Hollywood's Top 20 Dealmakers of 2019

7:00 AM 11/26/2019

by Ashley Cullins, Trilby Beresford, Paul Bond, Mia Galuppo, Katie Kilkenny, Michael O'Connell, Bryn Elise Sandberg, and George Szalai

Negotiators behind the frontlines of the streaming wars — from Disney+ acquiring eight extra Marvel films to HBO Max nabbing 'Friends' and 'Big Bang Theory' libraries — talk competing for talent and evolving deals.

Dealmakers - Illustration by Tim Peacock - H 2019
Illustration by Tim Peacock

It wasn't too long ago that Hollywood's industry-shifting megadeals were almost exclusively mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures. But the rise of global streaming services has spawned a new era. Deals like this year's recombination of Viacom and CBS are still a big part of the landscape, but Netflix, HBO Max and their rivals doling out eight- and nine-figure talent overalls and spending hundreds of millions on exclusive rights to library content are becoming the norm. THR's fourth annual dealmakers list spotlights the men and women behind some of the most headline-grabbing transactions of 2019 — most of whom subscribe to "literally all" the streamers.

  • James Adams

    Adams negotiated John Krasinski's "groundbreaking" three-year deal to develop projects for Prime Video. "It's not only his first-look deal with Amazon," he says, "it's tied in with what he's done on Jack Ryan as an actor and executive producer." Adams also closed Krasinski's A Quiet Place 2 pact and inked Natasha Lyonne's deal for Russian Doll. "I've represented her since she was 16 years old," says Adams, who has "seen her through everything."

    Book I couldn't put down "Barkskins by Annie Proulx."

    Go-to comfort food "Mac and cheese."

    Worst Hollywood jargon "Influencer!"

    Most antiquated part of modern dealmaking "Telephone conversation, but it is still the most essential part. You have to connect with people, and you can't do that through email. For a lot of people it seems antiquated, but I think it's essential that we should never lose the power of communicating over the phone or in person."

  • Bruce Campbell

    After Discovery's $14.6 billion purchase of Scripps last year, Campbell led the company through a 10-year SVOD partnership with the BBC and and the split-up of their U.K. joint venture channels, a $35 million takeover of Golf Digest and a joint venture with Chip and Joanna Gaines to launch a channel, among others. "While, leaving aside Scripps, we may not do a lot of the multibillion-dollar deals, our volume of deals globally is as high as anyone’s because we are really trying to tackle the globe,” says Campbell, who began his career in the L.A. office of O’Melveny & Myers. "We will continue to look for opportunities to acquire things outright, but never shy away from joint ventures."

    Worst Hollywood jargon "I don’t know if it’s the worst, but certainly increasingly the most overused is 'ecosystem.' Somehow we have all become biology majors, and that’s a go-to when we talk about the industry."

    Work habit I'm trying to break "As a reformed lawyer, I still print out way too many documents. And in this digital age, I need to find a way to be more paperless in my transactions. We are still very paper-intensive in the M&A world."

    Book I couldn't put down "I read consecutively Bad Blood, the Theranos scandal book [by John Carreyrou], followed by Billion Dollar Whale [by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope] about the 1MDB scandal. I found them both truly fascinating stories about manipulation and deceit and the psychology of people who manage to fool so many others on such a massive scale."

  • George Cheeks, Frances Manfredi

    Despite a crowded pool of streamers, NBC's Peacock made a splash with the announcement that it would be the exclusive home of sitcom The Office for the next five years — thanks to Cheeks and Manfredi, who snagged the series from Netflix in a nine-figure deal. Peacock launches in April with additional hit library titles including Amy Poehler-starrer Parks and Recreation and originals like Mike Schur's Rutherford Falls, led by Office alum Ed Helms. 

  • Creighton Condon, Daniel Litowitz

    The New York duo advised Viacom in its all-stock merger with CBS Corp., which is set to close on Dec. 4, creating ViacomCBS, a behemoth with more than $28 billion in annual revenue and 4.3 billion TV viewers worldwide. It's a full-circle moment, as their past work includes the split of Viacom and CBS in 2006.

  • Justin Connolly, Tehmina Jaffer

    Disney+ launched Nov. 12 with eight more Marvel movies than originally planned, including Doctor Strange and Thor. That was thanks to Connolly and his team — which spearheads content distribution for Disney — reclaiming projects previously licensed to other platforms. The ESPN veteran also had a hand in the distribution of the Disney+ app, including a last-minute negotiation to offer the service on Amazon's Fire TV platform. Jaffer, meanwhile, joined in March from Netflix to handle deals on all Disney+ originals, including those from in-house studios as well as third-party projects like CBS Studios' Diary of a Female President.

    Streamers I subscribe to

    Connolly: "Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu."

    Jaffer: "Disney+ and Netflix."

    My 2020 mantra

    Connolly: "Keep it simple and keep it moving."

    Jaffer: "Be more present now, here, today."

    Go-to comfort food

    Connolly: "Pizza."

    Jaffer: "My mom's keema paratha. It's Pakistani — seasoned ground beef in a doughy flatbread."

  • Sandra Dewey, Michael Quigley

    Dewey and Quigley are stocking HBO Max with content for its May launch. Dewey spearheads originals dealmaking, helping land projects from creatives like Greg Berlanti and Reese Witherspoon, while Quigley was behind the streamer's big deals for the Friends ($425 million) and Big Bang Theory (multibillion-dollar) libraries. "We pursued them both aggressively, and I'm glad we won out," he says. The longtime Turner execs also nabbed five new seasons of Sesame Street for HBO Max, along with the past 50 years of its kids programming.

    Work habit I'm trying to break

    Dewey: "Afternoon snacking."

    Quigley: "The working vacation. Emails and 'quick calls' while on vacation are eroding the value of taking a break to refresh and recharge."

    Book I couldn't put down

    Dewey: "She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. Journalists working to uncover truth are doing hero’s work in today’s America, and I am grateful."

    Most antiquated part of modern dealmaking

    Dewey: "So much of still predominant business and payment models is tied to things with diminished relevance — e.g., the broadcast calendar, backends built around downstream windows that may or may not exist, old residual formulas."

    Quigley: "I negotiated a deal in which the other side insisted on a fax contact number for official notices. A fax number — really?! In celebration of the deal close, I sent them a gently used fax machine I found on eBay."

  • David Eisman

    Eisman helped UTA expand its sports presence with the purchase of Rich Paul's Klutch Sports, which represents LeBron James. He also negotiated TPG's purchase of Hollywood payroll services company Entertainment Partners and helped strike a strategic relationship between Scooter Braun and David Maisel's Mythos Studios and represented Quixote Studios, a premier rental company for TV and film.

    Book I couldn't put down "Billion Dollar Whale."

    Work habit I'm trying to break "Leaving my iPhone unmuted overnight."

    Most antiquated part of modern dealmaking "In-person negotiations, which is too bad."

  • Matthew Johnson

    "The marketplace has dramatically changed over the past 12 months because of the competition among the streamers for content," says Johnson, who has been living and working out of Costa Rica for the past 18 months. "A lot of the deals I've been working on are a reflection of the evolving SVOD marketplace." Johnson negotiated a joint venture for Tyler Perry with Viacom to launch BET+, making the creator an equity partner and a programming supplier. He also set up Adam McKay's overall deals (HBO for TV and Paramount for features), landed Phil Lord and Chris Miller an exclusive TV deal with Sony and a first-look for film at Universal, and brokered Alfonso Cuarón's Apple pact.

    Streamers I subscribe to "Literally all of them."

    My 2020 mantra "The most important thing in 2020 in my world is to elect a new president."

    Book I couldn't put down "Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Water Dancer."

    Worst Hollywood jargon "I think the most overused word in Hollywood is 'brand' because I don't think everyone has a brand."

  • Alex Kohner

    Kohner has negotiated deals for some of Hollywoood's most bingeable titles — including Stranger Things showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer's epic nine-figure overall film and TV pact with Netflix, announced in September. While longtime producers like Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes and J.J. Abrams all have recently landed megadeals amid fierce competition for talent, the Duffers differ in that they're relatively new to the business: "In what has traditionally been a precedent business, to have guys who are starting the fourth season [of Stranger Things] make one of the top, top deals … that's groundbreaking," Kohner says. Also on his roster: Leigh Janiak, who's currently in postproduction on the three-part adaptation of R.L. Stine's Fear Street series, and John Cho, who will lead Netflix's take on the iconic Japanese anime series Cowboy Bebop.

    Worst Hollywood jargon "'Deep dive.' This should only be used by people in submarines."

    Book I couldn't put down "Educated by Tara Westover. I hope she will also adapt it for a theatrical version."

    Go-to comfort food "My wife's incredible brownies."

    Most antiquated part of modern dealmaking "Everything about studio accounting."

  • Barbara Meili

    When Meili advised design darlings Chip and Joanna Gaines through negotiations to lend their highly coveted Magnolia moniker to a new Discovery cable network, the chair of Greenberg's New York entertainment and media practice did not have the luxury of time. "There's tremendous time pressure when you're rebranding an existing network, DIY, and need the lead time to produce enough programming to fill it," says Meili of the deal. Ink dry, the Gaineses are now focused on a growing slate and Magnolia's October launch — one Meili is optimistic about: "People get down on linear TV, but these two have a unique concept. I think they're a haven from tumultuous times." 

    Work habit I'm trying to break "Dependency on email in communicating with clients. I made a pact with myself a few years ago that I would pick up the phone more often, schedule more coffees."

    Most antiquated part of modern dealmaking "Endless incremental red lines. I would like for people to agree on a concept and then agree on how to execute it."

  • Nadja Webb Cogsville, Scott Mills

    When preparing to launch a streaming service catering to African American audiences, BET president Mills knew on whom to call: "Tyler [Perry] is to BET as Pixar is to Disney." In 2017, Viacom inked a rich overall pact with Perry, paving the way for BET+, a subscription service that will combine the creator's content with BET's library, market titles (BET+ will be the only SVOD service to have Martin) and originals (Tracy Oliver's First Wives Club). Deputy general counsel Webb Cogsville, a 17-year Viacom veteran, calls the deal "a leviathan," adding, "Within the Viacom family there was no other direct-to-consumer offering."

    Book I couldn't put down

    Mills: "I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes."

    Webb Cogsville: "I just re-read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. I forgot how enjoyable and addictive it was."

    Go-to comfort food

    Webb Cogsville: "Sadly, I find all food comforting!"

    Most antiquated part of modern dealmaking

    Webb Cogsville: "Having only men in the room!"

  • Bryan Noon, Amy Paquette

    Noon and Paquette are behind Netflix's eye-popping talent deals. Amid a bidding war, Noon fashioned a reported $200 million overall deal with Game of Thrones showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, and ensured Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer would stay put. Paquette orchestrated some of Netflix's biggest film deals, including Red Notice starring Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot, Ryan Murphy's adaptation of The Prom and the Beverly Hills Cop sequel led by Eddie Murphy. "Competition has forced prices higher in some circumstances and also elevated the importance of other deal points," says Paquette, citing creative freedom and resources as priorities.

    Work habit I'm trying to break

    Both: "Eating lunch at my desk."

    Streamers I subscribe to

    Noon: "All, at least for a period of time."

    Paquette: "Netflix, of course. Hulu, Amazon and Apple TV+. I'll sign up for Disney+ and HBO Max. Choice is a good thing."

    Go-to comfort food

    Noon: "Tacos (at my desk)."

    Paquette: "Does tequila count?"

    Most antiquated part of dealmaking

    Noon: "Calling and leaving word."

    Paquette: "Using out-of-date models and assumptions to predict the current behavior of a more dynamic consumer — the landscape and the consumer have changed in ways those models never contemplated. In the past, projects were often viewed in content silos. Luckily, at Netflix we have the benefit of working cross-functionally, offering talent the opportunity to leverage projects across teams and global regions."

  • Gretchen Rush

    Rush negotiated some jaw-dropping talent deals, like the nine-figure payday GoT duo Benioff and Weiss got from Netflix. Set amid the war between the WGA and agents, the streamer beat out six other buyers after five months of negotiations that were "about as intense as you get," says Rush. She also inked Reese Witherspoon's $2 million-per-episode deal for The Morning Show (Apple TV+). Meanwhile, the star's Hello Sunshine shingle is working on series for Amazon and Netflix, a model Rush thinks is the future: "With these shorter orders, some of these outlets and platforms are rethinking exclusivity."

    Go-to comfort food "Fries."

    Streamers I subscribe to "Hulu, Apple, HBO Go, Amazon Prime, DirecTV, Netflix and I will sign up for Disney+."

    Most antiquated part of modern dealmaking "What I dislike the most are network test deals. This is obviously my bias as a talent lawyer. The requirement that a studio or a network put a deal in place with a client before they've decided if they actually want the client in the project, that's incredibly stressful and I'm just not a fan. It's not always a fair negotiation. The client doesn't even know if they have the part, necessarily. It's a traditional part of negotiating for talent where you're trying to reduce the bargaining power of an actor. If anything could go away, I would love to eliminate that in our business."

  • Dan Scharf

    Scharf leads the charge on nearly all of the streamer's creative agreements — like overall deals for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino, Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and Fleabag phenom Phoebe Waller-Bridge. "The influx of new buyers has continued [and] accelerated massive above-the-line fee escalations," says Scharf, who also locked down first-look deals with Nicole Kidman, Michael B. Jordan, John Krasinski and Jordan Peele.

    My 2020 mantra "Take a breath. Listen. Pick your battles."

    Book I couldn't put down "The Overstory by Richard Powers."

    Worst Hollywood jargon "We're gonna need 'Studio Economics' on this one."

    Most antiquated part of modern dealmaking "Traditional terms for talent exclusivity are definitely under pressure these days."

  • Robert Schumer

    Schumer advised the special committee of the CBS Corp. board in its merger with Viacom, expected to close on Dec. 4, with a market cap of about $25 billion. The New York-based veteran, a member of Paul Weiss’ mergers and acquisitions group and chair of the firm’s corporate department, has worked on such major deals as Time Warner Cable’s sale to Charter, Endeavor’s merger with William Morris Agency and Warner Music’s sale to Access Industries. He says ViacomCBS will be "a preeminent content provider to the world." It will "have a powerful platform to transition to the next-generation streaming platforms.”

    Work habit I'm trying to break "Multitasking (checking my iPhone while on a conference call)."

    My go-to comfort food "Cauliflower crust pizza."

  • Sheila Spence

    Spotify recruited Spence in 2017 ahead of its IPO to build up its corporate development team. Her work culminated with the 2019 acquisitions of Gimlet Media, Anchor and Parcast, an investment of some $400 million into the podcasting space. She says the Gimlet deal nearly wasn't inked in time for the Feb. 6 announcement. "It was a nail-biting experience," she says of the eleventh-hour negotiation. "I knew what we had to get done, and I wasn't going to make any compromises on the deal terms."

    Book I couldn't put down "Too busy listening. No time to read. I love Gimlet's Science Vs. I recently enjoyed an interesting episode on the science of heartbreak.”

    Worst Hollywood jargon “I get bombarded with businesses raising money or that are for sale, so it is a bonanza of buzzwords. The toppers are 'subscription-based, AI-driven platform that provides frictionless creator monetization.'"

  • Karen Tatevosian

    As the battle to secure top talent has heated up, Tatevosian has helped her studio land and retain some of its biggest boldfaced names. She helped Sony seal a nine-figure pact with Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse helmers Phil Lord and Chris Miller and kept 97-year-old super-producer Norman Lear in-house with a two-year first-look deal. That's not to mention the deals on valuable IP she helped seal, like one for the Breaking Bad spinoff movie El Camino and Lear's comedy One Day at a Time, canceled on Netflix but given a new life on Pop TV. The biggest dealmaking trend she's seen this year? "With the mega-mergers, these conglomerates are stopping buying from their competitors and keeping everything in-house."

    Streamers I subscribe to "Hulu, Netflix, Prime, HBO Go, Apple. I haven't signed up for Disney+ yet. And oddly enough, I still watch broadcast television: There are many shows I still enjoy on broadcast television and on cable."

    Work habit I'm trying to break "Working around the clock."

    Worst Hollywood jargon "Do you know how hot they are?"

  • Matthew Thompson

    Thompson guided Entertainment One, the Canadian force behind series like Criminal Minds and The Walking Dead, in its $4 billion acquisition by toy giant Hasbro and its purchase of unscripted TV producer Blackfin. He also assisted Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia in launching Athleticon with IMG, while helping Star Wars: The Last Jedi team Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman create T-Street and strike a joint venture with MRC (which, like THR, is owned by Valence Media).

    My 2020 mantra "Clients and colleagues are critical, but family first."

    Streamers I subscribe to "About a dozen. Currently, of the 'majors,' Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, Apple, Spotify and Pandora."

    Book I couldn't put down "Man's Search for the Meaning of Life by Viktor Frankl."

    Most antiquated part of modern dealmaking "Profit-sharing that does not actually match how the world works today."

  • Brian Wolfe

    Wolfe advised client Comcast in the unwinding of its Hulu joint venture with Disney. In March, the companies announced a complex deal that saw Disney assume full operational control of the streamer, while Comcast (via NBCU) can sell its stake in 2024 for a minimum of $5.8 billion. "Neither side had to do the deal," says Wolfe. "That meant it had to work for everybody." As a result, the telecom giant can stock NBCU's new streamer, Peacock, with shows it licensed to Hulu like 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live.

    Go-to comfort food "Pizza and wine."

    My 2020 mantra "Stubborn flexibility."

    Worst Hollywood jargon "Influencer."

    A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.