The talent agents in Hollywood who engineer deals in the growing online video economy are doing it because the digital side of show business is a whirling entrepreneurial jungle with considerable growth prospects.
As the entertainment industry figures out how original content produced for the Web fits in with traditionally produced television fare distributed on the Internet, digital power brokers are trying to position themselves to thrive in the new medium.
TelevisionWeek looked at the leading Hollywood talent shops to find the new generation of digital dealmakers. The five players atop this first survey of top digital agents focus on talent rather than brand packaging, having inked deals for either Web-bred stars or stars from the television world who are making a mark on the Internet video scene.
Omid Ashtari, CAA
While working as a traditional television agent at CAA, Omid Ashtari leaped at the opportunity to represent digital talent. “It’s a new business and a new world,” Mr. Ashtari said. “Every deal I do is different from the next one. On the TV side, the structure of the business is set in stone and the day-to-day is already established, whereas in this space, the business model is changing every two to three months.”
Digital deals often extend to other departments because so many creative projects today are of the multiplatform variety. For instance, because television writer-producer Joss Whedon is a CAA client, a team of agents handled various aspects of his recent Web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.”
Mr. Ashtari introduced the concept to executives at Apple’s iTunes store and secured home-page placement for the Web musical. “We went up [to Apple headquarters] and showed it to them and established the relationship and did the iTunes deal,” he said.
Mr. Ashtari also has secured Hulu and uStream deals for client Gary Vaynerchuk, the charismatic host of the popular Web show “Wine Library TV.” The goal with Mr. Vaynerchuk is to grow his brand so he can perhaps land a TV deal down the road, Mr. Ashtari said.
The CAA agent also represents Electric Farm Entertainment, Revision3 and Rocketboom.
Barrett Garese, UTA
When Barrett Garese signed the creators of “Epic Fu” as a client, his first priority was to turn the Web show into their only job. That’s no easy feat in the Web video world, where ad dollars can be hard to come by.
But Mr. Garese brokered licensing deals first with Web studio Next New Networks and then with Revision3, the online TV network “Epic Fu” now calls home. Those licensing deals and the attendant revenue-sharing deals from show advertisers have made it possible for “Epic Fu” to now employ three full-time creators and three part-timers.
“A lot of the people I work with are pulling off amazingly creative content with such huge constraints,” Mr. Garese said. “There is money to be made and the money is continuing to go up as this medium expands, but our first job with a lot of the people we work with is often taking it from being a hobby to being the only job.”
UTA is one of the first agencies to establish a digital department, and Mr. Garese works closely with Jason Nadler, the department head. UTA now is home to many of the leading independent voices in Web video, such as the creators of “Ask a Ninja”; Tim Street, the executive producer of “French Maid TV”; Loud Pictures, the production team behind the successful Web series “Pink”; comedy duo Smosh; and new-media producer Sarah Szalavitz.
Chris Jacquemin, Endeavor
Television writer Seth MacFarlane’s Web series “Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy” earned more than 14 million views in its first three weeks online, putting it on track to become one of the most successful Internet series ever.
Chris Jacquemin, the head of Endeavor’s digital group, was part of the team that engineered that deal, helping secure Burger King as the sponsor and Google as the distributor. Because of the success, other Web shows and stars are likely to imitate “Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy’s” distribution and ad model.
Endeavor’s new-media focus is on finding digital opportunities for the agency’s clients. The new-media department is structured to reflect that integrated approach. “We have one agent from every single department of the company in our new-media team, and it’s part of their responsibilities now,” Mr. Jacquemin said.
Endeavor does represent a few digital-centric clients, such as the creators of the hit Web show “Mommycast,” which has earned more than 150 million downloads, and Amanda Congdon, the former “Rocketboom” star. Mr. Jacquemin played a key role in brokering the deal to license Ms. Congdon’s new Web show “Sometimes Daily” to Media Rights Capital.
The biggest challenge in the year ahead is video search, Mr. Jacquemin said. “There is so much content online that is it hard for material to break through, but in my heart of hearts I do believe good content will be found.”
George Ruiz, ICM
George Ruiz is a self-described geek. He’s been with ICM for 11 years and was attracted to the digital side of the business because he is a “giant nerd,” he said.
“I podcast and build computers for fun and play video games, and that has been my world,” he said.
It’s no surprise, then, that he manages the careers of some of the brightest Web talents, such as “Tekzilla” host Veronica Belmont, “Diggnation” star Alex Albrecht and Felicia Day, creator of hit Web show “The Guild” and a lead in “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.”
Some of his recent deals have included a licensing and online distribution agreement for “The Guild” with a soon-to-be-announced company and video blogger Brigitte Dale’s new gig on ABCFamily.com.
Mr. Ruiz’s work extends to other ICM clients as they work in the digital world. For example, he negotiated the talent deal for ICM client Rosario Dawson to star in the Web series “Gemini Division.” As the senior VP of business affairs, he continues to work with ICM agents and executives to negotiate deals in the motion picture area. He is also an attorney and adjunct assistant law professor at Southwestern Law School.
“The business isn’t going to grow in a huge way until the same networks and studios start creating original content in the same way,” he said. “There will be money in this space and we need to understand it to take advantage of it for our clients.”
Joel Wright, Paradigm
Joel Wright isn’t in the business of looking for Web celebrities. “It’s hard enough to find super-talented people to represent in film and television,” Mr. Wright said. As the head of the new-media division at Paradigm, his job is to find digital opportunities for the agency’s existing film, TV and music clients.
For instance, two years ago he put together Michael Cera’s “Clark and Michael” Web series, a mockumentary about two aspiring writers in Hollywood. “It was a passion project for Michael and something he wanted to do, and our role is to go out on behalf of the client and create an opportunity for them,” Mr. Wright said.
Mr. Cera’s film career has taken off since then, with leads in “Superbad,” “Juno” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”
Mr. Wright also has worked on digital projects for other Paradigm clients including Jay Mohr, Aaron McGruder, Jason Alexander and Jamie Kennedy. “The deals all vary in size. Most are no less than six-figure deals,” he said.
Mr. Wright joined the agency from Yahoo, so he doesn’t bring any preconceived notions about TV or film being sexier than online. “This is the only business I have ever been in and there is a large growth potential,” he said.
On occasion, Mr. Wright will represent clients exclusively in digital media who are film and television clients from other agencies.