While reporting my feature on WME-IMG for the December issue of Fast Company, one of my biggest tasks was to try to find the nuance in the company’s leaders, co-CEO’s Patrick Whitesell and Ari Emanuel. Whitesell has been summed up as politic and even-keeled, while Emanuel can be reduced to caricature as an über agent whose explosive and outspoken exploits could fill eight-seasons-and-a-movie’s worth of story lines. (For reasons that should be obvious, we vowed not to reference this now-cliched analogy in the feature.) The two men complement each other: Whitesell is described as the yin to Emanuel’s yang. This relationship is true even physically. Whitesell is tall and fair. Emanuel has darkly etched features and a more compact frame.
So how to get past the logline summary of these two agents-slash-media executives? The most helpful explanation I got was from another WME-IMG exec who explained that Emanuel is the constantly-in-motion ideas guy. (Quite literally–he has treadmil desks installed in all of his offices.) A tireless machine who is passionate about every detail, every possibility. Whitesell, by contrast, can spend more than an hour over the phone calmly going over strategy, point by point.
But one of my favorite insights came from David Lonner, who formed the talent management company Oasis after a career agenting folks like J.J. Abrams and Alexander Payne. Lonner worked with both Whitesell and Emanuel at Endeavor, the startup agency that Emanuel formed in 1995 with three alums of the talent agency ICM. Lonner compared Whitesell to Tom Brady, the handsome New England Patriots quarterback. “He’s Teflon when the shit rains down,” Lonner says. “And he can make everything OK with his smile.” As for Emanuel, Lonner told me about showing up at Endeavor and asking Emanuel about leadership at the company. What was the dynamic between the founders, what role did each of them play? Emanuel described his own role in just three words: “I’m the juice.”
Two decades later, Emanuel, 55, remains the energizing force of his company, which has evolved into a global media empire that does far more than represent TV writers and directors, as Endeavor did in its earliest days. And Whitesell, who joined Endeavor in 2001, is still the star quarterback who’s keeping things steady as WME-IMG grows at a dizzying clip—over the last two years it has acquired more than 20 companies. But if there is a personality and tenor to WME-IMG, which retains the rebellious, anti-establishment coda of Endeavor, it’s defined by Emanuel.
Trying to capture that tenor for this story proved to be a Herculean task given Emanuel’s constant globe-trotting. Meetings with him were rescheduled over and over again because he had to fly to Chile, London, New York, and China (during the reporting of this story, WME-IMG struck a joint venture with Tencent and Sequoia Capital China). As he told me when I eventually pinned him down more than four months into my reporting, “Most of Hollywood stays in Hollywood. No one’s getting on a plane and going to Argentina for three meetings. Flying 14 hours for three meetings. And then getting on a plane and flying to London. Or going to China for a lunch and a dinner and coming back. I don’t give a shit. I did it last weekend.” Other times, he would vanish because of duties at home. One Friday night last June, I spied him at the Made LA fashion event, which WME-IMG owns and produced, but he left in time to be home by 7 p.m. for Shabbat dinner.
One thing I learned is that Emanuel is simply more comfortable being improvisational, and it was in our more impromptu encounters over the course of the six months I spent reporting this story that I got a truer sense of what it’s like to work with him. Once, when I was scheduled to have lunch with WME-IMG’s chief publicist, Christian Muirhead, to discuss the story, I received a call while en route to the restaurant and told, “Ari will be there.” It’s the kind of news that jolts, and slightly terrifies you. I hadn’t spent time preparing questions or getting my head wrapped around what the story I was about to start reporting even was. And yet it ended up being a very rewarding lunch precisely because I didn’t march in with a full notepad; the mood was easy and low-stakes. And let’s face it, you don’t really need to prepare for Emanuel. He’s every reporter’s dream–whip-smart and uncensored–no matter what the scenario.
For the record, he seems to delight in sudden appearances. He similarly jet-packs in on lunches with young WME-IMG agents as a way of keeping lines of communication open. (When one agent found out who his lunch partner would be one day, he decided to go home and change.) And a few times he popped in unannounced while I was interviewing other executives. “What the fuck are you guys talking about?” he said on one occasion. Then he playfully entered the room and plopped down on a couch. He stayed for about 10 minutes, then got up and left. Twenty minutes later he was back. “You guys are still talking?”
This Ari, as everyone calls him—the jokey, funny, profane one—is the one I mostly got to see over the course of my reporting. But I also saw “human Ari,” who talks about his kids and making time for them with the little time that he has, and about his brothers Rahm and Zeke. This Ari also talks about being “less crazy” than he used to be, something he said somewhat wistfully and attributed to age; and about being an avid practitioner of meditation. Emanuel swears by the school known as
One World, and has organized meditation retreats with friends. When I asked him why One World, which requires hours of sitting cross-legged on the floor with your eyes closed, Emanuel says that he likes it because it doesn’t require chanting any mantras and that, “It says it’s OK to be mad!”
Not that he’s always so Zen. He has a moody side, which I saw glimpses of as well. It tends to set in abruptly and then dissipate just as quickly. Sources, even those who adore him, say you don’t always know what you’re going to get when Emanuel picks up the phone. It could be “Bubbe, I love you, what do you want? I’ll do anything for you.” Or it could be, ‘What the fuck do you want?” His passion, his intensity, his anger—he doesn’t hide any of it.
Eventually, I did get my sit-down with Emanuel. It was worth the wait. Not many people get the opportunity to chat at length with him, particularly without Whitesell by his side, so there’s value in hearing direct from one of the most dynamic forces shaping the future of media and entertainment. Yes there was braggadocio (he’s an agent, after all), but overall he was thoughtful and insightful, and came across as an executive who is working harder than perhaps anyone in Hollywood to crack the code of what it means, in 2016, to be an entertainment company. What with China about to devour the movie industry, streaming companies like Netflix redefining television, and major mergers such as the proposed AT&T and Time Warner marriage shaking up the studio landscape, Hollywood has never been more in flux. Emanuel and Whitesell have decided to jump in feet first and start figuring out ways to make this new, rapidly changing reality work for them and their clients. And as my story about their ambitions suggests, they’re not giving up without a fight.
Here are excepts from my chat with Emanuel:
Fast Company: In 2016, how do you look at your clients? Others at WME-IMG use the term “entrepreneurial” to describe how they view talent.
Ari Emanuel: Everybody looks at it differently. There’s no right answer. The clients that I kind of relate to, either are very deep, like Aaron Sorkin. He’s a writer—theater, television, movies. Now he wants to be a director, so we’re gonna try that. But like Adam McKay or Mark Wahlberg or Charlize Theron or Pete Berg. It’s, you know . . . [he makes a horizontal line with his hands to indicate their steady state]. But other people like Oprah or Tyler Perry. Michael Bay. He produces movies, he directs movies, he does indie movies, he does TV. He does commercials. Some agents say, No, I just want the TV writers. That’s what they love to do. There’s no right answer. For me? I need clients that I can help grow.
When you started as an agent, the business was fairly straightforward. You sell a show, it becomes a hit, you’re golden thanks to syndication revenues. Move on to the next show.
That was us. 1995. Three shows. King of the Hill, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal.
Today, obviously, times have changed. The business has become more fractured, movie and TV deals aren’t what they used to be (for the most part), thus your job is more complicated . . . .
It’s the George Gilder book. Life After Television. The world of 10,000 networks. (Life After Television: The Coming Transformation of Media and American Life was first published in 1990.) So there’s network shows. There’s cable shows. YouTube shows. Yahoo shows. AOL shows. Netflix shows. Hulu shows. Apple shows.
Do you prioritize any?
No. Whatever’s best for the client. Or, here’s where I think it’s best.
Do most people in Hollywood see it that way?
When did you see this new landscape taking shape?
When I read that book. I said, O.K., we’re gonna do this. And then you started seeing it happen.
Since the merger between WME and IMG, there has been some confusion about what you guys are doing. Why, for instance, do you buy something like Professional Bull Riders? How does it serve your talent business? And—
Here’s the great thing about the platform. And I think everybody’s beginning to get it. The IMG side, the WME side. Fifty percent of our business is representation. It’s kind of like a little VC into what we can do, what properties we should go after to own. And 50% is owned. We have to really be Jekyll and Hyde in a good way.
So the good thing about the platform and the size of the company is, you can get a sense of what’s going on in the world. Movies, TV, books, internationally, artists, musicians, chefs. So the book department is now publishing books from the hot, new chefs out of the U.K. The hottest area in chefs. So the people in LA or NY, in the reality area, can go sign them and create shows. And if we have 28 food festivals, depending on what we’re gonna do with food, you can create shows, either sell them or create licensing product off of them. You’re constantly being able to learn what’s happening in the world through the platform and through the intel inside of the system.
The problem for competitors, and I consider many people competitors, is that we’re unique. There’s no place that, 50% of your business is owned, 50% of your business is represented. You get a lot of different intel. What we have to get better at is making that intel more available, faster. Which we’re continuing to work on.
Over the summer you were part of a consortium of investors that bought UFC for $4 billion. How does your talent engine play into the league? Will we be seeing more UFC stars in movies?
“We’ve got a list of 25 male stars and about 15 female stars. So we just started. We’re in conversations with Hasbro to do dolls. We’re in conversations with some of the magazines to do profiles on the women. We’re just now beginning the process of building the brand and building their name recognition. We’re then gonna, we got Conor McGregor—he’s just not available—an offer to do Game of Thrones. He’s not available. He’s gotta fight. [Tyron] Woodley has done two movies, he met with the agency. So we’re now just gonna start start building profiles. We’ll put teams on ’em and start building profiles with endorsements, etc.
Even today, 20 years after you formed Endeavor, that company’s street fighter mentality still seems imbued in your latest company. Do you agree?
[With Endeavor] I didn’t want to be part of something. I wanted to create my own thing. Remember, I’d been an agent for like four and a half, five years at that point. I was, as my father would say, I was a pisher. And I said, Fuck it. These guys (at ICM) are geniuses? Really? What’s the worst that could happen?
You know, in the first six months, did anyone ever tell you this story? We’re at Endeavor. We get all this press for no reason. Zero reason. Harvey Weinstein calls me. He says, ‘On Friday morning, you have to be in my hotel room at 8 o’clock.’ We show up. [Endeavor partners] (David) Greenblatt, (Tom) Strickler, Rick (Rosen), myself. He’s got four chairs. He comes out, his shirt’s on backwards, got stains on it. He goes, ‘William Morris is going to buy you for $10 million. You’re all going to work for William Morris.’ He’s telling us. I said, ‘No, no, no. I’m gonna buy them. I’m not doing that!’ We got up and left.
And in 2009, you did basically buy them. [Endeavor merged with William Morris, though it was effectively a takeover by Emanuel and Co.] What about CAA? They’ve historically been your biggest rival. Today, WME-IMG and CAA are the two biggest agencies in Hollywood and are distinguishing themselves from other agencies in similar ways.
If I had what they (the Young Turks that took over CAA when co-founders Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer left in the 1990’s) had when they had it, what I would have done with it is unbelievable. I should pay [CAA’s private-equity backer] TPG to keep [CAA President] Richard Lovett in that job for the next 10 years. Though I don’t think about them. I actually don’t, except when people bring it up to me. We have a lot of work to do. I’m really happy about the amount of work we have to do. It’s the most creative work, business-wise, that we’re gonna have to do. I feel great about the challenge. Because it’s gonna take a whole new mindset to get everyone where we have to go. Because now 50% of our business we own, and it’s ours to lose. We can only fuck it up. We can no longer say, ‘The client didn’t do that. The buyer didn’t do that. It’s ours. We either win, we lose. It’s us. The only person we’re looking at is the guy in the mirror. I love that challenge for myself and Patrick. I love it.”