Hollywood's Top 20 Dealmakers of 2018

6:00 AM 11/30/2018

by Edited by Ashley Cullins

Key negotiators behind the year's most game-changing deals — from Ryan Murphy's $300 million Netflix move to the $71 billion Disney-Fox acquisition — talk big-spending streamers, strategic acquisitions, record-setting talent paydays and the Obamas' new pact.

THR-Dealmakers-Illustration by Chris Danger-H 2018
Chris Danger

The $71 billion Disney-Fox deal and recent influx of eight- and nine-figure overall talent deals at Netflix signal that Hollywood is making a serious investment in direct-to-consumer access. THR's third annual dealmakers list highlights the men and women who negotiated the industry's most significant pacts in 2018 — like Matthew Thompson, who suspects even more big money will soon change hands between streamers and studios. "Apple could use less than 5 percent of its cash reserves and on current valuations buy Lionsgate and MGM," he says. "For less than 8 percent, it could buy Paramount, MGM and Lionsgate. And Amazon could buy all of Hollywood — literally all of it."

Profiles by Paul Bond, Natalie Jarvey, Bryn Elise Sandberg and Georg Szalai.

  • Mark Bardell & Stephen Wilkinson

    Sky was the belle of the European media M&A ball this year, pursued by Comcast and 21st Century Fox. The London-based duo advised Sky on the battle, which Comcast won with a $39 billion bid. The firm has repped Sky for nearly three decades, and Bardell says this deal positions it well "in the context of the increasing consumer appetite for OTT delivery of TV content." Wilkinson had previously worked with the company on its acquisition of Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia. Sky also benefited from Bardell’s particularly deep understanding of the U.K. Takeover Panel, which ran the auction, since he had a two-year stint at the regulator and continues to be a consultant.

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis

    Bardell: "Bobby Axelrod from Billions — a TV villain with admirable tenacity. Plus, my wife has a crush on Damian Lewis."

    Wilkinson: "Blofeld from James Bond, famous for his white cat. I'm a dog lover."

    Dealmaking tool you couldn't live without

    Bardell: "LinkedIn — great for looking up your opponents ahead of a negotiation."

    Wilkinson: "IPhone — for messaging your client during negotiations."

  • John Burke

    Burke represented Lantern Capital in the company's $289 million purchase of The Weinstein Co. out of bankruptcy, which was $21 million cheaper than originally agreed upon to account for claims made by Quentin Tarantino, Meryl Streep and others who worried they wouldn't get money owed to them. Burke says Lantern's purchase preserved a source of indie development and distribution in an environment that has Netflix and other streamers inflating prices. Adds Burke, “It is becoming increasingly difficult to produce independent films with budgets in excess of $10 million because of the difficulty in obtaining domestic theatrical distribution.”

    Negotiation pet peeve "The other side blustering about 'deal killer' or 'we will file.' And lawyers who are afraid to say yes."

  • Christa D'Alimonte

    D'Alimonte helped Viacom transition from a staid portfolio of cable networks into a digital-forward company through deals to snap up influencer marketing platform WhoSay, events business VidCon and digital studio Awesomeness. The Georgetown law school alum also got creative in retaining top talent like The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, who launched an international production and distribution company with a sizable investment from Viacom. D'Alimonte notes, “As the media industry continues to go through a period of intense change — from consolidation among traditional players to working with an entirely new set of partners in the tech sector — our work is becoming increasingly complex and fascinating.”

    Dealmaking tool you couldn't live without "My phone, which I believe is so much more important than email. The art of having a real conversation — where you actually talk with and listen to your adversary — has been lost."

    Negotiation pet peeve “Posturing and bravado. A mentor advised me many, many years ago, ‘Take your job seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.’”

  • Howard Ellin

    The deal that has Disney paying $71 billion for most of the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox "will enable two key players to reposition themselves in a sector that is constantly and quickly evolving," says Ellin, who advised Rupert Murdoch and Fox. Simultaneously, he worked with Fox to sell its 39 percent stake in Sky to Comcast for $15.3 billion, and Ellin presumes he’ll be involved in a few more industry-changing deals still to come, perhaps in radio and film exhibition. Theaters, he says, are “faced with the possibility of increased competition from at-home streaming services” while some radio companies are emerging from bankruptcy and need to “reestablish their foothold in the market.”

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis "Fernand Mondego [from The Count of Monte Cristo]."

  • Craig Emanuel

    Emanuel guided Ryan Murphy's transition from Fox to Netflix in an estimated $300 million deal that sent shock waves through the industry. "It came at a pivotal moment in the marketplace when Netflix wanted to demonstrate that they were a viable partner at the highest of levels," says the Australian attorney. The American Horror Story creator already had a relationship with the streamer on two series — the Sarah Paulson-led One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest adaptation Ratched and Ben Platt-fronted hourlong comedy series The Politician. Notes Emanuel of his prolific client, "His media life is now fully contained under one roof, so there isn't competition any longer for scheduling." Emanuel also oversaw Widows producer Seasaw Films’ pact with New Regency and animation VFX company Animal Logic’s deal with Imagine Entertainment.

    I check my email ... "About 15 minutes after waking up and about five minutes before going to sleep."

  • Alan Epstein

    The avid cyclist broke his wrist in a crash that kept him off his bike this year, but it didn't keep Epstein from co-representing 3 Arts in its sale of a stake to Lionsgate, which experts say is a bellwether of activity in the representation business. The deal, he says, highlights "the strategic importance of management companies in today's entertainment landscape." The father of four also negotiated Gary Barber's exit from the CEO chair at MGM, including the sale of his $260 million stake in the studio, and represented Bad Robot in the June launch of a video game division in partnership with Tencent.

    Before a big negotiation, I drink … "Agua, although there are some meetings where tequila may be necessary."

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis “Wile E. Coyote — he never dies!”

  • Patti Felker

    Felker crafted Greg Berlanti's huge overall deal extension with Warner Bros. The creator, who has 15 series on the air, had several years left on his pact with the studio when Netflix began doling out nine-figure sums to his peers. "The question was whether somebody wanted to step up preemptively or wait," says Felker. The result was Berlanti landing a four-year deal estimated at $400 million in all-cash guarantees. She adds, "There was a lot of pressure on studios to start making deals with guarantees that more resembled the streamers because it's attractive for people to not just hope but know what they're going to get." Felker also negotiated a first-look deal between client Gabrielle Union and Sony Pictures TV, where the star has six projects in development.

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis "There are so many people who are my real arch nemeses potentially that I can't be worried about fictional arch nemeses."

    Dealmaking tool you couldn't live without "My voice."

  • Gregg Gellman

    Gellman's profile skyrocketed after he was able to get Kenya Barris out of his contract with ABC and into a massive, multiyear deal at Netflix. The Black-ish creator reportedly was wooed by several studios in the months after ABC shelved a particularly political episode of the comedy in March. But the Girls Trip writer opted to join Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy at the streaming giant, where he could forgo a traditional pilot season and the inevitable frustrations that come with it. The rep also scored Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard a unique overall deal at 20th Century Fox TV that included a rare two-season order for a new Apple animated comedy, Central Park. "These times allow us to push the boundaries of what used to be typical deals," says Gellman. "There are all new sandboxes for our clients to play in."

    Before a big negotiation, I eat … "Fun Dip!"

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis "Hudson, Bill Paxton’s character from Aliens because he’s no action and all whine."

  • Sean Griffiths

    Investcorp, a manager of alternative investments, this year made a move into Hollywood by acquiring a minority stake in talent agency UTA with the help of the New York-based Griffiths, who has extensive experience representing private equity firms and their portfolio companies. The UTA deal is part of the ongoing mergers and acquisitions push across the entertainment industry, which Griffiths says highlights "a continuation of the importance of content."

    Dealmaking tool you couldn't live without "My large iPad Pro and Apple Pencil."

    Negotiation pet peeve “Inane lawyer points. The kind of issue that only the lawyer raising it cares about and whose importance in a practical, commercial sense is nonexistent. They rightfully drive business people crazy.”

  • Horacio Gutierrez

    After 18 years at Microsoft, Gutierrez moved to Spotify in 2016 to lead it through an unusual initial public offering, in which the music giant eschewed financial underwriters and skipped the roadshow for potential investors — eventually directly listing its shares on the New York Stock Exchange at a debut price of $165.90. Though it was a busy time for Venezuela-born Gutierrez, he recalls it was “incredibly fun” to work with Spotify’s outside counsel and the Securities and Exchange Commission to negotiate the unique approach. He also spearheaded Spotify’s renegotiations with the major music labels and publishers that paved the way for the listing."There were a lot fewer surprises than I would have expected," says Gutierrez, "even though we were trying to reinvent the way a company would list."

    Dealmaking tool you couldn't live without "Someone from finance with mad Microsoft Excel skills."

    I check my email … "Two minutes after waking up and 30 minutes before going to sleep."

  • Robert Haymer

    Haymer has advised Lionsgate for two decades, most recently helping it "get close to the talent" through its acquisition of management firm 3 Arts. "You've got to be nimble and ready to see what's around the corner," says Haymer. Lately, that means leading small- to medium-sized companies through the changing Hollywood landscape, including helping Skydance negotiate the sale of a stake to Tencent and representing film sales company Sierra/Affinity in its sale to eOne.

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis "Never thought about it — maybe Professor Moriarty."

    Dealmaking tool you couldn't live without “My iPhone, of course. I also like the iPad Pro pen to mark up documents.”

  • Craig Hunegs

    Hunegs was key in keeping uberproducer Greg Berlanti in-house at Warner Bros. With two years left on his pact, the prolific creator was reportedly in high demand as Netflix started snapping up big-name writer-producers. Together with CEO Kevin Tsujihara and Warner Bros. Television president Peter Roth, Hunegs delivered a gigantic deal for Berlanti that will keep Warners his TV home until at least 2024. (Berlanti's film pact remains at Fox.)

  • Craig Jacobson

    Jacobson found himself in the expensive fight for top talent, helping Lorne Michaels move his first-look film deal from Paramount to Universal and extend his Saturday Night Live pact with NBC. And client Trevor Noah inked a lucrative joint venture with Viacom for first dibs on his future TV, film and shortform projects through his Day Zero Productions. Jacobson says deep-pocketed streamers like Netflix have "forced the traditional players to respond to a competitive environment." He also advised longtime client 3 Arts on its sale of a majority stake to Lionsgate.

    Dealmaking tool you couldn't live without "My iPad."

    Negotiation pet peeve “People being late to a scheduled call.”

  • Matthew Johnson & Wendy Kirk

    The pair led the Ziffren team behind Barack and Michelle Obama's landmark multiyear Netflix deal, in which the streamer offered an opportunity for the former first couple to create any type of programming all under one roof. "There weren't any artificial constraints on what they could or couldn't do," says Johnson, who also negotiated Tyler Perry's colossal cross-company pact with Viacom and Sacha Baron Cohen’s deal for his top-secret Showtime show Who Is America? Notes Kirk, who also orchestrated Scott Gimple's deal as the chief content officer of the expanded Walking Dead franchise: "There aren't words to describe what it's like to work with [the Obamas]."

    Negotiation pet peeve

    Johnson: "Dishonesty. A pet peeve would be putting it mildly."

    Kirk: "People who talk just to hear themselves talk."

    I check my email ...

    Johnson: "An hour after waking up (which is very intentional; I read for the first hour I’m awake) and at least a half hour before going to sleep."

    Kirk: "Three minutes after waking up and at least a half an hour before going to sleep."

  • Bryan Noon

    Noon is a driving force behind Netflix's jaw-dropping overall deals for creators. "We knew we needed folks working for us in-house who were going to bring in projects and give us access to great ideas," he says. Noon joined the streamer six years ago and has gone from being a one-man show to overseeing a team of about 35 people in Netflix’s original series business affairs department. His first major overall pact was Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan's, with Shonda Rhimes' and Ryan Murphy's deals to follow. But no deal was more complex than former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama’s first Hollywood pact. Says Noon, “Trying to figure out how to be creative around the dealmaking to find something that worked for both us and them was especially interesting.”

    I check my email … "15 minutes after waking up and zero minutes before going to sleep."

    Dealmaking tool you couldn't live without "Our tools are proprietary. (Laughs.) But it’s really great seeing the fusion of technology and entertainment. There’s an entire team of engineers up in Los Gatos that I get to work with that help us be smarter and be faster."

  • Will Pearce & Thomas Reid

    New York-based Reid and London-based Pearce worked with Comcast on its $39 billion deal for European pay TV giant Sky. Reid lauds the buzzed-about transaction for allowing Comcast to "quickly, efficiently and meaningfully increase its customer base." Adds Pearce, "It triples Comcast's footprint in the TV business and doubles the company's footprint in the broadband space." The Davis Polk team also worked with the financial advisers to Spotify in connection with the music streamer's IPO.

    Negotiation pet peeve?

    Pearce: "Selective recollection of events on the other side of the table."

    Reid: "Grandstanding."

    Dealmaking tool you couldn't live without

    Pearce: "My printed copy of the U.K. Takeover Code."

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis

    Reid: “Lord Farquaad from Shrek.”

  • Faiza Saeed & George Schoen

    The dynamic duo represented Time Warner in its $85 billion sale to AT&T as well as Walt Disney in its $71 billion purchase of 21st Century Fox's entertainment assets. "Time Warner has been a client for nearly a century, dating back to the firm's representation of Time Inc. in the 1920s," Saeed tells THR, adding that Cravath also has old ties to the House of Mouse. "Our relationship with Disney is also unique — we advised Capital Cities when Disney acquired it in 1995, a transaction that had a big impact on Disney and the media industry generally. The chance to work now with Disney on its pending acquisition of Fox has been both a reunion for us and an opportunity to be there for another transformative moment in the history of this iconic company."

    Before a big negotiation, I drink …

    Saeed: "Black coffee."

    Schoen: "Herbal tea, so my voice doesn't go out."

    Dealmaking tool you couldn't live without

    Saeed: "The telephone."

    Schoen: "These days my iPad Pro has at least halved the number of trees I sacrifice every year in the name of hard copies."

  • David Spingarn & Andrew Thau

    UTA is going through a growth spurt, with acquisitions in the electronic music space (Circle Talent Agency) and e-sports and gaming business (agency Press X and management firm Everyday Influencers). Chief strategy officer Spingarn and COO Thau guided the agency through those deals and a $200 million capital injection from new investors Investcorp and PSP this year to push into new areas of business and strengthen support of artists and creators. Among other things, UTA is expected to expand its role in content creation. Says Thau: "As our clients' ambitions continue to grow, we are willing to disrupt the system and challenge traditional business models to help facilitate those goals."

    Dealmaking tool you couldn't live without 

    Thau: "Instinct."

  • Matt Thompson

    When Canada-based PSP looked at buying a minority stake in UTA, it turned to Thompson. The $200 million investment from PSP and Investcorp is designed to enable the agency to better compete with its larger rivals. Amid an industrywide push into direct-to-consumer services, Thompson says, "One of the things people are focused on is the underlying asset, which is the talent and content itself." The veteran dealmaker also advised IPC Television (Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath), its principals and equity holders in the sale to Core Media (American Idol) and the relaunch of the firm as Industrial Media.

    Before a big negotiation, I drink … "Venti iced Americano."

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis “Hmmm. Unity from Rick & Morty?”

  • Susan Zuckerman Williams

    After The Weinstein Co. declared bankruptcy, Williams secured the money owed to Bank of America, a lender on the TV side of the company formerly run by Harvey Weinstein. She’s still working on getting back money owed to First Republic Bank, which helped finance Polaroid, a horror-thriller film still looking for distribution as it was not acquired by Lantern Capital when it purchased TWC out of bankruptcy. She's also helping lenders get what's owed to them in the wake of the bankruptcy of Open Road, which is to be acquired for $87.5 million by Raven Capital Management. "Bankruptcy is a challenge, but the structures hold up and banks get paid — it just takes longer than they want," says Williams, who's also working on a joint venture she can't reveal, but describes as "really cool."

    Negotiation pet peeve "People who aren't direct and negotiate just for the sake of negotiating."

    Before a big meeting, I drink … "A Starbucks venti latte."

    A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.