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In 2004, Darnell Strom was seated in the wings of a Boston arena for the Democratic National Convention, watching an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama give the evening’s keynote address. Strom, then 23 and a year out of college, was the “lackey,” as he put it, to DNC committee chair Alice Huffman, which is how he found himself sitting next to future first lady Michelle, as well as the young Sasha and Malia, thinking, “Wow, that guy’s going to be president one day.”
Throughout a career that has spanned politics, philanthropy and Hollywood, Strom, 40, regularly finds himself identifying the potential of talent ready to take off. Now the head of UTA’s newly formed culture and leadership division, he acts as a bridge between the entertainment industry and those not easily defined as talent (at least, in traditional Hollywood terms) at a time when studios, streamers and networks are readily getting into business with political activists and cultural influencers.
One of the agent’s early UTA signings was Stacey Abrams, the first Black woman to earn a major-party nomination in the Georgia gubernatorial race who would go on to establish Fair Fight Action, which monitors elections in battleground states and is credited with helping to turn Georgia blue by bringing out voters from marginalized communities. After producing the voter-suppression documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy — which landed at Amazon before the 2020 presidential election and was placed in front of the streamer’s pay wall — she’s taking on a markedly different project. In May, it was announced that a narrative series adaptation of her legal thriller novel While Justice Sleeps was set up at Working Title Television. “Darnell understands instinctively how important both my political advocacy work and my creative endeavors are to me,” says Abrams, who offers that Strom’s vantage point has allowed her to “navigate between worlds.”
After graduating from Florida A&M with a bachelor’s in political science, Strom had planned to go on to Berkeley Law but deferred in favor of pursuing a political career. After his time with the DNC and a stint on John Kerry’s ill-fated presidential campaign, he joined former President Bill Clinton’s office in 2005 as deputy director of scheduling while the 42nd president was establishing his Clinton Foundation and building out a post-White House career. “Basically anyone who wanted to do something with the foundation or [Bill Clinton] had to interact with me,” notes Strom. That included everyone from NFL coaches to heads of state, and involved traveling the globe — his favorite destination was an annual trip to Johannesburg to meet with Nelson Mandela. It was during this time that Strom began making Hollywood connections.
“So many of the relationships that the foundation had in L.A. were folks that were tied into the entertainment industry,” Strom says. At the time, the donor network had a roster that included Casey Wasserman and Jeffrey Katzenberg as well as CAA’s Richard Lovett. After three years in that role, several CAA connections, including fellow Clinton alum Michael Kives, approached Strom about a career shift. “Maybe they were tired of me shaking them down for fundraising dollars,” he says with a laugh.
Strom joined the Century City outfit as an executive in its CAA Foundation, using his networker-in-the-extreme status to assist agency clients like then-NBA star Dwyane Wade in establishing their personal philanthropy efforts. During the early 2010s, talent had begun focusing on social impact and wanted politics to be a forward-facing part of their brands and, by extension, careers. With Obama in the Oval Office, clients hoped to connect with an administration that itself was looking to “leverage the power of storytellers,” says Strom, who acted as the agency’s de facto Washington liaison and served on the Obama White House’s entertainment council.
“If you’re an agent, you’re in service to your clients,” says Strom. “If you are a political staffer, you’re in service of your boss. If you are an actual politician, you’re in service to your constituents. There are a lot of transferable skills between being an agent and being in politics. Both are very relationship-driven.”
When Strom left politics for Hollywood, the plan was always to become an agent, but, after his time at the CAA Foundation, the path forward wasn’t so clear. “The way the agency system works is that you pick the lane,” says Strom, who wasn’t sure where he fit. After considering sports, marketing and endorsements, he settled on joining CAA’s speaker’s division, knowing that the kind of talent he was finding — largely politicians, journalists and other thought leaders — would have the biggest impact there.
He signed YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley and former first daughter and NBC anchor Jenna Bush Hager, and made a practice of scooping up promising politicians as they exited office, including then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2017. Strom began working with Malala Yousafzai, then 16, six months before her Nobel Peace Prize nomination. He traveled with her to Oslo for the ceremony and, many speaking engagements later, the laureate made the journey to UTA with him. (Eventually, Bush Hager did too.)
In 2019, after being courted by UTA CEO and co-founder Jeremy Zimmer, Strom jumped to the rival agency, lured by the prospect of launching his own division. He sat down with Yousafzai, who soon would graduate from Oxford, to talk about the big picture and what came next beyond the speaking engagements. Inspired by the Obamas’ Hollywood imprint Higher Ground, which is housed at Netflix and also boasts a Spotify deal, they developed her production company Extracurricular. Under the banner, she signed an expansive deal with Apple TV+ that will see her develop and program projects that encompass scripted and unscripted as well as animation and children’s series.
“People might think that she would probably do a bunch of documentaries,” says Strom of the phenom. But, it turns out, her tastes aren’t so predictable. One of Yousafzai’s favorite shows is gross-out adult sci-fi animation Rick and Morty, which the rep says people often are surprised to hear. “He has never tried to fit me into a preexisting mold,” says Yousafzai of her agent. “He’s taken what is special and unique about my story and helped me broaden my audience beyond what others imagined it could be.”
The rep is mindful of the unique perception challenges faced by people primarily known for their public works. “There’s this idea that because someone is an activist that they should be bound to a life of sacrifice,” says Strom. A recent high-profile example, though not a client of Strom’s, is Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, who has an overall deal with Warner Bros. TV. Several conservative media outlets have pointed to her real estate holdings and questioned the means by which she bought the homes. Adds Strom, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing good and doing well.” Entertainment pacts are meant to be new platforms that support existing brands and missions. He adds that the market is clearly interested: “If we were putting out things no one wanted, these deals wouldn’t exist.”
Strom, who spent 2020 working from home with his wife, Freebird Films co-founder Emily Verellen Strom, and their 4-year-old son, Sterling, was recently named partner at UTA and joined the board of Wynn Resorts.
Now in Hollywood for more than a decade, Strom has witnessed a shift in those who receive representation, expanding far beyond film, TV, music and sports. And it’s a trend that has only accelerated over the past year. Both the pandemic and mass protests against police violence and systemic racism have shaken up the priorities of audiences and the industry.
Strom is far from the only representative to notice this shift, with activists now housed at all of the majors, including CAA, WME and ICM. But running his own division has allowed him the ability to sign anyone who can “spark global conversations around culture,” explains client and British Vogue editor Edward Enninful.
Since joining UTA, Strom has helped to sign clients that range from Kara Swisher and Tyler Mitchell (the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of American Vogue) to the Apollo Theater, as well as civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump and model Karlie Kloss, who notes that Strom “understands how to work with people across industries.”
“Their claim to fame is being known for one particular thing,” says Strom of his clients, “but they have the interest and the ability to expand.” While other agencies offer multiple representation avenues to nontraditional talent — with divisions that handle speaking, books, brands and public engagements — Strom says UTA’s culture and leadership vertical is different in that he is a central hub “not necessarily tethered to a specific transactional area of business.” As such, he’s able to take the “30,000-foot view” of representation. Like Strom did for himself, the goal is to carve out new lanes for his talent, regardless of when and how they became household names.
“All of these cultural buckets are now blending together,” Strom surmises. “There’s so much more connectivity between these things now than ever before.”
This story first appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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