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THR's Agent Roundtable: 6 Top Female Dealmakers Talk Industry Diplomacy, Clients and Competition

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.

PHOTOS: THR's Agent Roundtable: 6 Top Female Dealmakers on Industry Diplomacy, Clients and Competition

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.

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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.

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THR: What has been the most rewarding day of your career?

(Five seconds of silence.)

Jackson: Pass.

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.

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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.

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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.)

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THR: What current trend in the business worries you?

Jackson: The future.

Kohan: The biggest threat might be the greatest opportunity -- different revenue streams, sources of distribution, financing opportunities. It demands that we each do our homework.

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THR: Are new platforms such as Netflix being embraced by your clients, or are they terrified of them?

Klein: They're not quite sure how it works or how to monetize it, nor am I at the moment. But they're intrigued because it's another avenue for them -- another opportunity to get their stuff out -- and they'll take full advantage of that.

Bartlett: If it's creative, you have to explore it.

Klein: I actually have more clients who'd like to see some of their product go to graphic novel. That pays about $2! And maybe they'll do something with Hulu. They do want to take those chances.

THR: Was there a mistake you made early in your career that you learned from?

Jackson: When I was an assistant, I sent an e-mail to my second assistant, saying not to bother me because I was really hung over and was taking a nap under my desk. He forwarded it to the whole agency. That was a huge blunder but also career-defining.

Siebert: Yes, for that second assistant.

Jackson: My sleep is important!

THR: What was the fallout?

Bartlett: She was running like Rocky through the hallways. (Laughter.)

Kohan: A mistake I made in my 20s was not being persistent. I was too antsy. If I could do it all over again, I would have stayed at the agency where I started -- I'd probably be a lot more successful financially. But I jumped around a lot. That's why I tell young people: Stay rooted; don't get distracted.

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THR: What is the biggest misconception about what agents actually do?

Klein: I don't think people understand how important you are to the success of that show or that movie. The average person thinks you're just a dealmaker. They don't understand that you're finding the talent, nurturing the talent and packaging.

Kohan: When a client has a big hit, somehow it's perceived that it's been an overnight success. But we've been in the trenches with them eight, 10, 12 years!

Siebert: People who don't know the business think it's a fantasy job. It's like: "Oh, my God, it's the best job ever. You get to talk to movie stars and go to premieres." And it's like, "It's really not that fun."

Kohan: I've been an agent at UTA for almost 16 years, and my husband still asks, "Do you really love what you do?" I really do. I still get starstruck.

Siebert: In case any of my clients are reading this, I still love what I do. But it's not a fantasy. It's hard work.

Bartlett: It can be tedious.

Klein: Yes, but every so often you get thanked. When Marc Cherry came to me, he had a little sitcom script called Desperate Housewives. We married him with another client to turn it into this hit show. He sent me a picture in a Tiffany frame of him in front of his condo 10 years ago in North Hollywood: "Before Debbee" and "After Debbee."

All: Aww.

Siebert: Did he fire you? (Laughter.)

Klein: That doesn't happen too often, and we don't expect it -- though I represent [Robert and Michelle] King, who created The Good Wife, and they're pretty generous about thanking us.

Siebert: When Kyle Chandler was nominated for an Emmy for Friday Night Lights -- I shouldn't be saying this -- his manager and I decided that because the show wasn't picked up for another season, he wasn't going to win and we should just stay home. So we did, and he wins and thanks us. My first phone call was to his manager: "We are in such big trouble. Get dressed! We've got to go now!"

Klein: Did you?

Siebert: No. (Laughter.)

Bartlett: But the 20 years you spent representing him made up for it.

THR: To be fair, that was the big shock of the night.

Siebert: Exactly! (Laughter.) He was very grateful and thanked both of us, but we felt like asses.

THR: Much is made these days about the fact that there are not as many women agents as there are men. Does this disparity affect the way you do your job?

Klein: I'm the only woman in my entire division. It's 12 guys and me, which is terrible, actually. There are 122 agents [at Paradigm], and maybe about 15 percent are women? I don't know how to fix it, unless all of you want to work together with me. … It's hard. I don't know where the breakdown is.

Siebert: I never look at it and think, "My God, we really don't have a lot of women," until someone brings it to my attention. We hire and promote the best people regardless of gender.

THR: A prominent agent, a woman, recently said it was harder as a female to sign clients than it would be for a male agent.

Bartlett: I totally disagree.

Klein: I think it may be easier.

Kohan: I agree with you.

Klein: Maybe it's our nurturing side? I've never run into that problem once.

Dakhil: I notice that the male agents console themselves when we sign people by saying that they wanted a woman, and I think we let them think that. Maybe they do; maybe they don't. I think there's an extra power being women and being able to express ourselves, the way we dress and can be more individualistic.

Klein: I have clients for whom I literally pick out anniversary presents for their wives because they don't want to be bothered. They would never ask my male counterpart to do that. There's a level of intimacy that I like to offer.

Kohan: It surprises me that we're still having this conversation. I know it exists, but in my day-to-day life I don't feel it.

Dakhil: But there's something wrong with the numbers. So somehow, on an individual level, there's something we each could take more responsibility for.

Bartlett: It's incumbent upon us to mentor younger women in our companies.

Jackson: The typical idea of an agent is extremely masculine. It's hard for women to break through because we're not permitted to have that behavior -- and if we do, we get punished for it. So it's hard for women to come up in that and be able to shine without mimicking behavior.

THR: Why are men still paid better than women onscreen?

Jackson: No one gets paid better anymore.

Kohan: It's not so much that women are getting paid less; it's just there are more men in the franchise movies. That's where the money is.

Siebert: But in TV, it's certainly changed -- women are getting paid a lot of money to star on TV shows.

Kohan: Female-driven content is more popular than ever, and I think that will be a much stronger balance moving forward.

Klein: The hottest comedy stars right now are women -- Kristen Wiig, Julie Bowen, Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham. They're who everybody's talking about right now, more so than, say, Adam Sandler. A lot of agents are at Upright Citizens Brigade a couple times a week looking for the next Tina Fey.

THR: What was the moment when you felt, "Wow, I've really made it!"?

Klein: My first client was Melanie Griffith. I didn't know what I was doing! I remember they offered me top-of-show [a television pay rate]. I thought that was fabulous. We were about the same age. She was very patient. I felt "arrived" when I handled her.

Siebert: One of the first deals I made was booking Anthony Perkins in some awful B-movie. I was so proud, I took the deal slip to my grandparents' house and put it on their bulletin board like, "Look what I did." Looking back years later, it's like, "Oh, my God, what did I do?"

Klein: At least you didn't accept top-of-show!

Kohan: (To Jackson) I remember we bought our first houses around the same time. My mom never bought her own house, so when I bought mine at 30, it was a real milestone.

Dakhil: One pinch-me moment was when Al Pacino raised his voice at me, and it sounded just like it does in the movies. (Laughter.) So cool. It got throaty and loud.

THR: Who would be your dream power-women dinner party guests, dead or alive?

Klein: Hillary Clinton.

Siebert: I've had dinner with her. She's not that [exciting]. (Laughter.)

Bartlett: Oh, don't rain on her parade.

Klein: I was a big supporter. I've met her -- not dined with her -- and I thought she was fantastic, and I'd like the opportunity to sit with her and with Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters.

Jackson: I'd invite Dorothy Parker, Shirley Temple and Judy Garland.

Bartlett: Crazy, crazier and craziest! Shirley Temple as a child or as an adult?

Jackson: No, as a child. I'd say, "Ooh, sing 'On the Good Ship Lollipop'!"

Kohan: Eleanor Roosevelt. I read a biography of hers, and I think she's fantastic. Also, the queen of England. I'm slightly obsessed with the royal family.

Dakhil: I'd have Helen Keller, Tupac, Malcolm X and Gandhi.

Bartlett: I'd pick Billie Holiday, Martin Luther King and Michelle Obama, who I think is articulate and phenomenal. From the really-screwed-up to the really-put-together.

Siebert: Gosh, I was just going to say Kris Jenner, but I don't know now … (Laughter.)

THR: And don't forget Kyle Chandler.

Siebert: Oh, that's right!