It’s an uncertain time in the film business, with box office, streaming, and corporate consolidation all in flux. That’s kept life interesting for Hollywood talent agents like Joel Lubin and Maha Dakhil, co-heads of the Creative Artists Agency’s film group.
Studio strategies change suddenly depending on the priorities of the parent companies of media corporations. A film that’s been given the green light by a studio regime for a streaming release could be scrapped without warning if another executive team takes over what happened to Warner Bros. “Batgirl.”
A film approved for the small screen could be switched to a theatrical release or vice versa. The changing landscape has forced agents to be more vigilant and nimble with their clients’ films.
“It used to be about getting a project off the ground,” says Dakhil, who is also co-head of CAA’s international film department. “We’re now there from start to release, meeting with the marketing departments, discussing distribution plans, and really advising and guiding the project through to the finish line. We actually never get out in this phase because the market is so changeable.”
Agencies had to adapt quickly to market forces.
As studios turned their attention to franchises, talent shops took on the task of packaging star-driven adult films, with CAA playing a key role in Oscar hopefuls like Todd Field’s “Tár” starring Cate Blanchett (published by Focus Features). ; and Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, starring Colin Farrell (Searchlight Pictures); and securing a $65 million deal for a Lee Daniels-directed horror film on Netflix.
And at a time when intellectual property has challenged the commercial primacy of star power, agents are nonetheless developing a new breed of audience-pulling talent like Zendaya (“Euphoria,” “Dune”), Anya Taylor-Joy ( “The Menu”) and Harry Styles (“My Cop”).
Century City-based CAA itself entered a new era when the TPG-backed firm completed its $750 million acquisition of rival agency ICM Partners in July, adding 425 agents to its roster.
The Times spoke to Lubin and Dakhil about the state of blockbusters, indie films, profit-sharing and concerns about a slowdown in progress for women and people of color in the industry at a time when agencies are also being scrutinized for their approach to diversity were and inclusion.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
With so much uncertainty in film, where do you see the greatest opportunities?
Joel Lubin: While all of these changes have occurred in terms of how things have been consumed, the only thing that hasn’t changed is the need for storytelling and people’s appetite for stories. They relate to how people see it or where people see it, and that was incredibly fluid. One week we might see a trend and the next week we might be surprised by a result from another film. We try not to be too rigid in our views as things develop. Some things are meant for a theatrical experience, and sometimes streaming can be a really good platform for storytelling and premium content.
Maha Dakhil: I would say opportunity is everywhere. It really comes down to matching the right project with the right sales model. The studios will always be on the move. The beauty of being an agency is that we’re right next to the artists. And whatever happens out there, eventually the studios will have to develop their records. It’s actually a fun, interesting time because it’s fertile ground.
What is an example of how things have changed?
Lubin: Before Top Gun: Maverick was released, there was definitely some consensus that adult moviegoers were less likely to go to theaters, and this film dispelled that. Once something like that happens, the conversation changes and there’s more openness to the idea of adults going to the movies.
But are you trying to avoid reacting to short-term trends? Horror has been hot lately while other genres, like rom-coms, have struggled.
Lubin: Yes. It’s easy when people have firm beliefs about what works and what doesn’t, because what often works is originality and high quality. We try not to get stuck in a trend of the moment, but you also have to be mindful of where the wind is blowing.
What about the market for special releases and Oscar hopefuls like “Tár” and “The Banshees of Inisherin”?
Lubin: They would need to do a deeper analysis in about five months when we reach the end of this cycle. It’s a little early to explain exactly where that says.
Dakhil: They have performed with varying degrees of success. “Tár” had a really high average per screen. Leading up to the awards, it’s going to be about the catwalk and we’re really committed to ensuring these films still have a theatrical exposure because that’s important to the filmmaking legacy.
Why is there reason for optimism?
Dakhil: Because the originality of the storytellers still attracts an audience. You will see a film made by our client Halina Reijn: Bodies Bodies Bodies. Our client Jamie Lee Curtis is “everything everywhere at once”. Who saw this coming? It not only gives you hope, but evidence.
Also, Oscars require films to be shown in theaters.
Dakhil: And it is required.
The business is much more flexible with release strategies between cinemas and home theaters. How does this change what agents do?
Dakhil: It’s good not to be rigid about anything because everything changes monthly. Agent roles have changed in recent years. It used to be about setting up a project. We’re now there from start to release, meeting with the marketing departments, discussing distribution plans, and really advising and guiding the project through to the finish line. We actually never get out in this phase because the market is so changeable.
What makes a movie star in the age of intellectual property?
Lubin: We’re talking Ticket to Paradise, which is doing very well right now, which can be credited for much of its success to George Clooney and Julia Roberts and their star power.
People like George Clooney and Julia Roberts have been with us for decades. What is the way to create new stars?
Lubin: It’s about finding a platform or starting point for an aspiring actor, director or writer. What is the platform where they can tell a story or participate in a project that will be seen by people who can help further improve their work? It’s a building process. You know, people forget that a lot of the people you mentioned have been with us since the beginning of their careers, so patiently and supportively we’re trying to identify the opportunities that can lead to visibility and more attention.
Dakhil: Because film studios primarily develop franchises, many young people are catapulted into the franchise space, and this gives them the star power to make an independent film. We believe in the future of movie stars, but it takes a lot more strategy and thought. It’s just a finer, smaller goal, but it’s why we exist as agents.
How is the growth of international crossovers like ‘Parasite’ and ‘Squid Game’ changing the avenues for new stars?
Lubin: One of the more exciting things from an inclusivity perspective is that the world of entertainment has gone global. The language of the show is subordinate to the actual art. That’s a huge shift. Audiences like to see cultures they don’t belong to. That was one of the more positive changes, due in part to the proliferation of streamers.
Dakhil: For example, many years ago we signed Omar Sy for a French film and he later starred in the French TV show Lupin. Now he’s dying to do English language films too and we can raise money on his behalf. This is just a perfect example of how this global ecosystem can be harnessed.
We see deals like Reese Witherspoon selling her company Hello Sunshine for $900 million. Is that something customers want to build on?
Dakhil: It just depends on the type of storyteller, their range and their desire to connect across different industries. And of course Reese was a real pioneer in that, but I don’t think it’s for everyone, even if the opportunity is there. Of course, we are happy that people can use their star power to start several other companies and touch other industries.
Do you worry that studio and streamer cuts will wipe out some of the gains women and people of color have made in the entertainment industry?
Dakhil: I think it’s true. We are seeing a decline in progress in the larger world, which of course will affect us as well. But I think we’ve done a pretty good job championing inclusion and progress. We will not allow buyers to return. And so we have these very honest conversations. But we also have incredible data showing that not only is it the right thing to do, it’s also the lucrative one. It’s our job to get buyers to see it that way.
When Warner Bros. canceled “Batgirl,” your phones must have been ringing non-stop.
Dakhil: It was completely unprecedented and prompted comments from everyone in our industry.
Are customers happy with streamers offering large upfront payments to buy up their profit sharing, or do they increasingly want to play a part in the game?
Lubin: If you try to generalize, most people want as much ownership of their work as possible. If this is not possible, they need the information as to why this is not possible. And if it’s more in the direction of a buyout, we try to make up the difference in what that would look like in the ownership case. And it’s really about information and deep transparency so they understand what they’re signing up for.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2022-11-16/caas-top-film-agents-talk-changing-roles-and-hollywood-diversity-were-seeing-a-rollback-on-progress CAA agents on the making of a modern movie star