By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Until a year ago, none of the Hollywood agencies had divisions devoted exclusively to mining and developing the Web for talent. And everybody in the industry is watching to see how these young agents do.
O ne day not long ago, three best friends from a Berkeley suburb pick up a video camera and film themselves acting stupid in their parents’ living room. They crank out the videos and post them on the Web, and 10 people watch online. Then a hundred. Then a hundred thousand. Then they have a million new friends, and they’ve moved down to Los Angeles, to a small apartment on Olympic Boulevard, which they christen “The Lonely Island.” Sure, they work crap jobs, but they stick together and keep the videos coming. It’s the best because nobody is going to tell them what to do or how to do it. It’s the worst because nobody is going to pay them, either. But then the Hollywood agents come calling, and soon these three best friends — Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone — get a TV deal, a movie deal, a gig on Saturday Night Live, which they’ve dreamed of practically all their lives. Soon they’re making online videos with Brooke Shields and Kiefer Sutherland and Natalie Portman, and people are gossiping about how one of them may or may not be dating Kirsten Dunst. And all because of some funny videos they posted online.
On a sunny August morning a year later, another fledgling comedy troupe of best friends is sitting in a room at the Beverly Hills offices of United Talent Agency Online. The guys from HandsomeDonkey.com have come over to show their agents a top-secret, not-yet-released video. They pile into the room, spread out on sofas and lounge chairs. One of the Donkeys picks up the extra-large remote control on the coffee table and holds it up to his ear like a cell phone. “Hey, dude. Yeah, I’m talking with my agent right now. I’ll have to call you back.” It is hard to tell which is which, talent or agent, in this roomful of clever 20-somethings right out of a J.Crew catalog.
“I’d like to give these out as Christmas gifts,” agent Jason U. Nadler says, taking the remote, which has buttons the size of pink school erasers. “How cool would that be? With ‘Happy Holidays From UTA Online’ printed across the top?”
They watch the video on the monitor mounted to the ceiling. “This disc has to leave with us,” says one of the Donkeys, popping it out of the DVD player and gripping it tightly.
“Can we burn it, though?” asks Nadler, in flawless deadpan.
“And can we put it on the Web?” asks agent Barrett Garese. The Handsome Donkeys laugh.
Whether Handsome Donkey is the next Lonely Island is just one of the questions that Nadler, Garese and their colleagues Ryan Reber and Jon Zimelis have to answer as the first of a new breed of Hollywood agent. Everybody in the room has something to gain and something to lose. For the Donkeys, it’s fortune and fame. For Nadler and company, all former assistants whose very jobs as “online agents” were created shortly after their agency, UTA, signed Lonely Island, it is the hope of finding — and growing — the hottest acts on the Net. Their new division, UTA Online, hopes to wrangle the Internet into a major entertainment medium to rival film or television. First there was the silver screen, then the boob tube, and now YouTube. Until a year ago, none of the Hollywood agencies had divisions devoted exclusively to mining and developing the Web for talent. And the industry is watching to see how these young agents do.
The Web — specifically, how much writers should get paid for work that is broadcast online and downloaded into cell phones, laptops and iPods — is key among the issues the film and television writers are striking over right now. The Writers Guild of America argues that as studios increasingly make more money off of online distribution, so should writers. Currently, writers get none of the profits generated when millions of viewers watch a show on the Internet — zilch. But the studios argue that it’s still too early in the game to know how much money can be made from Web-based entertainment in the long run. As fresh TV scripts run out and networks are forced to air reruns, it is possible that the strike heralds a heyday for Web-only content creators. Forced to look elsewhere for entertainment, viewers will turn to online media. Maybe. Any way you look at it, the Web represents a whole lot of murky, undefined territory.
When you think about the Internet itself, chances are you think about the rise of social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, or about Google and YouTube and how the former bought the latter for a mind-splitting $1.65 billion. But in terms of one specific, bright and shining Internet talent, who has rocked the cultural landscape like a Madonna, or a Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg or Walt Disney? That so far has been elusive. Up for grabs is the $1.3 billion that will be spent on Internet video advertising next year. The Web, since it has been happening, has always been the next big thing, always tantalizing on the horizon.
But the gap between television and Web-vision is closing fast: NFL preseason football on ESPN prime time had 6.2 million viewers. HBO’s Entourage typically gets about 3.8 million per episode. A recent video by the comedy duo Smosh — two 19-year-old guys who film videos in their dorm room — got 2 million views. In the year since it was uploaded, Smosh’s most popular video (basically, two guys kicking each other in the nuts to the Mortal Kombat theme) got 10 million views. Another Smosh video, a riff on the Pokémon theme, racked up more than 26 million views.
“There is going to be a major hit off the Internet someday,” Nadler says, looking out the window onto the rushing cars below, shortly after the Handsome Donkey boys leave. “It’s going to be The Simpsons, who are a global phenomenon that started as silly little cartoons that ran in between segments of The Tracy Ullman Show. It’s going to be huge and everybody will know about it.”
Nadler is wearing dark jeans, Asics tennis shoes (“though I’m really an Adidas man”), a belt buckle embossed with a ram’s head, and a brown hoodie sweatshirt. He is lanky, boyishly good looking, wears his hair in a close-cropped fuzz that makes him look bald, and is about as elegant as anyone wearing orange sneakers can be. “We’re a bit stylish, Jon and I,” says Nadler, sheepishly.
“Hey, Nads,” says Jon Zimelis, “I need a jacket that’s nicer than a warm-up jacket yet not as nice as a sport jacket. Something more casual. What would that be?”
“What you need is a sport jacket with pinstripes,” Garese says, without looking up from his computer.
There are four and a half players in UTA Online. With the exception of Nadler, none of them made a conscious decision to become agents — it was something that sucked them in. Nadler is the guy who sees the entire chessboard before making a move. He researched the job by reading the seminally bitchy books about Hollywood — David Rensin’s The Mailroom, Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again — while he was in college majoring in history and art history, around the time when the first iteration of the Web was self-destructing. Nadler is the one calling the plays. He’s the team captain.
Zimelis is the charm. He’s the prototypical agent, sans sleaze, who won’t, can’t give up wearing suits. His sentences are peppered with “yo”s and “what’s happenin’, fellas?” and “give me a holler.” Everything is “tremendous,” and he doesn’t get excited about something, he gets “hyped up” or “fired up” or “pumped up.” “Schedule” in Zimelis parlance slides down to “schedge.” Budget becomes “budge.” Nadler is “Nads.” Reber is “Reebs.” And Garese, lacking an obvious shorthand, is simply “Garese” but drawled out in a streetwise Chicago accent: “Yo, Garay-seh!” It’s a likable salt-of-the-earth mix of cocky, earnest and self-deprecating. You want to go out for beers with him, or play basketball.
Garese is the nerd. Which is saying a lot for a group of guys with a high proportion of nerd blood. Or rather, he is the wholesome, fresh-scrubbed, light-haired, good-natured nerd next door. He’s the one who as a college freshman built his own computer for fun. Twelve times.
Ryan Reber, who moonlights as a DJ, is the guy who gets lost in music, who laughs at odd videos that no one else finds funny and says the stuff everybody is thinking but no one actually says out loud. He’s the weird younger brother, if not in actuality — they are all either 26 or 27 — then in spirit.
The half of the four and a half is agent Christopher Pappas. He doesn’t recruit young emerging filmmakers. Instead, he represents emerging technology companies and corporate digital clients and helps bridge the gap between the agency’s traditional and digital wings. Pappas is tall, dark and handsome with glowing, tanned skin suggestive of a serious exfoliation routine.
UTA Online’s clients are the Internet’s A-list: Jessica Lee Rose, a.k.a. Bree from Lonelygirl15; Big Fantastic; TuFux, the makers of the Obama Girl video; Rednecks TV; Ask a Ninja; Smosh. The challenge for UTA’s online agents is greater than that for their film and TV colleagues: With no sure stars yet, who to sign and who not to sign?
“It’s almost always a judgment call,” says Zimelis. “You know what you like and what you don’t like. You know what buyers like, not just viscerally, but also based on what you know you can sell. It’s a marriage of an artistic decision and a commerce decision.”
“It’s a gut feeling,” Garese offers. “There’s no formula. No A plus B equals C.”
“If I get on the phone with somebody,” Nadler adds, “and they’re like, ‘Eh, you know, I made the video in my backyard, but I really love being a mortgage broker,’ it’s like, ‘Well, enjoy your mortgage brokering. I’ll go look for somebody who wants to create for a living.’ ”
The UTA offices, at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive, are sleek, modern and hushed, save for the clattering of fingers on keyboards. Silent assistants lined up like schoolchildren in a row of desks listen to headsets permanently grafted to their ears. The senior agents sit across from them in offices behind a wall of glass. At times, it isn’t clear who’s watching whom.
Only one or two out of several hundred trainees get through the system to become agents, and the ones who “make it onto desks” are, like puppies, simultaneously put upon and cherished — the agency mantra is that they like to “grow their own” agents. Trainees spend months in the mailroom waiting to get promoted to assistants, who then wait to be promoted to departmental assistants, who then wait to be promoted to agents. The dress code is formal — there are no casual Fridays. Each day I run into young men in long-sleeved button-up shirts and ties, pushing mail carts along a specified route, a demoralizing task that serves the dual purpose of letting you know where you stand in the Hollywood pecking order (nowhere) and teaching you to put agent names with faces and desks.
At his job interview, Nadler was grilled by then-senior UTA agent Marty Bowen, who was Charlie Kaufman’s agent and whom actor Ron Livingston plays in the movie Adaptation. “Great suit,” Bowen said to him. “You look like an agent. You’re gonna do well here. But what’s with the tie? That’s an ugly, terrible tie.” Nadler tells the story with glee: “It was my A-outfit. The suit and the tie couldn’t possibly part ways. Then, on my first day, when I was pushing the mail cart, I got to Marty’s office. He saw me and said, ‘Wait a minute, you little fucker. Didn’t I tell you not to wear that tie?’ ” Bowen grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the tie off.
Nadler smiles at the memory. “It was the best thing that could have happened to me. I told my mom about it, and she was like, ‘I don’t know about this, Jason, I don’t know about this industry you’re in.’ But it wound up being the talk of the office for a good year afterward. Every time people saw me, they would joke about it. It broke the ice, and people got to know me.”
Much later on, after they’d become friends, Nadler had Bowen write on a slip of paper, “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have,” which he plans to frame, along with the tie, and hang over his desk.
How do you marry the glam, shark-infested, image-conscious, schmoozing world of the Tinseltown talent agent with the world of Internet geeks, dorks and nerds? Truth be told, those distinctions are fast becoming outmoded. One is just as savvy as the other about those respective worlds: In the messy playing field that is the Internet, neither party can afford to regard the other with disdain. Convergence applies not only to the fusion of all forms of entertainment — television, music, print, film, online video — but to the people and desires driving those technologies. Genres, in every sense of the word, are merging.
Nadler and company’s newish-looking office occupies valuable corner real estate with large windows and great light, yet it is filled with IKEA tables, high-tech swivel chairs and a squashy orange sofa. For the moment, the sofa is serving as Zimelis’ desk — such was the speed with which he’d been hired away from the rival Gersh agency in Beverly Hills that he hadn’t yet acquired any furniture.
A sticker stuck to the aluminum in/outbox on Garese’s desk — overflowing with issues of The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety — implores, “Stop laughing. Computers are cool now.” On Nadler’s desk, next to a book titled Take Charge of Your Mind: Core Skills to Enhance Your Performance, Well-Being and Integrity at Work, there is a bag of dried plums, a bottle of vitamins, a tube of sunscreen and some Garbage Pail Kids Pee Chee folders.
“I think the book is a gift from someone,” Zimelis says. “I don’t think Nadler’s actually trying to take charge of his mind. He’s got a pretty good sense of what’s going on in his mind.”
The first time I meet them, the agents are playing Guitar Hero, jamming on the guitar-shaped video-game controllers. The phone rings — a call from a client — and in a flash, Nadler is off the guitar. When he hangs up, he asks Zimelis, “Would those guys be interested in being our client’s mobile distributor?” referring to a well-known telecommunications company. (He can’t tell me the name of the company or the client for fear of jinxing the deal.)
“I don’t know the answer,” says Zimelis.
“That’s my little project for the week, to figure out our client’s mobile play,” Nadler muses, rocking back in his chair.
The day unfurls in a small symphony of similar phone conversations, ?e-mail conversations, instant-message conversations, hallway and elevator conversations, conversations with assistants and managers and producers and buyers. The guys schedule lunches, breakfasts and drinks after work. There are conferences with executives, with old clients, new clients, potential clients and clients from other parts of the agency.
In the afternoon, Nadler and Reber take a meeting with two young women — both television writers — their manager and their TV agent. The writers, cute and funny, curl up on the couch with Diet Cokes and their knees tucked under them. They’d need cameras to make Web videos, people to help with production. Their friends would act in the videos. Nadler listens thoughtfully as they talk and scribbles everything down on a piece of paper in a miniscule script.
“I don’t usually sit down with people who have no idea where they want to go,” says Zimelis afterward. “That would be unappealing to me, because we’re talking about content creators. They should have a sense of where they want to go creatively.”
Later, Garese walks over to the Beverly Hills set of his clients Steve Woolf and Zadi Diaz to watch them film a live podcast for their pop-culture variety show Jetset. Garese seems oblivious to the heat, despite his dark suit. He walks at a fast clip. “They have big dreams, Steve and Zadi,” he says. “They look at digital media not as a lesser media, but as a nascent media. Digital media will grow to be the equal of TV or film, and that’s how they approach it.” The “set” turns out to be Steve and Zadi’s living room, where guest speakers such as hip-hop violinst Paul Dateh are hanging out, waiting to be interviewed on camera. Steve, Zadi and the guests eat pizza and chat with people online — some of whom have tuned in from as far away as Korea and South Africa. Garese wanders around the living room, looking reserved but proud.
“Every negotiation I go into, it’s my job to get the numbers as high as possible,” he tells me on our way back to the office. “It’s the buyer’s job to get the numbers as low as possible. At the end, concessions will have been made on both sides, and both sides will declare that those concessions are totally preposterous.” Garese sighs, then smiles conspiratorially. “But it’s always better to have negotiations remain amicable. If you keep it friendly, the buyer doesn’t feel bitter about your client.”
I ask him how he learns this stuff.
“You pick it up by listening and watching. Assistants learn to negotiate by listening in on senior agents’ conversations,” he says. It is common practice in Hollywood, the silent second listener on the other line. “Chances are, if there are two people talking on the phone, there are four people listening. That’s why assistants know everything.”
The business of agents infiltrating the online space is practically as old as the Web itself, which is to say not that old. Agencies had made runs at online entertainment in the past, but the Web wasn’t ready yet. It bombed. Now, in the era of Web 2.0, the big agencies all cover the online world. They take the talent and funnel it into mainstream media. But UTA is the only agency so far that’s betting there is money to be made by keeping Web artists on the Web. You find the talent you want to sell, then you invent the environment in which you’re going to sell it.
“That marketplace is very undeveloped,” United Talent Agency founding partner and board member Jeremy Zimmer tells me. He happens to be away from the building when we speak by phone. (And, really, who knows how many people are listening in on that call?) It was his idea to start an online division. The exciting stuff, he says, is “to help the buyers figure out how to be buyers; to help the sellers figure out how to be sellers.” Last July, Zimmer was having lunch with former Disney chief Michael Eisner and UTA chairman Jim Berkus. They started talking about different ways for the agency to do stuff online. “I’m happy to give Michael the credit for it,” he says. “If you’d asked me three years ago, I would have told you no one would ever spend any time watching anything on an iPod. And on a recent vacation, I found myself watching lots of stuff on an iPod. I definitely started to spend a lot more time paying attention to what people were paying attention to on YouTube and Revver.”
The lines will start to blur, he says finally. “Ultimately, there are some fundamental choices that people will make. Where you say to a friend or a wife, ‘Hey, do you want to go out or do you want to stay home?’ I think that when people decide they want to stay home, one of the key choices will be what they can watch online.”
While the people are deciding whether to stay in or go out, the agents are out — at lunch. At 1 on any weekday, South Beverly Boulevard between Gregory and Charleville teems with agents. The headquarters of three of the Big Five most powerful Hollywood agencies, which represent the vast majority of the industry’s top talent, are located within a half-mile radius of each other. The William Morris Agency has offices a few blocks away. Endeavor is similarly within striking distance. On a recent sunny afternoon, we stand at the intersection, waiting for the light to turn. The clients, yet another set of three best friends — Angel Acevedo, Brian Amyot and Steven Tsapelas, makers of the We Need Girlfriends Web series, in which three recent college graduates are simultaneously dumped by their girlfriends — had flown out from New York to take meetings. Nadler, Reber, Garese and Zimelis believe that the We Need Girlfriends content would be well suited to television.
“The ratio of suits to nonsuits here is high,” says Nadler, as we walk down South Beverly. “It’s very suit-friendly.” There are young men in gray suits and light-blue button-down shirts with French cuffs; young men in white shirts and silver cuff links and dark slacks; men in pink shirts and black slacks; older men in navy blazers and matching navy pants; and every conceivable variation on the conservative power necktie.
“You’re looking tan today,” says Nadler, sarcastically, when he sees We Need Girlfriends’ television agent, Allan Haldeman.
“Thanks. You’re looking hip today,” says Haldeman.
Agents don suits like chainmail for another day of fending off the barbarians, but Nadler almost never wears one. Haldeman gazes warily at the other suited men stalking around in pairs and triads as the We Need Girlfriends guys shake hands with Marvel Comics genius Stan Lee (“It’s Stan Lee. It’s Stan Lee. Oh my God, it’s Stan Lee”) and Willy Wonka director Mel Stuart, who also happen to be doing lunch. You can never be too careful: Poaching is rampant. Competition is so ingrained into the whole agent culture that even if you have a nemesis, you could never honestly admit it, lest it make you appear weak or unfocused on the entire reason for your existence, namely the client. Nadler pauses to consider the power dynamics of fierce competitors. “A nemesis pushes you to be better and better,” he says. “My dad believed very strongly that we should each have a mentor and a tormentor. The mentor guides you and gives you advice and helps you along. The tormentor competes with you. Sometimes they are one and the same.”
We wind up at Rosti, a small, cozy Italian restaurant; sirloins at Ruth’s Chris Steak House are deemed too heavy for midafternoon, Mako is closed, and Chin-Chin has inadvertently given away their reservation. “I’m sorry,” the Chin-Chin hostess says meekly. “We can have another table for you in 15 minutes. Is that okay?”
“No,” says Nadler, eyes narrowing. “No, it’s not.”
“We’re not competitive with each other about how many clients we each sign,” he says later, devouring a plate of chicken Parmesan. “However, there are some agencies where you eat what you kill.”
When they’re not at lunch, or on the phone, chances are the guys are in meetings. At the weekly coverage meeting, Zimelis, Reber and Garese huddle around Nadler. He stands in front of a dry-erase board with a purple pen. Coverage, in agent-speak, means knowing absolutely everything there is to know about a studio, network or production company, especially what it wants to buy. He jots notes into four columns with each of their names written at the top. Zimelis is the TV expert — if ABC or CBS or Nickelodeon, for example, wants to buy a video for its Web site, he needs to know about it. Reber takes care of music. Nadler handles the major portals, like MySpace, AOL, Google, Yahoo and MSN. Garese handles techie stuff, which interests the guys affectionately nicknamed “The Nerdcore.”
There are meetings about meetings. At the Digital Media Group meeting, they talk about previous meetings, meetings they hoped to have, and whom they’d be having lunch with in the future. It is lemon Perriers all around. “It’s the classiest thing they’ve ever seen,” Nadler says about a project their client Dutch West is doing for Superdeluxe.com. “It’s called Robert De Niro Back in Time —”
“That’s it,” says Garese, holding up his hand. “I don’t need to know more. You had me at Robert De Niro Back in Time.”
At a given moment, there are any number of viral videos proliferating across the Internet, worming their way into computers: Two UFOs flying over Haiti. The student Tasered by a police officer at UCLA’s library. A cat playing piano. The online agent tracks that mass of videos, anticipating the ones that attain escape velocity. Garese pulls up a video of a chipmunk when I ask him what his favorite online video is. “Have you seen this?” The Dramatic Chipmunk turns to the camera, eyes wide with . . . is it horror? Surprise? Garese often has a startled, bemused expression not unlike that chipmunk. It is only three seconds long but got 8.8 million hits. Popular as it is, you don’t sign a chipmunk. You sign someone who is able to consistently produce compelling content. You sign someone who is able to roll out that chipmunk over and over again.
Aside from getting paid to watch the stuff that the rest of us watch at work on the sly, Nadler, Zimelis, Reber and Garese are having such a good time because their chosen medium is making new forms of storytelling possible. Characters can speak directly to the camera, and the audience can speak back. Shows can play out like “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories that leave you hanging on a cliff between two paths; viewers e-mail which action they want the characters to take, and the writers plot the next episode based on what the audience decides. Nadler, once trying to share his excitement, said to a film agent, “You have to watch it online to get the full experience.” The film agent responded, “That’s funny, because that’s exactly what I tell my clients: You have to watch it on the big screen.”
“Except,” Nadler says, holding his fingers up to form a tiny square, “I’m telling her to watch something 3 inches wide.”
In the early days of the division, Reber, Garese and Nadler camped out in the office, powering through hundreds of online videos, trying to get a base line for what was out there. The first client they signed was Big Fantastic, a group of four guys who made a Web series called Sam Has 7 Friends, which went by the tag line “Samantha Breslow has seven friends. On December 15, 2006, one of them will kill her.” Each 90-second episode brought her a day closer to death.
“It was the first piece of dramatic anything on the Web that was interesting,” Nadler recalls. He and the guys sold Big Fantastic’s next series, Prom Queen, to Michael Eisner, who is now producing it. It follows a group of kids as they get ready for their senior prom. One boy begins receiving mysterious text messages saying that he will murder the prom queen.
Prom Queen earns its keep partly by selling clothes worn by the characters (who each have their own “real” MySpace pages and blogs). You go to StarStyle.com, type in “Prom Queen,” scroll through each episode and find links that take you to the stores selling items seen in the show. It is product placement taken to its logical, unabashed end point. You can buy popular girl Nikki’s entire closet: her Ralph Lauren bikini top (Nordstrom, $39.99), her Dior sunglasses ($199.99), her Kenneth Jay Lane black diamond cocktail ring ($75) or her Target earrings ($8.99). You can buy soccer-team captain Chad’s LG Electronics Chocolate Phone (Amazon.com, $499.99). Or, if you really get into the series, you can even buy the prom queen’s tiara (Amazon.com, $65.99). You cannot, however, buy the bloody tooth that gets extracted from prom king Ben’s mouth. At least not yet.
Product integration is only one small trickle in the revenue stream that everybody who has a stake in content like Prom Queen drinks from. When I ask Nadler how the money works for all the different parties involved, he stands up, walks to the window and starts writing on the glass. He sketches three models.
In the first, the makers of a Web series recruit their own advertising and try to put the Web series videos everywhere they can by themselves. They put in 100 percent of the business effort. They get 100 percent of the money. But let’s say they don’t have any advertising connections or they’re uncomfortable selling their own ads. In which case, there is the second model. In comes the agent, who offers the Web series to MySpace, or any other portal — YouTube, CNN.com, Superdeluxe.com. The agents make a deal with MySpace, which has a robust ad sales team who can sell advertising like there’s no tomorrow, and the Web series creators get money to produce episodes. On top of the production cash, they also get 25 percent or even 50 percent of the ad sales. There are all kinds of ads that you can stick like scrapbook flair on a Web page around a video: pop-ups, pop-unders, ads that float across the page, expanding ads, banner ads, wallpaper ads, ads that get sent to your e-mail or to your mobile phone. Those ads are big money. But the even bigger money in Web video is increasingly coming from sponsorship or ads that run like little commercials.
Which sounds great, but there’s yet another model. And this is where the agent really starts to show his chops. Let’s say that the portal doesn’t have the production expertise — it’s a Web site, after all, not a production company — or it doesn’t want to spend money paying for cameras and lights and actors. The agent then goes to someone like Eisner, who is great at production, and who has deep pockets and an interest in the series idea, and who has just coincidentally formed a new company called Vuguru that deals with this whole online video enterprise. Eisner buys the series and sells it to MySpace, which posts the videos on its site for a billion people to see. And everybody — Eisner and MySpace — sells ads. Soon, a bunch of little revenue streams are adding up to one massive river of profit.
In TV, creators get paid by the studio. The size of that check is based on who you are (i.e., whether you have a lot of leverage because you’ve proved that your shows are successful), or on how much the studio execs like the material, or whether there’s any talent attached. It’s not based on how many people actually watch the show. Studios and networks don’t have to share but a small portion of the money they make off the DVD sales and T-shirt sales or off the millions of people who watch the shows and buy the stuff on the commercials. Because even if John Doe wanted to, he couldn’t circumvent that process and make the John Doe television channel.
But on the Internet, John Doe can easily make JohnDoe.com. “The reason why portals are willing to give up a portion of their ad sales is because there’s always going to be option No. 1 on the Internet,” Nadler says, pointing to the model where creators go out and get advertising on their own. “These Internet content creators have the power to go right to the audience, who are the ultimate judge and jury. And there is money to be made if you can ratchet up the counts.” In reality, that is easier said than done. Because how do you then promote your show? How do you get people to see it? Who’s auditing your deals? Who’s checking to see how many people visit the site and determining the advertising rates? That is business stuff that the funny dudes filming videos in their parents’ living room don’t want to deal with.
The entire system, which Nadler finishes diagramming with relish, is complex enough to give me a migraine. The online agent, however, revels in the delicate Calder mobile scaffolding of “compensation structures” and “deficit financing” and “monetization of value.” He eats this kind of complexity for breakfast. Or lunch.
It is a hot, muggy night in downtown San Diego, where the annual Comic-Con is in full frenzy. UTA Online is throwing a cocktail party with its client Oni Press, a comics publisher responsible for titles like Jason & the Argobots and Stephen Colbert’s Tek Jansen Adventures. Nadler, Garese, Zimelis and Reber stake out a strategic table on the patio of the chic and trendy Luna Lounge, where a strikingly beautiful waitress delivers cold bottles of beer. Loungy, trippy hip-hop music spills out of the open door as more beautiful people slink through the velvet rope. Nadler is excited about having made contact at the convention with Spike of Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted Animation Festival. “They have a whole archive of videos dating back 20 years. But they haven’t explored their full potential online yet,” he says. As people fall in line to get in, the guys keep up a running narration of who is there — fellow agents, former fellow agents, the rapper Xzibit and his crew, the cast of Heroes, a pretty blond girl who we think is actress Kate Bosworth but turns out to be model Jamie King. “Barrett’s here,” says Nadler. “And he’s brought a friend. And she’s cute.”
“No way,” says Zimelis, turning to look at her.
“Comic-Con was interesting,” says Garese, taking a seat. “Obi-Wan Kenobi called me ‘bitch’ when I accidentally stepped on his foot.”
An agent at an industry party is never just at the party. He or she is always working the angles, consciously or not. Good schmoozers, it is said, are good listeners. Nadler, Zimelis, Garese and Reber are great listeners.
“Schmoozing means saying hello to everybody in the room that you know. It’s part of meeting the client’s needs,” Garese tells me. “There are 10 or 12 parties happening simultaneously right now, and these people, many of whom don’t even live in San Diego, could be at any one of those. But they’re here. They have come out just to be at this party. You let them know that you appreciate that.” All the way down the block, people flit from one bar and restaurant to another. Girls in short dresses and teetering stilettos alight from cabs and hop onto sidewalks at an alarming rate.
“No, that’s not it for me,” Nadler says, returning to the table after saying hello to some people he knows. “Primarily, schmoozing means saying hello only to the people I need to say hello to. Of course, you’re gracious, you say hello to whoever says hello to you, you’re never rude.” As he’s getting ready to go out, he figures out what his battle plan is for the evening. Nadler’s agenda for that night is to say hello to Masi Oka, who plays the time-traveling Hiro Nakamura on Heroes. He will wait for somebody he knows to be talking to Oka, then go up to that person and join in on the conversation, a smoother scenario than introducing oneself out of the blue — though he is prepared to do that too, if necessary. Oka isn’t yet a UTA client, but they want him to be. In the near future, Nadler will be sitting in on a signing meeting with Oka and other people from the agency, with Nadler representing the online division and all it has to offer. I say that it seems like a lot of preamble and a long way to drive to make one contact and say hello to one person as a preface to one future meeting. But those are the lengths to which they will go for their clients. Moreover, everybody seems to have his own interpretation of exactly how to schmooze those clients.
“It’s a gray area, no doubt,” Garese concedes, his eyes never leaving the growing line. “For me, it’s about making people feel welcome. Making them feel comfortable. How do you learn that? You learn it when the next day after a party, people come up to you and say, ‘Where were you, dude? I was there. I didn’t see you.’ ”
“I’m never not schmoozing someone,” says Reber.
In the year since their department went live, Nadler, Zimelis, Garese and Reber have amassed more than 50 clients. In the two short weeks I spend with them, they sign seven more: Barry Diller’s CollegeHumor.com, PicnicFace, Red State Update, Hot Chicks With Douchebags, Dateline Hollywood, Awkward Pictures and Spike & Mike. Oka eventually signs with UTA.
“We’ve been at this nine months, and we’re the old guys,” says Garese, back in the office. The rules are changing. People are getting recognized through their content, not through their connections. It seems only fair that those people, whose work is being downloaded to infinity, get a piece of the billions of dollars that will be spent in Internet advertising in the next five years. And that the online agent geek, for all his trouble, gets a piece of that piece. “There is a scale of celebrity,” says Nadler. “We’re not at the stage yet where the ‘Ask a Ninja’ ninja is Brad Pitt. But he’s close.”
“And just to clarify,” says Garese, “there’s no negative stigma to the term ‘geek’ or ‘nerd.’ ”
“Right,” says Zimelis, in an ergonomic swivel chair at his new desk. “If it helps you sleep at night.”
“I sleep like a baby. A baby hugging a keyboard.”
“We each have our own interests that slide into every deal we make,” says Nadler, smoothly armoring up their persona. “For Ryan, it’s music. For me, it’s comedy. For Barrett, it’s the nerdcore. For Jon . . . well, he looks good in a suit.”
Suddenly, a phone call comes in. A major Web portal wants to buy the Jetset show. The numbers are big. (In the coming months, Jetset will relaunch as Epic-Fu.) Again, they ask me not to name what that portal is. You hoard your clients and you tiptoe around deals as if they are soufflés in the oven — exhale and they fall apart. As for the money, “It’s not unexpected,” Garese says with something akin to awe after he hangs up. “What is unexpected is the timeline. Steve and Zadi have been working on Jetset for one year. Now they’ve got people offering them deals and companies offering to buy them. It’s a lot to wrap your head around.”
One August evening, Nadler reclines in his chair, staring blankly at an image on his computer’s desktop of a Coke can perched on a rock next to a swimming pool. The swimming pool is located in a Benedict Canyon mansion owned by a former agency boss; Nadler is housesitting. He stretches, pours himself a glass of water from a martini pitcher on his desk, asks his assistant to print out a list of current clients and begins to flip through a pitch for an online show he’ll be reading that night when he gets home after returning a few hundred e-mails. The pitch is a classic over-the-top hybrid of other shows, complete with criminal but cute animals. Nadler sighs.
“When we take on a new client, we’re honest with them,” he says, as Reber walks in carrying a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk. “Telling a client that they’re only viable in certain limited spheres? That’s the hardest sell. But we don’t want to promise them things they can’t do.”
Who your clients are, namely “The List,” has always been a closely guarded secret in traditional agency quarters. But UTA Online’s clients are listed plainly on its Web site for everybody to see. (It’s also the only division in the agency where aspiring clients can submit work directly to agents.) The clients they represent have a kind of intimate, gather-’round-the-campfire relationship with their audience. That audience for the most part doesn’t brook bullshit. Ergo, online agents must be prepared for some degree of transparency in their dealings.
When the We Need Girlfriends guys blog on their MySpace page that they will be flying out to Hollywood, hundreds of fans flood the comments section:
“You guys are going corporate, aren’t you?”
“I asked my psychic and she said you guys are going to be mazillionaires.”
“100 bucks says you guys are pitching We Need Girlfriends as a TV series.”
“If u guys do T.V. please keep the same actors :) ?”
Though they — the funny series guys, their rabid audience, the buyers, and the agents — don’t know it yet, in the very near future, CBS will buy We Need Girlfriends and turn it into a TV show. Darren Star, creator of Sex and the City and Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, will executive produce.
In the meantime, Nadler scrolls through the comments happily. “This is great!” he says, smiling. “This is amazing!”