The television business is becoming increasingly global, fueled by the rapid expansion of the major streaming platforms. That also goes for the major Hollywood talent agencies.
Reps have always looked for opportunities beyond the U.S. But now, because of the increased demand for locally produced international content, they have stepped up their efforts. Also factoring into the acceleration is the ongoing impasse and legal battle between the Big 4 talent agencies and the Writers Guild of America which in April ordered its members to fire their agents if they hadn’t signed the guild’s new Code of Conduct.
With literary agents having more time on their hands and a need to develop new revenue streams to make up for writer commissions and packaging fees, agencies have sharpened their focus and doubled efforts in pursuing international opportunities over the past eight months.
“The WGA situation forced all of the big agencies to do something we all know we have to do anyways,” one agent said.
That goes beyond signing international talent, production companies and formats. CAA and WME, the agencies that have been the most aggressive in pursuing affiliate production, have been reportedly looking to buy local production companies or production services outfits through their affiliates, including Endeavor Content.
For instance, Library Pictures International, a content financing entity organized earlier this year by CAA Media Finance to fund local-language productions, today announced an investment by Legendary Pictures. The venture’s deals cover India, Latin America and Spain, with Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam and China among the territories targeted for expansion.
That is something streaming companies have been doing, acquiring local production companies and facilities. And U.S. talent agencies may be taking another page out of streamers’ playbook by putting boots on the ground. Netflix, Amazon and Apple all have executives around the world and major offices in London.
I hear WME has been exploring a similar move, mulling a well-staffed office in the British capital. According to sources, plans are still in flux as they would involve people uprooting their lives. But there has been persistent speculation that high-level lit agent Rich Cook is being eyed to anchor the London team, joined by a half-dozen or so more junior agents from the U.S. offices.
The rumored WME London expansion has cre.ated a lot of anxiety among local UK agencies which have been abuzz about it. While all major U.S agencies have London offices, for decades there has been a gentleman’s agreement between UK and Hollywood rep firms. They have been partners, with British agencies handling local talent’s UK-based business and their American counterparts making deals in Hollywood.
By establishing a strong local branch, U.S. agencies would be competing against UK agencies. While that may be considered a hostile move, industry sources argue that this is not much different than what U.S. streamers are doing, and that the process is inevitable.
“Agencies will be global in a way they haven't before,” one agent said. Ultimately, international branches of U.S. agencies would also employ local agents.
In Hollywood, agents always follow the money and go where there is money to be made. Right now in television, one of the areas with the most upside appears to be non-U.S. local production.
“This is really just the beginning,” Kelly Luegenbiehl, Netflix’s VP international originals, said this week in London about the platform’s push for non-English language programming, while Netflix CEO Reed Hastings today announced in New Delhi his company plans to spend a whopping $420.5 million on producing and licensing content in India this year and next.
The streamers have found success with European, Latin American and Asian/Indian original series and have already set sights on territories with less developed broadband infrastructure like Africa.
With the U.S. streaming market reaching maturity, global streamers - Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV+ and Disney+ - will be looking more and more abroad for growth potential. The demand for local series goes up, leading to fierce bidding wars between U.S. SVOD players that drive up prices.
American agents want to get in on the action, representing hot local creators and actors and prolific production companies who have the potential to go global. The expansion won’t be easy but is necessary, reps say.
“A lot of it is not lucrative now but over time, it will become more lucrative,” one agent said. “We have no choice but to do it.”
As the escalating coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc in Hollywood, the WGA and AMPTP are frantically trying to figure out as we speak how to conduct upcoming contract talks next week — and if they should even happen at all for the foreseeable future.
Everything is in flux right now, but it looks like a consensus is emerging that the March 23 start of negotiations on a new film and TV contract will be pushed, at least for a couple of weeks, we hear.
Whether that sees discussions over a new deal paused for the time being or the May 1 expiring current contract itself extended as the essentially shuttered industry continues to deal with COVID-19 consequences is what guild and producer representatives are trying to figure out Thursday. As of this afternoon, there had been no official change in the announced plan for the two sides to meet Monday, but there had been flurry of activity. We have reached to the WGA and AMPTP for comment.
Also on the table this afternoon is a more far flung notion gaining a lot of traction in the AMPTP camp that the current overall three-year contract be extended with gains that the DGA achieved in their now completed deal with the producers, which still has to go to the full membership for approval.
However things shake down in this fluid situation and guild members await updates, it is clear that everyone at the top of the WGA West and WGA East and the Carol Lombardini-led AMPTP realizes it cannot be negotiations as usual. “Facing a potential new Great Depression, we all sink or swim together right now,” one scribe close to the guild brass declared as the mindset on both sides of the table.
To that end, the once almost certainty of a WGA strike hitting Hollywood this year has become virtually DOA, with writers already looking at thin pickings in harsh economic times, a crashing stock market and a pandemic. “The only thing extreme anyone who is thinking right is thinking right now is how to keep people getting paychecks, not picket lines,” another high-profile scribe remarked.
One possible scenario that is in play for the proposed talks is that all parties get together remotely on Monday via Zoom for a teleconference to kick things off according to the pre-set schedule.
Yet, several sources told us that even if that is the opening day move, the enthusiasm for such a tactic was pretty low among negotiating teams.
“You need to be in the room with each other,” a well-positioned exec close to the producers' side proclaimed, citing what may work well for writers' rooms right now won't work so well for their reps and the Sherman Oaks-based AMPTP. “There's a lot of history, good and bad, between the parties and tension over the WGA going to war over packaging,” the corner suiter added, noting the move...