Peter Bart: Hollywood Agencies Take On Politicians But Must Be Careful To Protect Their Rep

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Peter Bart
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“Forget money, I’m focused on dignity and loyalty.” Those were the disturbing words spoken the other day by my favorite agent who, alas, is facing the prospect of going out of business.

Fortunately, the agent in question is French and fictional; she works for ASK and is portrayed in Call My Agent!, the hit show that began its fourth and final season on Netflix this week. Talent agents and their entourages (hello, Ari) have pitched and connived their way on TV before, but the French show has found a binge following, even among Hollywood’s besieged tenpercenters, as Variety used to call them (in France the series in fact is titled Dix pour cent, or Ten Percent).

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Faced with strikes and streamers, the agenting community has had to make some bold moves, redefining corporate goals and expanding job descriptions. Agents are now even repping politicians and their causes as well as actors. They have earned the right to cast Oscar votes as well as pushing Oscar candidates. And like their French colleagues, they are defending their “dignity,” while trying to avoid surrendering their money.

All this represents a sharp contrast to the days when Abe Lastfogel, the diminutive king of the William Morris empire, lectured his troops that “we are paid to be invisible.” As one senior agent on Call Your Agent! advises, “We must stay in the scenery.”

There’s no scenery to shield Hollywood’s agenting corps, who are now out there in the media world pushing the careers of Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams and even Anthony Scaramucci. “When someone interesting comes along in politics, Hollywood wakes up and gets interested,” Jay Sures, the politically minded UTA co-president, told the Wall Street Journal. Hence, now Obama (CAA) makes documentaries; Harris (CAA) has sold two books; Scaramucci (UTA) has a new podcast; and Chris Krebs (UTA), the former chief of cybersecurity, is meeting with producers on a TV drama.

CAA’s Bryan Lourd noted recently that most political figures “don’t have a monetization plan or a long-term strategy.” Political celebrities, to be sure, need to protect their images as well as to monetize them. James Comey has written two books and helped produce a TV show defending his role as former FBI director in calling Hillary Clinton “incredibly careless” at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign. Some critics argue that Comey was more empathetic before this media blitz than after.

The success of books like Rage by Bob Woodward and Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump has triggered agents to seek out media figures who have insider accounts to sell. Books like A Stable Genius by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post have captured timely headlines. Some media figures like Rachel Maddow, by contrast, have been less adept with their topics and titles (her books, which she fiercely hypes, are titled Bagman about Spiro Agnew and Blowout about the oil industry.)

By infiltrating the political spectrum, agents must now face questions about their own image as well as that of their clients. What would be the price of representing Donald Trump for his next book or television show? The same question extends to Trump acolytes who have books to sell and shows to pitch – Kayleigh McEnany, for example, or Sen. Josh Hawley, the Trumpian whose book was rejected by Simon & Schuster.

A safer agenting bet would be Dr. Anthony Fauci, who inevitably will come to the market not only with a book but also pitching contagion streamers.

Even as Hollywood agents are emboldened in their priorities, their French colleagues continue to be gentler in dispensing council to clients. The elegant Juliette Binoche is urged to act clumsy in one scene, and Monica Bellucci, a sex symbol, is advised to complain that she can’t get a date. “You must accept making a little less money to make a good movie,“ one agent tells a client at the opener of Season 4. She doesn’t get fired, but her parent agency quietly reminds her that it needs to make more money, not less.

Dialogue like this might not play well in Hollywood, where many agents now introduce themselves as managers and style themselves as corporate players rather than as celebrity hand-holders.

Indeed, the emotional toll harkens back to the UTA of the mid ‘90s when that agency hired a crisis publicist and a staff psychiatrist to help deal with the internal traumas. Gavin Polone, then an in-house provocateur, famously advised colleagues to calm down, reminding them, “The agency business is the Wild West for Jews. Relax, everyone.”

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