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These are the biggest challenges in the TV and film market, according to top agents

By Wendy Lee, Los Angeles Times
Published: February 25, 2024, 8:06am

United Talent Agency partners Rich Klubeck and Dan Erlij are used to the rough-and-tumble nature of Hollywood. They have to be in order to push for more original voices and stories on-screen.

Erlij, co-head of UTA’s television literary department, represents such risk-taking talent as “ Succession “ creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong. Klubeck is a partner in the Beverly Hills agency’s motion picture group, with clients including “The White Lotus” creator Mike White.

Clients at UTA, Hollywood’s third-largest talent agency, have received nearly 60 Primetime and Creative Arts Emmys in roughly 30 categories and nearly 30 Academy Award nominations this year. One of its clients, comedian Ali Wong, was the first woman of Asian descent to win an Emmy lead acting award for her role in “Beef.”

But there are challenges ahead. Studios including Paramount Global are laying off hundreds of workers, killing nearly finished projects and becoming more cautious . All the more reason why agents need to have their clients’ backs.

“I wouldn’t paint a rosy picture of the exact market we’re in right now, but things are still selling,” Erlij said. “You can still cut through the noise.”

The two agents spoke to The Times earlier this month. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What has the market been like after last year’s dual Hollywood strikes? What are studios interested in buying?

Erlij: On the TV side, there’s a somewhat conservative approach in the marketplace right now. People are looking for what they’re seeing across the board as commercially appealing, somewhat escapist, somewhat fun stuff. There’s been some shows that have succeeded in the last six months that have led to some of this perspective. Things like (the Apple TV+ thriller) “ Hijack,” the “ Reacher “ series that has succeeded for Amazon.

There’s a just a real fight for eyeballs right now in a way that’s been different. The buyers are less willing to take risks than prior to the strike. I think it’s going to be a momentary thing. If everybody’s looking for the same thing, at a certain point, you’re gonna have a saturation of those kinds of shows and the audience is going to be looking for something different.

We are committed to following our clients as artists in supporting those visions. Of course, we’re going to tell them what the market is telling us, but we don’t want them just to be followers. We want them to be able to do what they really want to do.

Klubeck: There’s similarities on the motion picture side. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as extreme but there’s definitely the feeling that buyers are looking for material they feel will be global, or that will have an instant broad appeal. And that’s a starting point.

There’s still an enormous appetite for original artists with original voices, artists who’ve done work with a strong point of view, who really set a unique target and nail it.

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Q: There have been concerns raised by actors that studios are shifting away from taking risks on original stories. For example, Issa Rae has said Black shows are getting canceled and are becoming less of a priority. How does this line up with what you’re seeing?

Erlij: We went through a period in this country, post-George Floyd, where the focus was so strongly on that in a very important way. Unfortunately, this town also has a short attention span. Things happen, they get focused on a strike, get focused on other issues, and so I can definitely see that there is less of a focus than just a few years back.

I believe that there is still real intent and desire to have representation, and all the executives I’m talking to are still talking in terms of that. I think it’s to a lesser degree, and this idea of being concerned with profitability and safety affects those decisions. But I don’t believe we’re ever stepping backwards in a way where we’re going to be where we were pre-George Floyd and before the way people are looking at the idea.

The globalization of television, the willingness of audiences to watch TV shows in their original languages with subtitles — that’s not going to go away.

Klubeck: There’s a lot of there’s a lot of focus on just finding what can work like what can really galvanize an audience. I think that the diversity of voices and representation of voices is part of that. That’s how broader audiences are being reached.

Q: What has been the business impact of UTA clients’ recent awards season success ?

Erlij: A lot of the wins, whether it’s “The White Lotus” or “Beef” or “Succession,” these shows are really defined by people who have an unbelievable point of view that is their own, and they’re creating a world that people haven’t seen before. What has resonated in a marketplace that has so many shows is to have that strength of authorial vision, because these shows are all commercially successful. For an agency that’s defined itself by representing strong artists, it reinforces that we’re on the right path.

Q: What are the factors filmmakers consider when choosing whether to go with a streamer like Netflix or a traditional theatrical distributor?

Klubeck: There was a time when it was a binary choice: Streaming was a choice in lieu of theatrical and seeking different economics. Today, the marketplace for streaming versus theatrical is much more complex. It’s much more varied.

Apple has partnered with studios and is building its own theatrical and Amazon is doing the same.There are still real differences between traditional studios and streamers, but they’re no longer mutually exclusive. It really becomes much more about the specific needs of the filmmaker and the project.

Erlij: A movie like “ Anyone but You “ that was very intentionally a theatrical release — that’s a movie where we represent the director (and co-writer) Will Gluck. It’s become a sleeper hit. It’s gotten word of mouth in a way that if it had dropped on a streamer it probably would not have gotten that same impact.

Klubeck: It’s different to have to be dependent on theatrical success as the key driver of the life of the movie. It has downstream success for all the ancillary markets and there’s a real upside to a movie like that. That is unique to a theatrical release.

Q: What would it have been like if it was on a streaming service?

Klubeck: I think you would have still gotten a substantial audience for it. Of course, it still would have resonated in the culture, but you probably wouldn’t have had the kind of group experience you have in a theatrical release where it’s both the quality of the film and the enjoyment of the film itself in terms of the collective experience.

Erlij: Just from an economic perspective, the sale to streaming would have guaranteed a specific premium, but it would have been capped. Right now, because this has become a hit and because it was made for a certain price, the upside to the participants is going to be much higher.

Q: What types of movies would make sense to release first on a streamer rather than in theaters ?

Klubeck: There are categories where you can see the advantages, like documentaries. We recently sold (the Will Ferrell Sundance Film Festival hit) “ Will and Harper “ to Netflix. While that film could clearly have done business theatrically — there’s no question — the reach of a streamer with a documentary is extraordinary. Same can be said about foreign-language films where you’re seeing streamers reaching audiences with non-English language movies.

Erlij: I think there’s a sort of big-budget … about $125 million, $150 million movie that has a certain kind of star in it, that has original IP like “The Grey Man.” That’s a huge bet for a studio to release theatrically. If it doesn’t work, it’s a huge hit financially and there’s a much greater risk to them because it’s an original idea. Going on a streamer assures talent their pay day and reels a result apparently that those streamers want in terms of getting a known talent in front of a globally appealing kind of movie. So I think that there’s a safe area around those larger budget original movies.

Q: How has cost-cutting and consolidation at the studios affected your clients and how you market their projects?

Erlij: That’s part of the choppy waters that we’re facing. We’ve seen a lot of places that your shows that were ordered to series have been taken away. Rooms that were ordered that literally were shut down on the day they were supposed to start or a few days before. It’s just tough. The problem is, you have people who are coming up with great ideas, putting them together with great material, and what you have to do is just believe in the product and go out there.

It’s going to be a little bit harder for the moment. We do think that once this consolidation moves through the system, there’s going to be a moment when the rubber band snaps back and people are going to be aggressively buying. And so we just have to steer through this moment.

Q: When do you think that moment will happen?

Erlij: That’s the million-dollar question. At the start of the year, I would have said the summer. I think it’s going to be a little bit later than that. When you’re talking about real recovery, it might not be until the following year.