Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell Unleashed: WME-IMG’s Strategy, IPO Plans, China and the Doubters
Fresh from a $5.5 billion valuation and a brash buying spree, the agency's co-CEOs open up on rival CAA (they're "freaking out"), Netflix ("a monopoly"?) Ben Affleck's future as Batman, Trump vs. Hillary, and critics of their $2.4 billion bet on sports and fashion: "They're all f—ing scared of their own goddamn shadow."
A version of this story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
It’s lunchtime on Feb. 29, the Monday after the Oscars, yet the ground-floor restaurant in the Beverly Hills headquarters of William Morris Endeavor has been completely cleared out. Well, almost. Sliding into a booth at Jack & Ben’s, the eatery named for their fathers, are co-CEOs Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell. They have closed the place to sit with The Hollywood Reporter for their first extensive interview since WME’s brash $2.4 billion cash purchase of the sports and fashion powerhouse IMG was completed in May 2014.
Both men were up late, especially Whitesell, who joined longtime clients Ben Affleck and Matt Damon at Guy Oseary’s after-after-afterparty until well past 4 a.m. But their energy and enthusiasm still are apparent, as are the roles they immediately fall into — Emanuel the unfiltered streetfighter agent who, with four colleagues, famously packed up his ICM office in the middle of the night 21 years ago and founded Endeavor; Whitesell his complementary opposite, a gentlemanly Iowan who stepped into the co-CEO role when Endeavor engineered a takeover of the venerable William Morris Agency in 2009. As the Hollywood talent shops WME, Creative Artists Agency and, to a lesser extent, United Talent Agency, have raced to diversify and grow in recent years, WME’s massive (and massively leveraged) bet on IMG by far is the industry’s most watched play. If Emanuel and Whitesell succeed — and new financial data suggest they’re on the right track — they will have reinvented a 10 percent commission business into a global, pan-disciplinary entertainment superpower that, importantly, owns a significant chunk of content as well as represents its creators.
Much has been written about Emanuel, 55, and Whitesell, 51 (especially Emanuel, brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm and top oncologist Zeke, confidant of President Obama and inspiration for Entourage‘s Ari Gold), but the duo has remained relatively quiet as they have undertaken the difficult task of merging two companies and fixing problems they inherited at IMG. Under owner Teddy Forstmann, who died in 2011, IMG had grown into a worldwide player touching sports (it represents such athletes as tennis star Novak Djokovic, skier Lindsey Vonn and Super Bowl quarterback Cam Newton and owns or operates major golf and tennis events around the world); media rights (IMG cuts TV deals for European soccer leagues, Wimbledon and NASCAR); licensing (IMG College reps about 200 U.S. collegiate institutions, and its licensing group helps exploit brands as diverse as Formula One and Playboy); and fashion (IMG Models guides Gisele Bundchen and Gigi Hadid, and IMG runs 32 Fashion Weeks worldwide). But the company essentially was a collection of disparate assets — some of them, such as the lucrative college business, challenged by aggressive competitors.
WME, aided by its majority owner, the Silicon Valley private-equity power Silver Lake Partners, had outbid rivals by paying $300 million more than the next bidder. Adding to the pressure to deliver, WME and Silver Lake, whose managing director Egon Durban remains the primary conduit for Emanuel and Whitesell, took on significant bank debt led by JP Morgan and Barclays, based on what many believed to be wildly ambitious revenue projections and cost-cutting goals for the company. After the deal closed, IMG CEO Michael Dolan was shown the door, and several high-level executives followed. Many suggested Emanuel and Whitesell were in over their well-coiffed heads.
“Patrick and I have always had an idea that distribution is going to disrupt our business. Television, books, the movie business, music — for content creators, the value proposition is going to increase. So in our move from Endeavor to WME, WME to IMG, you’ve seen the expansion of our list of things that create content,” says Emanuel.
But now, 21 months into the merger, there are signs that the reinvention is bearing fruit. On March 23, Japanese telecommunications giant Softbank revealed a $250 million investment in WME-IMG that valued the 5,000-employee company at $5.5 billion. (By contrast, when Silver Lake first bought a 30 percent stake in WME in 2010, the agency was valued at about $800 million.) A company source tells THR another blue chip investor is nearing a deal, and when WME-IMG reports its 2015 financials to its lenders in early April, it will show revenue and profits are up considerably from 2014. Management EBITDA, the company’s internal measure of profitability, is up more than 30 percent year-over-year, says the source, to $405 million versus $303 million in 2014.
Emanuel and Whitesell have used the Silver Lake money to acquire or team with a whopping 12 businesses, branching into areas including Professional Bull Riders, an e-sports league with Turner and buying former client Donald Trump’s Miss Universe Organization. Emanuel, who has taken the lead on the fashion and international businesses, and Whitesell, whose focus is sports, also are executing an aggressive strategy of integrating the formerly siloed divisions. “One of the smartest things Ari and Patrick did was to incentivize collaboration,” notes Mark Shapiro, the former ESPN and Dick Clark Productions executive who was brought in last year as IMG’s chief content officer. “You’re incentivized to push business to other areas of the company.” IMG senior vp talent Carlos Fleming says he saw an immediate impact on client Newton. “Cam has an affinity for the youth market,” says Fleming. “Within 30 days, we had meetings with networks, and within another 30 days, we had sold 20 episodes of a show he’ll host and executive produce for Nickelodeon.”
The new WME-IMG’s mix of clients and cultures was on display at its annual Oscar party, thrown at a $25 million Bel Air mansion. Along with nominees Damon, Brie Larson and Rachel McAdams, Newton chatted with a pot-smoking Wiz Khalifa as Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova mingled near Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Ashley Graham. The company spent millions on a January retreat at Carlsbad’s La Costa resort that, when THR visited, resembled an elaborate TED conference (albeit one where The Killers performed among trucked-in carnival rides). Professor Rob Knight discussed the science of gut microbes, and rapper Killer Mike plugged his friendship with Bernie Sanders. Karl Rove, who debated Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s presidential chances with David Axelrod, cracked from the stage: “Ari, you ought to think about a celebrity election division. All kinds of cross-branding opportunities.”
Despite the new duties and required globe-trotting, Emanuel and Whitesell still represent such A-list clients as Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington and Jake Gyllenhaal (for Whitesell) and Charlize Theron, Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Oprah Winfrey (for Emanuel). [Note: For more WME clients, see Footnote 1 at end of story.] Rival agents maintain the duo is overextended, but Emanuel, who often rises at 4 a.m. (“When I get in my office at 7:30 in New York, he’s the only one I can call — and he’s in L.A.,” says CBS chairman Leslie Moonves), still keeps up a regimen of what can be 300 short calls a day to clients and buyers. “Ari is often calling just to say, ‘Can I help? All good? You need anything?’ They’re fierce advocates for their clients, but they are also cheerleaders [for the industry],” says HBO CEO Richard Plepler. Adds Universal filmed entertainment chairman Jeff Shell, “I haven’t seen one iota of degradation since they’ve taken over IMG.”
The cult of personality around “Ari and Patrick,” as they’re called in the halls, only seems to have grown with their purview. Few CEOs of $5.5 billion companies would prank a rival (in this case, CAA in 2013) by papering Los Angeles with posters reading “CAAN’T.” Moonves invited Emanuel to Augusta for The Masters last spring. When their CBS bungalow didn’t carry the L.A. Lakers game, Emanuel barged into a neighbor’s hut, signed up for the $149 NBA Season Pass and watched half a Lakers game before leaving to go to sleep. “He took out three $50 bills and left them for the people living there,” recalls Moonves.
That bravado popped up several times during THR‘s interview with the pair, in which they discussed a possible IPO, their China strategy, Affleck’s future as Batman and, of course, Trump (Emanuel and Whitesell got on the phone separately for follow-up questions). An edited transcript follows.
“We have created the greatest platform of resources for artists, period,” says Whitesell. “It’s going to be harder for agencies who don’t have that to compete for those type of clients who have an appetite for that.” They were photographed March 14 at Siren Orange Studio in Los Angeles.
You’ve already got a financial backer in Silver Lake, why take on another investor?
PATRICK WHITESELL There’s going to be more M&A opportunity, not less. So we thought having more capital would be good. Everybody always talks about [the company] going public or not. We don’t ever want to be in a position where we feel forced, like we have to or need to go.
And why Softbank?
WHITESELL We feel like their footprint in Asia — I can’t go into a lot, but essentially what they want to do with content in that part of the world given their massive mobile footprint there — is really strategic. Ari and I know Nikesh [Arora, Softbank president and COO] from his Google days, so we have a good relationship with him. His Rolodex, relationships, expertise and judgment would be good.
Do you feel a bit vindicated by the $5.5 billion valuation after so much was written about you guys overpaying?
ARI EMANUEL Yes. Most people are critical of people’s moves if they didn’t get something, whether it be WPP or CVC or any of these people that didn’t get the asset. Everybody will say you overpaid. Patrick and I had a complete idea of what we thought we could create and how [IMG] fit into the pieces and where the world was going. If you created this platform, the ramifications across all our businesses would help the client, whether the client be Aaron Sorkin or Charlize or Wimbledon. It’s actually come true a lot faster than Patrick and I had envisioned, probably about two years faster. [But] I don’t pat myself on the back. Maybe it’s being from an immigrant family [Emanuel’s father, Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, a pediatrician, was born in Jerusalem], we always had to keep on going and worry and make sure you’re thinking ahead of the game.
After all these years, you still feel family pressure to succeed?
EMANUEL Listen, I put my own amount of pressure on myself. Whether psychologically that comes from my parents or my upbringing —
And your brothers.
EMANUEL I put a lot of pressure on myself.
Patrick hinted at further M&A deals you are pursuing. Can you say some of the areas you are interested in?
EMANUEL We’re not going to lay out our playbook for everybody to read.
And what about those who believe you overpaid and took on too much debt?
EMANUEL We now have a platform that enables our clients to go any which way they want. And you can’t replicate it so easily. So for potentially an 18-month period of $300 million too much — I have to ask you this: (To Whitesell) Are you going anywhere?
EMANUEL I’m not going anywhere. So, in the long run, it’s kind of a meaningless issue. [Both Emanuel and Whitesell have 10-year employment contracts with WME-IMG.]
WHITESELL They said that [to Disney’s Bob Iger] about [“overpaying” for] Marvel, they said that about Pixar, right? And Lucasfilm, too. What do you do with the asset once you have it? Our longer-term horizon is, what is it going to be in the next five, 10 years and what can it grow to do? We were really comfortable with the price. But at the end of the day, time will prove whether or not we were right.
EMANUEL Our partners, Silver Lake — the last time I checked, the only people that are important to me are Patrick and them. They were cool [with the price], and I think Patrick’s cool. So we’re all cool. I’m not really worried about WPP or CAA or UTA — who cares?
“Ari [left] is truly one of a kind. Aggressive, never fully satisfied, tenacious and smart — all qualities that make a real leader,” says Rupert Murdoch. Adds Jeff Shell: “Their brains seem to be in sync. I rarely tell something to Ari that Patrick doesn’t seem to know 10 seconds later.”
Explain how the relationship with Silver Lake works. If you identify something like Professional Bull Riders that you want to buy, do you go to Egon and ask for approval?
WHITESELL The three of us make a decision, yeah. Bull Riding fit the general thesis. We have a whole M&A team that does the exhaustive research, the analysis, and then we figure out, “OK, what do we think we can grow it to?” And then the three of us, if we agree, we go do it.
What’s something you haven’t agreed on?
WHITESELL Have we had one yet?
You grew up as agents, now you’re off meeting with college football groups trying to salvage these IMG deals. Do —
EMANUEL — first of all, I don’t appreciate the word “salvage.” I’m not kidding you. I don’t.
Others have written that the college business is one of your biggest challenges. Do you —
EMANUEL — a lot of people have written that we paid too much, and they’ll be proven wrong. A lot of people have written a lot of things because that’s how you sell papers. When we did the analysis, the word “salvage” wasn’t in any of it. We just had to work through contracts and work through processes. One of the great things about the company is nobody’s afraid of hard work. Nobody’s afraid of a whole team chipping in and trying to figure out if there’s a problem somewhere, where you’ve got to work through issues. [See Footnote 2 for IMG College’s reach and issues.]
Emanuel with Vogue’s Anna Wintour at 2016 New York Fashion Week.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in making this company work?
WHITESELL You’ve got to have great people. The business we’re in is mostly people and the relationships that come with those people. With IMG, we’ve had a real positive influence on that culture. It’s no secret they were in a tough spot; the CEO died, and they were for sale for two years. That’s a hard place to work, so a lot of our success has been just making IMG a better place to work.
But what have been the specific target areas for you in working through issues?
EMANUEL We had to revitalize fashion, which we’ve done. We brought out the [Fashion Week] app, we brought out our digital [initiative]. We made the events better. We brought new sponsors in. We bought Made. [In adding Made, IMG absorbed a Fashion Week rival and boosted its footprint in the events space.] We rolled in the makeup artists. The minute we bought [New York Fashion Week], three advertisers pulled out, right? It was a major problem. So we had a whole strategy about it. We now have an OTT channel, we have our app, we have our digital strategy, they’re now all going to come together.
WHITESELL People said similar things when we merged with William Morris: How are you going to make an agency work, they’ve got all these issues? Part of leadership is actually getting in and fixing it, getting the culture right, getting the right people. We think we’re pretty good at that. Every part of our business at WME has grown since the IMG acquisition. IMG had challenges as far as how it was organized, how it was run, not the underlying assets. When Teddy had it, he was a private-equity guy, and he ran it as an investor, right? Looking to sell it. We run it as an operator. You fundamentally structure it and run the company differently. And we have a long-term horizon because we’re not intending to ever sell it. The second thing about IMG is, some of the challenges were what we saw as the opportunity. IMG College was three companies put together. They hadn’t quite thought that through cohesively. They made a decision to take Fashion Week and move it to Lincoln Center and basically were damaging the brand. So we had to go back and rebuild it. For us, it’s no different than when you sign an actor who’s had three bombs in a row. There was no company like it in the world with the collection of assets and resources and relationships —
WHITESELL We don’t compete with anybody in more than 20 percent of our business. That’s an incredible operating leverage. We’ll compete with the talent agencies in two or three businesses. We’ll compete with certain media rights-buying companies internationally. But that diversity is super powerful. Ari and I always said if we didn’t buy IMG and we wanted to duplicate it, how would you do it? And we couldn’t figure out the pieces that you buy.
How do you maintain A-list clients when you’re in places like Jacksonville or Tallahassee meeting with a college sports program? What happens when Ben Affleck or Matt Damon needs something?
WHITESELL Well, the proof’s in the pudding. Since we bought IMG, we signed Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds — and what’s happened to their careers? It’s hard to sit here without being boastful about it. Ari and I still love being agents.
EMANUEL I’m just going to pick one — I’ll pick a couple, if you don’t mind. Steven Spielberg, he had no [television] shows on the air. We signed him [Spielberg signed with WME for television; he remains with CAA for film], he’s got seven. Bob Zemeckis couldn’t get The Walk [made] and couldn’t get his [upcoming] Brad Pitt movie, and we’re starting his television business. Oprah — you can ask her how it’s going. It’s going pretty well. Simon Cowell — I just left a two-day meeting in London, and everything is going on now with him within seven seconds, and on the movie side, too.
From left: Whitesell with Affleck and Damon in 1999, a year after they won a best original screenplay Oscar.
Are you still able to do your hundreds of calls a day with clients?
EMANUEL I’m doing a lot of calls. And the great thing is, now [CAA’s] Richard Lovett is calling those people. (Laughs.) If I just put up Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron and their movie and television business compared to (sarcastic) the incredible movie and television business that [CAA has] done with Will Smith and the incredible television business they’ve done with Brad Pitt — [CAA’s] freaking out right now.
WHITESELL It’s a cheap line to say, “You’re off doing these meetings and what if so-and-so calls.” Ari and I, it’s much more a chief executive relationship. I guess it would be like Bob Iger used to do programming with ABC and now —
But Bob Iger’s direct reports at Disney can’t fire him. If Aaron Sorkin can’t get you on the phone, he’s pissed.
EMANUEL But he can.
WHITESELL With the representation thing, it’s a cheap shot because people are going, “What the f—, they’re kicking our ass still, and they’re building this other stuff outside our business.” That’s threatening, and it scares people. All I would look at is the clients. If they were unhappy, they would fire us, right? Everybody gets fired from time to time, but in general, if you look at the totality of our business and our own personal businesses, they have grown. So, that’s the answer.
EMANUEL My response is just I’m pissed off at hearing it. It’s such a joke.
Patrick, how long do you think Ben will want to play Batman?
WHITESELL Well, he’s contracted to do at least Justice League One and Two, so at least three times wearing the cape. And there’s a script that he’s written that is a really cool [Batman] idea, so that’s out there as an option.
Would you ever suggest Matt do a Batman movie with him?
WHITESELL (Laughs.) No. I don’t think there’s room for both.
David Geffen, your friend, has said this company will go public. Do you agree?
WHITESELL No mandate. But here’s the thing. Everybody talks about a public company like that would be a bad thing. It may be a great thing. Who knows? We will not be forced to go public. This is, again, people in Hollywood who don’t understand — they’re not sophisticated about it.
Ari, are you willing to subject yourself to the scrutiny of running a public company?
EMANUEL That’s why I’ve got a great partner. (Laughs.)
You might not be able to tell people to f— off as much as you do.
EMANUEL I don’t know, we’ll see.
“One of the smartest things Ari and Patrick did was to incentivize collaboration,” notes Mark Shapiro, the former ESPN and Dick Clark Productions executive who was brought in last year as IMG’s chief content officer.
You’ve trimmed costs at WME and IMG. Were agents asked to forgo a part of their bonuses last year in exchange for a piece if the company goes public?
WHITESELL No. What we’ve done is we’ve created, for top execs — some 400 or 500 people at our company —
EMANUEL If they want —
WHITESELL We created an opportunity for equity in the company, which we want to be a great thing, and to spread it around, unlike other people in our business who haven’t done the same thing —
EMANUEL — who have taken everything off the table for themselves.
WHITESELL So do we have a number of people who have equity in the company? Yes. Do we think we’re going to create long-term wealth for them that will be outside what they could do without it? Yes. But was it thrust upon anybody? No.
EMANUEL Unlike other people who own different companies who took the vast majority of the money and put it in their pockets — actually, to the detriment of our own financial upside, Patrick and I didn’t think that was appropriate.
Obviously you’re talking about CAA. What is the strategy for those guys?
EMANUEL We have no clue, nor do we think about it. [In October 2014, TPG Capital raised its stake in CAA to 52 percent. While CAA has used the money to make more than 10 strategic investments to grow and diversify, it has not been as active as WME since the IMG deal.]
Do you worry CAA or TPG may try to go public first and their success or failure would impact your effort?
How comfortable do you feel at a bull-riding event or front row at Fashion Week?
WHITESELL Can I say just one thing? There’s an inference that we’re traveling all over the world all of a sudden. We’ve been traveling in this job since we started, that’s what you do. You travel. So are we traveling more? No. Bull riding is like a client. It’s a unique sport. They have a certain connection with their fans, they have a certain area where they want to grow, they have a way in which they want to be portrayed in the world, to make money, but they also have a certain integrity to it and they want fresh ideas. It’s no different than working with a director.
What’s a growth area of the business that people aren’t paying enough attention to?
EMANUEL China’s a pretty big puzzle to solve.
You’ve met several times with Alibaba’s Jack Ma. What do you talk about?
EMANUEL Well, you’ll see very soon our strategy in China.
Tell me what your strategy is.
EMANUEL I can’t do that right now. But China is a very important puzzle to solve, and if we solve that, then we’ve solved a pretty big puzzle for where the movie business for our clients is going and the television business is going. And sports.
Emanuel (left) and Whitesell (second from right) entertained Alibaba’s Ma (second from left) in WME’s seats at a 2014 Lakers game. Emanuel has visited Ma in China but is not formally advising him.
What are Jack Ma’s goals in entertainment?
EMANUEL I don’t know because we’re not formally or informally advising him.
But you chat with him.
EMANUEL Going to the original [Endeavor] premise in ’95, content is king. We have movies and television, and we have sports. So we have a solve for a bunch of those [Chinese] companies that is unique. You’ll see our foray into China that solves a bunch of their issues. They’ve made huge investments in distribution, and they’re going to need stuff to fill the pipes.
Netflix has become a major buyer for you. How long can this streaming television boom last and what do you think is the long-term strategy at Netflix?
WHITESELL It’s a land grab, right? [Netflix] is trying to get to a point where they feel like a monopoly. I don’t think they’ve used that word, but to have a “dominant position.” It’s all about original content for them right now. They licensed all these libraries to get a foothold, and they’ve done very well with it.
EMANUEL And they really haven’t paid proper pricing for that library, right? They’ve gotten away with that.
WHITESELL Now Amazon is going to go out and release movies theatrically. We’re going to see how they do. We just came off this Sundance festival where we had two record-selling movies by a lot. [WME’s indie film division sold Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ for $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight and Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Manchester by the Sea’ to Amazon for $10 million.] But OK, what happens now? How do they handle them theatrically? If they’re Oscar-worthy, how’s that campaign? If they do that, great, then they’re going to have success. If they don’t, [the market will] come back. It was crazy when HBO started doing original content. Now you think that’s the gold standard. Disruption is great because it creates more opportunities for our clients. At Netflix, you get the certainty of it getting made. The flipside is, in syndication could your backend be compromised? It could be.
EMANUEL Patrick and I are trying new things. Some have worked, some haven’t worked. We don’t like to talk about any of the ones that haven’t worked. (Laughs.) But the good thing about the company and the clients is they want to try new things. [WME also helped start merchant bank Raine, which backed Vice Media and ‘South Park’ creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Important Studios, and Media Rights Capital, which produces ‘House of Cards’ and the ‘Ted’ movies.] People talk about [risks] because they’re all f—ing scared of their own goddamn shadow.
What’s going to happen to Paramount? Is consolidation coming to the studios?
EMANUEL We live in a $160 billion ecosystem. The cable bundle is about $100 billion, and then there’s about a $50 billion or $60 billion advertising bundle. If the majors do not solve that issue, they will get marginalized by the Amazons, Netflixes and SVOD services. Then there will be consolidation. If the studios can figure out a solve, I think there will be less. I don’t think Disney is going anywhere so quickly, I don’t think Comcast [is either] because they have their own distribution. I don’t think Fox is going anywhere, I don’t think Warner Bros. is going anywhere, and neither is CBS — these are still good businesses, but they have to solve for the bundle, and if they can find a solution, I don’t think there’s going to be as much consolidation as people think.
The diversity issue is front and center. Do you agree agencies aren’t putting enough diverse directors on shortlists for jobs?
EMANUEL Hold on. The top five shows packaged by agencies all have diversity in them. Go through them!
That’s the TV business, not film.
WHITESELL Well, in the film business, you go meet with the studios because, remember, they’re the buyer. We’re the seller. They usually say, “Here’s what we’re looking for, here’s what we need, here is our slate.” And then we react to that and bring them ideas based upon it. I’m not trying to put all the responsibility on them. It’s a shared responsibility. It’s not just African-Americans, it’s Hispanics, it’s Asians, it’s everything. It’s women. But the notion that the agencies are just holding back their diverse projects is crazy. It’s crazy.
Donald Trump was a WME client. You guys are both committed Democrats and have contributed to Hillary in this campaign. Given some of Trump’s rhetoric, would you have him back as a client after the election if he doesn’t win?
EMANUEL I’m not contemplating any of that. I’m not delving into that conversation with you.
OK. How did the deal with Trump for Miss Universe come together?
EMANUEL There was a problem. He was running [for president]. He wanted to sell it. “Great, we want to buy it.”
Emanuel was featured in THR’s Next Generation list in 1994, a year before launching Endeavor.
Did you have the Fox deal to broadcast the show in your head beforehand?
EMANUEL No. I would have rather it been back on NBC. But there was stuff going on between all of that. [Trump sued NBC after it pulled Miss Universe in response to Trump’s comments about Mexican “rapists.” Trump then bought out NBC’s 50 percent interest in the pageant company, settled the litigation and sold the whole thing to WME-IMG.]
What do you think Obama will do post-presidency, and will you help?
EMANUEL I have no idea. I’m assuming he is going to take a little break, having heard from my brother what happens with other presidents.
Would WME help if he wanted you to set up a book or a speaking tour?
EMANUEL I want to be the first one in line, but there’s probably other people.
Do you think Hillary has a Hollywood enthusiasm problem?
EMANUEL Probably her best friend is Haim [Saban], so he’s probably working through that, and there’s some other supporters. I think it’s contingent on whom she faces. So …
If it’s a Trump-Hillary battle?
EMANUEL I can give you my brother’s number, he’ll be happy to [talk]. I don’t want him to talk about Hollywood, and I don’t want to talk about political issues.
OK, done with politics. How do you identify the places to invest?
WHITESELL The general thing is if we think we can buy something that our platform or network can enhance in a different way than others. Buying something that can operate as a stand-alone [business] and doesn’t have some integration or leverage or will drive more revenue and more creative ideas toward it, we won’t buy. So when you buy Bull Riders, they have a huge events business. And we have a sponsorship business.
WHITESELL We represented them in their media deals before as agents, right? So a lot of the areas and where they want to go is in our core skill set. That’s at the heart of our M&A strategy.
EMANUEL On e-sports, we have clients in that area. We realized it was a huge growing area — we have a pretty big research group. We look at the space and at all our businesses, and we have a whole team thinking creatively. What could we do from our media group, from our representation group? The group came together and said we should create a league. We thought through what that meant and then went and sold it and got a partner with TNT. That’s the whole thesis.
Do you see any conflict in being an advocate for your clients and being a content owner and distributor now?
EMANUEL You mean in bull riding and in e-sports? No.
WHITESELL Events matter more than ever, right? So that pro bull-riding weekend or food festival or college football game — what is the content besides that core thing? It’s [WME client] Brad Paisley doing free concerts on a Friday night. Sponsors love it. He loves it because he’s 40-some years old, a huge country star and 18- to 22-year-old kids go and see him. That’s where the cycle’s power is because it’s great for him and it’s great for our university partners because they have this great content there. No other company in the world can do this in our space.
Where do you see the agency business in five years?
WHITESELL I don’t know. We have created the greatest platform of resources for artists, period. Now, you may take advantage of two of the [platforms], one of them, or 15 of them. But it’s going to be harder for agencies who don’t have that to compete for those type of clients who have an appetite for that.
EMANUEL I don’t know how many years ago, eight years ago, Richard Lovett [of CAA] made this comment that they’re going to represent everybody, right? (Laughs.) Those agencies are [still] going to exist, it’s great if they exist. We’re just doing our thing.
WHITESELL We respect our competitors. We battle them in the areas that we work against them.
EMANUEL Twenty percent only.
WHITESELL And listen, what we’re building, some clients will be attracted to, and those are the ones we want to represent. And the ones that aren’t, it’s OK.
A head of a TV network said to me, “Ari’s head is getting too big. He thinks he owns the world. He’s getting out of control.” How do you respond to that?
EMANUEL I don’t. Patrick has to put up with it.
WHITESELL People make crazy characterizations about Ari that aren’t true, right? No one works harder, no one’s more loyal. No one cares more about the people he works for and with — and he’s fearless. And I think that scares people sometimes. But those things are the real qualities. All the other bullshit anecdotes and the Ari Gold [from Entourage], that ain’t the real guy. Someone has another agenda when they bring that up.
EMANUEL That’s very sweet.
“If you’re a content creator or you are a premium brand, there are more ways for you to monetize that. A part of this has been to go deeper and then go broader. And then all of it connects — even at our [Oscars] party, the world of sports, entertainment, fashion and live events all connect,” says Whitesell.
1. The WME side of WME-IMG reps about 5,000 clients, from actors (Christian Bale, Amy Adams) to filmmakers (Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino) to reality stars (Kardashians) to TV writers (Howard Gordon, Greg Berlanti) to media players (Charlie Rose, Chris Matthews), music stars (Adele) and even media brands like The New York Times, Fast Company and THR and sister outlet Billboard.
2. Of the “Power 5” conferences (SEC, ACC, Pac 12, Big 12, Big Ten), IMG College reps more than half the schools, but several, including the University of Kentucky, have either cut ties or renegotiated deals in recent years. IMG’s licensing affiliate and its brands comprise nearly 75 percent of the $4.6 billion retail market for collegiate merchandise.