Gotham Group CEO Ellen Goldsmith-Vein on Mass Agent Exodus and the Future of the 'Maze Runner' Franchise

Ellen Goldsmith-Vein
Photographed by Chad Kirkland

The founder of Hollywood's only major woman-owned production-management company talks about agents becoming managers, negotiating backend and lighting votive candles for Biden-Harris.

Back in 1993, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein launched management company The Gotham Group out of a guest bedroom in her Hollywood Hills home. With a clientele almost entirely focused on animation, the San Diego native became the go-to rep in the long-neglected space. “Animation was considered the bastard stepchild of the entertainment industry,” she says. “Now, of course, it’s a multibillion-dollar business, and everybody wants to be in.” Like Jordan Peele, who co-wrote, produced and stars in the upcoming Wendell and Wild, directed by her longtime client Henry Selick and which she is producing. “It’s sort of if Henry and Jordan had a baby,” she says.

In the late 1990s, Gotham Group merged with Michael Ovitz’s AMG. Though the AMG experiment was short-lived, the partnership helped Gotham expand into representing such authors as Rick Riordan and Jonathan Franzen. As a result, the company now represents more IP than any other Hollywood firm given that it handles a significant chunk of major publishers’ backlists. With a staff of 40, Gotham also is the largest management-production company solely owned by a woman (and has retained its entire staff despite mass industry layoffs during the pandemic). The married mother of two — who also is a top Democratic fundraiser alongside her husband, entrepreneur Jon Vein — spoke to THR via Zoom from her home in Big Sky, Montana. She discussed the agent exodus toward management (most recently resulting in former CAA, UTA and WME reps launching Range Media Partners), the future of the Maze Runner franchise, and why Rep. Adam Schiff is a bigger draw than a movie star during this election.

What’s your read on all the changes in the representation business?

There’s still a lot of uncertainty in the large agencies with respect to the WGA. So yes, there are a lot of agents who are leaving and becoming managers. The more, the merrier. Managers are pretty collegial, and we all work together and support each other. Agents have a different stance on the way that they approach signing clients and spend a ton of their waking hours trying to take clients from each other. And as many of these agents have become managers, they don’t really operate under the same code of ethics that we do. There have been certain situations where we’ve had to go to the powers that be at various other management companies just to remind them that when somebody is represented somewhere, they are represented there unless they choose to leave, whether you had a relationship with them as their agent or not.

Where is the money coming from for all these new management companies?

There are a lot of people who have been successful in other businesses, whether it’s real estate or banking or private equity. So they find themselves, especially now, wanting to find other ways to deploy money. Entertainment is certainly a risk, but for many people it’s a rounding error. The only unfortunate thing is that a lot of those people don’t deliver economically on the promises that they make.

Is Gotham Group owned entirely by you or do you have private equity investors?

It’s just me. We have never taken on any partners, although we have made efforts in the past to try to figure out ways with AMG, which was a merger and actually a really great opportunity for us to grow the business. In fact, that’s how we ended up in the book and production space. Fortunately, we have never had the need to take on any partners. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t do that in the future, but it would have to be the right people. We have been approached, and if the right person came along and it made sense — we operate by committee because we really are a big family — it just hasn’t made sense in the past.

Do you think the representation business will ever return to how it was pre-COVID?

I doubt it. It has created a lot of financial hardship for people, especially for the big agencies. For us, supporting a lot of overhead and a lot of [staff] can be very challenging given both COVID and the political climate. I think that it’s a little bit Darwinian in that the strong will survive.

As the only woman who owns a major management company, have you faced sexism?

When we left AMG, we were thinking about trying to find a strategic relationship with one of the agencies. I met with one of the heads of one of the big agencies around 2001. He reluctantly met with me, and he listened to me talk about our business and animation and books and IP and content was king and the whole speech that I gave him. He said, “If we were going to bake a cake, our agency has all the ingredients that we need. You’re in the sprinkles business, and we don’t really need sprinkles on our cake.” I remember thinking, “What an asshole.” I will never forget the sprinkles speech.

How did you get your start?

There was one guy in the animation representation business, Stuart Kaplan, who had a company called Atlas Management and was looking to bring in a partner. Stuart was the Mike Ovitz of the animation business. He had maybe 10 clients. When I joined him, I thought naively that he was going to continue working. What Stuart never told me, but I discovered about six months after, was that he had AIDS. And that was when people didn’t survive. So, many of my original clients were Stuart’s clients. And he was working with people like John Lasseter and the Aardman guys and all the big creators in children’s television — Paul Germain, who did the first Simpsons shorts and created Rugrats. I was able to build off of Stuart’s client base. We signed pretty much everyone — Seth MacFarlane, we sold Family Guy to Fox. It was just an amazing time to be in the animation business because no one had representation.

Stargirl, based on a YA series, was poised to be a Disney theatrical film and then migrated to Disney+. From a deals perspective, how does the studio compensate for the lost backend, and is it equitable?

I had made a promise to [author] Jerry [Spinelli] many years ago that I would get that movie made. And we went through a lot of different incarnations. We had everybody from Chloë Moretz to Dakota Fanning attached at one point to play Stargirl. Paul Feig was supposed to direct. So we have this amazing lawyer, and he ran through [the numbers], and there’s a backend [with the Disney+ deal]. It’s not gross participation. But you know what, it was enough. And the movie was extraordinary. Julia Hart did an amazing job directing. She and Jordan [Horowitz], her husband, just delivered the sequel to the studio and are doing another pass. We are excited to make that movie. For us, that was the win.

Gotham Group’s film All Together Now launched Aug. 28 on Netflix. Now that Netflix is releasing more than a film a week, is it able to make anything rise above the noise, marketing-wise?

They do an amazing job at Netflix. They are so good about delivering information to the filmmakers. We watched the movie sort of levitate up into the top 10. And a lot of that is the way they do publicity. The outdoor campaign, inasmuch as people are able to get outside, was marvelous.

What was the mindset behind launching Gotham Reads amid the COVID crisis and how were you able to enlist everyone from Cory Booker to Jane Fonda?

I just felt so bad for families and kids who were suddenly unable to access any kind of learning materials, books, a connection to the outside world and to people who were reaching out to them in any way. I just thought that we have all of these great authors and illustrators who we work with. It’s amazing how you see people being so generous with their time and wanting to be able to help with a program like this. We have over 100 videos now on Gotham Reads. Our incredible partners at First Avenue Machine, our sister company, have done a ton of legwork and then the team of Gotham have been furiously editing films. It’s maybe one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

What was the genesis of Wendell & Wild?

Henry sent me was a few pages on these two demon dusters, and I was like, “Henry, this has to be a movie.” He was like, “No, no, no, no,” for years. One day out of the blue, probably five or six years ago, Henry called me and was like, “I’ve been thinking about Wendell and Wild, and what do you think about Key & Peele. Everybody in my office were like, “That’s the best idea ever.” And I was like, “[whispers] Wait, who are Key & Peele?” I watched some of their stuff. They were hilarious. And I called their manager and sent a few pages for Jordan and Keegan. Twenty minutes later, he called back. “They love the idea and they’d like to talk.” Jordan was a big horror fan, and he loved Henry’s movies. So it was this kind of crazy serendipitous moment. Jordan and Keegan brought their special sensibility to the film. Jordan has been working with Henry on the script. We sold the book to Simon & Schuster, and it is an incredible film. I saw some of the animation last night and it’s just extraordinary. I mean, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’s sort of if Henry and Jordan had a baby. We’re mid-production in Portland, Ore., where the crew has suffered through fires, most recently, COVID and a lot of political and social unrest. It’s been a very challenging movie. Netflix has been an incredible partner. They’ve risen to the occasion at every single step.

Any life left in the Maze Runner franchise?

James Dashner just delivered another book in the series. We’ve been talking to Disney about what’s next for Maze Runner. There’s a ton to do there; either it’s a TV series or a series of prequels.

You have Masters of Doom set up at USA and Washington Black at Hulu. What is the biggest difference for you as a producer between a traditional cable channel versus a streamer?

There hasn’t been any difference. But almost everything that we have that’s moving forward is at a streamer. Percy Jackson, Washington Black, Spiderwick, which we are rebooting at Apple. But the process feels the same. We have this new deal at Fox 21 Touchstone that we’re super excited about. It’s been an amazing experience working with Bert Salke and his team over there.

How did you and your husband become so involved in Democratic fundraising?

Jon went to Harvard Law School, and he overlapped with Obama. We were pretty involved very early on in that campaign. And when Barack came to our house, I remember it was hard to get people to show up. I had been making this Elmo special with Jamie Foxx for CBS, so I asked him if he would come and introduce Barack, which he kindly did.

You were an early Kamala Harris backer and are now on the Biden Harris national finance committee. What’s the mood now?

Kamala is not only an incredible human being but very, very smart and was the right choice. All I can say is we have our votive candles lit and hope people will go to the polls to vote. We are bullish.

In 2016, it appeared that celebrity involvement from the likes of Lena Dunham did little to move the needle and maybe hurt the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Has that influenced strategy in 2020?

There is an event coming up with Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton. People are more interested in hearing about those kinds of events. People want answers, and I don’t think that the answers they’re looking for can necessarily be provided by the Hollywood group that participated in 2016. They’d rather be on a Zoom with Adam Schiff.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.