defections. “Some agents at a certain point either get managed out or they get burnt out—and some become managers,” says UTA CEO and cofounder Jeremy Zimmer. “We still continue to grow, and we still continue to thrive, and we continue to work really well with managers. We don’t necessarily feel it’s competitive.”
But conversations with nearly two dozen industry insiders suggest that management is more and more alluring as the aura around agents dims. No one denies that the guys atop CAA, WME, and UTA are powerful. But what happens when they’re gone? Some sources say a new breed of managers—people who’ve been agents and understand dealmaking—will challenge them for primacy. As one former agent puts it, “Before, the agents were the most powerful. Period. Now there might be a splitting of the power.” This still doesn’t faze the old guard. “Our access to clients, our ability to influence decisions they make and create opportunities for talent and for people who want to work with talent—that makes us powerful,” says Zimmer. “The next generation of agents will have that also.”
But who will the next generation be if younger agents keep changing lanes, though? At six foot seven with a broad frame, Micelli, the Range CEO, is hard to miss when he enters a room. A former college basketball player who considered playing professionally in Europe, he spent the first 20-plus years of his adult life channeling his competitiveness into the closest thing Hollywood has to a sport: working as a talent agent at the legendarily cutthroat CAA.
But in 2017, during the agency’s annual retreat at a resort near San Diego, Micelli realized it was time to quit. “Something inside me told me this was the last retreat I was going to be on,” he says. “I needed a new energy.” At Entertainment One, he got a crash course in running (and selling) a company. After his windfall, Micelli had offers from agencies: “But I just kept coming back to, Why work for anybody again? It’s their agency. It’s their vision. It just felt the most appropriate next step for me was to do something that was at least partly mine.”
While Micelli had stepped away from representation, the Writers Guild lawsuit against the talent agencies had created a fissure in the part of the business at which he excelled, packaging writers and stars, then hand-delivering full projects to TV studios. (The agencies later agreed to end the controversial practice and divest most of their majority ownership stakes in production companies.) Meanwhile, the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements forced a reckoning at the agencies over their part in perpetuating systemic discrimination. “I started thinking about what was needed, and Range started to form in my head—oh, the markets are changing this way and new technologies are coming that are gonna shift content distribution again, and there’s a bunch of little things we can do to create a better culture and a better environment,” Micelli says.