THR's Agent Roundtable: 6 Top Female Dealmakers Talk Industry Diplomacy, Clients and Competition
UTA's Blair Kohan, WME's Sharon Jackson and Gersh's Leslie Siebert on being hired, fired and ultracompetitive in a man's world.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Nowhere is gender disparity among Hollywood's corporate ranks more painfully acute than inside the top talent agencies, where the percentage of women agents can dip as low as 15 and nary a female CEO can be found. Sure, women have made huge strides as network and studio chiefs (Exhibit A: the dozens of such execs who appear on this year's Power 100 list), but such advancements have yet to materialize in the agency world, where in-your-face, ballsy machismo seems to remain the default sensibility. This reality, among others (24-hour care of clients, pressure to embrace new revenue streams, shrinking budgets), was discussed with candor -- and not a few laughs -- among the six agents (WME's Sharon Jackson, Gersh's Leslie Siebert, CAA's Maha Dakhil, UTA's Blair Kohan, Paradigm's Debbee Klein and ICM Partners' Lorrie Bartlett) who gathered for THR's first-ever on- the-record conversation with top agents. With the diplomacy required by their profession, they tackle the struggle to straddle work and family life (five of the six are married mothers), why it's OK when clients leave and how an innate sense of nurturing actually can be an agent's best weapon.
The Hollywood Reporter: How has your job changed since you became an agent, and how have you adapted to those changes?
Sharon Jackson: Well, there's e-mail now. (Laughter.)
Debbee Klein: Cell phones.
THR: How did you do your jobs before e-mail?
Blair Kohan: I remember the "cc." We couldn't just send a "cc," so at the end of the day, as an assistant, you would go to the Xerox and you would make as many copies as were on the "cc" list. And you would run around and put them in people's inboxes. That was your little after-hours treat.
Leslie Siebert: And there were real pictures and résumés!
Lorrie Bartlett: I think everybody's working harder now to make less money.
Siebert: We've had to lower our clients' expectations, too. So many have huge quotes from the good days, whether in film or TV, and now you go and make the best deal you can.
Bartlett: That's a huge part of it, just managing expectations.
Siebert: And they don't believe you anyway. (Laughter.)
Klein: There's also no backend. I deal only with the writers. We still play for the big backend, and the writers still hope for it. Occasionally it comes through.
THR: How much contact do you have with clients on a daily or weekly basis?
Maha Dakhil: We're always communicating; we're always switched on. I feel this umbilical cord to what I do, whether on the phone or e-mail, and it starts really early in the morning. A lot of us have overseas clients -- I definitely do -- and it just continues. But because things are harder now, I find that our interactions are more personal and meaningful because it's not just transactional. It's not like, "Here's your deal; here's the good news." It's really tougher going into the bad news with people.
Siebert: And clients are more anxious and needy.
THR: How in the loop are you keeping them about details of the deals you're working on?
Jackson: Deals are the most boring part of it. I never talk about the deal. I talk about the creation or the concept.
Klein: But that's where you have to manage expectations. It's about how much information you give out during the dealmaking process. At some juncture, you make them more nervous than you need to. That's where I have to be careful.
Kohan: Some clients really want to be involved, are knowledgeable, savvy and have a point of view about deals. Others find them boring; they trust that we're going to get them the best deal possible. For those of us who started out before there was e-mail …
Siebert: Hey, don't look at me! (Laughter.)
Kohan: … the positive side of all of this technology is that it has allowed us more flexibility to stay in touch with our clients and with our office, which is an asset. You used to have to be glued to your chair and make sure you were there for the calls.
Bartlett: And now we choose flights based on WiFi access.
THR: What aspect of your job do you wish you could delegate?
Klein: Dinner meetings. I like to be home; I like to be with my kids. I try very hard to balance the parenting and my family, my parents, my husband and the job. I'm fine to be on the phone till God-knows-what hour, but I don't love to be out physically in the evening.
THR: Do clients expect you to be available at all hours?
Klein: No, they're fine as long as I'm talking to them many, many times a day.
Bartlett: In other words, you've trained them. (Laughs.)
Kohan: I'd delegate the flying.
Bartlett: For me, set visits. I always feel like, no matter what, I'm in the way.
Klein: I went to Toronto yesterday, literally for a day and a half, for a set visit, and I'm thinking to myself, "Does he care?" But just in case he does, I did it.
Siebert: They all say they don't care, but they do.
Klein: Or they'll tell you some other agent showed up, right?Siebert: It's like, "No, don't come, don't come!" You don't go, and then you're fired.
THR: What has been the most rewarding day of your career?
(Five seconds of silence.)
THR: OK, how about during the past year?
(Five more seconds of silence.)
Dakhil: I think everyone's having a hard time answering this because we have the memory of fish. The victory or defeat of one day just quickly evolves into the next thing. Hopefully everyone's keeping memoirs and journals.
Siebert: Or writing a tell-all book. (Laughs.)
Kohan: There was an amazing story in the business section of The New York Times about the Duke basketball coach, Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski]. And one thing that he says to his players is, whether you made a great play or a horrible play, in that moment, it's all about the next play. When I read that, it was so applicable to what we do.
THR: What is the toughest decision you had to make this year?
Dakhil: That's worse!
Jackson: Our job is to be invisible. Everything has to look effortless. I can't imagine ever admitting to a tough decision.
Siebert: They're all tough.
Dakhil: I think the hardest part is making the decision and committing to it. That means there are a lot of potentially wrong answers, and you have to put your imprint on things and decide who you are.
Siebert: And do what's best for the client.
THR: Debbee mentioned the work-home balance, which is a concern for any agent, male or female. With the mobility factor and the constant technology -- by which you can be reachable anywhere -- how do you set boundaries?
Bartlett: I think we're all adept jugglers.
Siebert: I text my children a lot!
Jackson: This job is the great love of my life. But so is my daughter, and so is my husband.
Klein: You have to have a spouse who understands the job. When we're on vacation, the phones ring. It rang going into the maternity ward! My husband was in entertainment when I met him -- business affairs. If I were married to someone who didn't get it, I'd always be tense that my phone calls were interrupting our lives.
Kohan: I think working mothers are the most efficient people on the planet. You just figure it out. When I was pregnant, I wondered, "How am I going to do this?" And you just do.
THR: What's the best professional advice you've received?
Kohan: I once got fired from a job when someone said, "You'd be better off selling cosmetics at Neiman Marcus." I was in my 20s and not necessarily focused or great at my job at the time. But that advice was also the moment that crystallized the fire in my belly to prove this person wrong. Also, it was a guy who said it to me, so it also crystallized a sisterhood. You would never say something so demeaning to a guy.
Siebert: These young people trying to come up in the agency world, they all are waiting to be promoted. They just have to assume the position and start doing it, not wait for someone to give them a title. That's the best advice I got and give to others.
Jackson: I got funny advice. My old boss, Nick Stevens, used to say, "You have to shower with the client." I didn't take it literally, but what he meant was that you have to be always thinking ahead: What would be the next step? What am I doing wrong? What am I doing right? Basically encouraging my OCD.
Klein: The best advice I've received is: self-educate. You can't just be a lit agent or a talent agent anymore. You have to self-educate, whether that's taking home and reading the boilerplate contracts or reading scripts.
THR: A reality of this business is that clients come and go. When a client decides to leave, how do you handle that conversation?
Kohan: When one door closes, another opens. It's very simple.
THR: Is it ever emotional?
Siebert: Depends on the client.
Klein: You have to really try hard to be gracious. Some of the guys I work with -- I listen to them -- are way more emotional than I am. Phones hanging up, yelling.
Siebert: I can't be gracious.
Jackson: If someone doesn't want to be represented by me, that's fine. I literally feel nothing. I think I do my job really well. And if a client feels they're better served elsewhere, I wouldn't be passionate about them anyway.
Dakhil: For my clients who are listening, I'm not at that place. (Laughter.)