UTA's Comedy Wheel Rolls Over CAA (Analysis)

Hollywood Sign - H 2014
AP Photo/Reed Saxon

Hollywood Sign - H 2014

As a phalanx of CAA agents — along with stars like Chris Pratt and Will Ferrell — join UTA, the agency's fortunes are looking up.

In the early 2000s, UTA was a king in the comedy world, repping such actors as Will Ferrell, Dave Chappelle, Drew Carey and Jason Alexander of Seinfeld. It had even developed a winning formula for packaging its comedy stars called the Wheel of Comedy, putting writers and directors together with proven names and rising talent.

But then in July 2005, two of UTA's agents, Jason Heyman and Martin Lesak, defected to CAA. Ferrell absconded from the agency along with them. The Wheel began to fall apart.

Today, close to 10 years later, that wheel may start rolling again for UTA, now that Heyman and Lesak are returning, bringing with them fellow CAA agents Greg Cavic, Nick Nuciforo and Gregory McKnight as well as clients like Ferrell and Chris Pratt.

Just as Heyman and Lesak's departure from UTA a decade ago knocked that agency's comedy clout for a loop, CAA’s comedy and talent division has been dealt a serious smackdown by their decision to return to UTA. "They basically took almost an entire department out of CAA!" says one agency insider, agog at the news. “That is literally what happened.”

The move — it's still unclear how long it was in the works — took most everyone by surprise. Even clients didn’t know an exodus was about to happen. 

One insider points to the agents' unhappiness at CAA: “Heyman and Lesak were disgruntled for so long. They just weren’t happy. But no one in a billion years thought they would ever leave.”

And no one predicted they would return to UTA, given how acrimonious their original departure had been and the devastating effects it had on the agency they left. UTA fell behind, reshaping the landscape so that CAA and WME emerged as the Big Two (thanks in part to giant investments from private equity firms TPG and Silver Lake, respectively).

How all the dust settles has yet to be determined. Not only actors, but also writers are in play — as well as other agents. In the wake of the initial news this morning, another group of agents — John Sacks, Susie Fox and Joanna Scott — also left CAA to join UTA.

Meanwhile, CAA's Rachel Rusch, Chelsea McKinnies, Mackenzie Condon, Bill Zotti, Ryan Abboushi, Matt Blake, Matt Frost and Andrew Skikne are among a further group of agents that are rumored to also be on the move.

Among the stars now joining the UTA roster, Pratt will have an immediate impact, both financially and image-wise. Signing Hollywood’s new favorite matinee idol (Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World) is a huge win for UTA, which, while it has developed a strong reputation in comedy talent and lit, needed to stock more big household names to go along with those it already represents, like Angelina Jolie, Benedict Cumberbatch, Seth Rogen and Channing Tatum.

And Ferrell will be returning home to UTA in the immediate wake of the $34 million opening for Get Hard, a commercial return to form for the established funnyman, whose prolific Gary Sanchez banner should also bring UTA plenty of more business in the coming years.