Ariel Emanuel, principal architect of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, has a roster that includes many A-list names.
June 10, 2009
Mogul Ascends With Old Hollywood Clout
By MICHAEL CIEPLY and BROOKS BARNES
LOS ANGELES — In 1992, Ariel Zev Emanuel, a young operative with the struggling InterTalent agency, had a problem with the rent on a $639-a-month walk-up in the city’s modest Fairfax district. The landlord took him to court seeking eviction, and won.
Today, Mr. Emanuel has a $10 million home in the Brentwood neighborhood; a pipeline to the White House through his brother Rahm, its chief of staff; and a sprawling new talent agency of his own design, called William Morris Endeavor Entertainment.
As Hollywood stories go, that is a good start. But it needs a third act.
Long known as a hardball player of considerable skill, Mr. Emanuel, 48, has emerged in the last six weeks as the pre-eminent power player in a Hollywood that has often bemoaned the sunset of colorful moguls from an older generation, including Michael Ovitz and David Geffen.
As the co-chief executive and principal architect of William Morris Endeavor, formed in late April by the merger of Mr. Emanuel’s Endeavor with the venerable William Morris Agency, Mr. Emanuel has finally stepped into their shoes — assuming he can hold his venture together. He spent much of the last week in mixers meant to help hundreds of wary colleagues from the newly joined agencies get comfortable with one another.
Hollywood, meanwhile, is still struggling to get comfortable with Mr. Emanuel and his aspirations — and to figure out exactly what makes him tick.
“It’s about respect,” offered J. C. Spink, a young producer who, with his business partner Chris Bender, has been a protégé of Mr. Emanuel’s. “With nine out of 10 people, if not more, they tend to be in this business for respect.”
Others queried in the last week mentioned power, money, an itch to surpass the Creative Artists Agency, and, most intriguing, a surge of ambition that came with the return of Mr. Emanuel’s brother Rahm, a former Clinton adviser, to the White House with President Obama. “Ari wants an empire,” said one associate, who insisted on anonymity to protect his relationship.
If empire is indeed being born here, it is being shaped by a restless achiever who hungers for the bold stroke — as when Mr. Emanuel and three colleagues in 1995 started Endeavor with a nighttime raid on their own office files at International Creative Management — even when that leaves a mess to be cleaned up afterward. In the case of their I.C.M. caper, James A. Wiatt, then president of the agency, caught and fired the four before they could quit.
Even hardened observers of Hollywood’s coarse ways were stunned when Mr. Emanuel and his colleagues dumped dozens of Morris agents and parted ways with Mr. Wiatt, who had since become the Morris chairman, less than a month after the merger was approved. Mr. Wiatt, 62, had expected to continue as chairman for perhaps a year, but has decided to leave in the coming months.
(Mr. Wiatt declined to comment and Rahm Emanuel did not respond to queries for this article.)
Even as Mr. Wiatt opted out, Mr. Emanuel’s temper flared in negotiations with NBC over the drama “Medium,” which was created by one of his clients, Glenn Gordon Caron. The spat, which broke out when the network balked at financial terms, concluded with “Medium” moving to CBS and Mr. Emanuel threatening Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, with personal ruin, according to three people with knowledge of the incident. Mr. Graboff declined to comment; an Emanuel colleague insisted the threats were not personal.
“Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of Ari Emanuel, especially now that his brother is running the White House,” said one television executive, who asked for anonymity to preserve harmony with him.
Mr. Emanuel is now pushing toward a next step that will involve an alliance with a still-to-be-formed investment firm. The goal is to put financial firepower behind the agency, new capital that could, for instance, allow partners or clients of William Morris Endeavor to finance media start-ups or its own productions.
To that end, Joseph Ravitch, an investment banker formerly at Goldman Sachs, and Jeffrey A. Sine, from UBS Warburg, have been working quietly for months to assemble a firm and a fund that would involve William Morris Endeavor and Mr. Emanuel. Prior to the merger, Goldman considered organizing a purchase of Endeavor. But a deteriorating economy, coupled with a growing sense that William Morris was vulnerable, led instead to talks — with Mr. Ravitch advising Endeavor — that resulted in the current merger.
(Neither Mr. Ravitch nor Mr. Sine returned calls for this article; Mr. Emanuel declined to be interviewed.)
But people who have been briefed on the financial enterprise said Mr. Ravitch expects to have it up and running this year, giving William Morris Endeavor access to perhaps the most sought-after commodity in show business: Fresh capital.
Too, Mr. Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell, a fellow co-chief of William Morris Endeavor, have been spending time, on the golf course and off, with Theodore J. Forstmann. A friend of both, the private investor controls IMG, a powerhouse sports and media agency that produces lucrative events like fashion shows and golf tournament programming.
Despite widespread speculation about an alliance or merger between the new agency and IMG, no formal ties are likely in the near future, according to people who are involved with each agency and spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid damaging relationships.
If past is prologue, Mr. Emanuel’s approach to growth will be anything but conventional.
Two years ago, in a speech at a gala for the Lab School of Washington and Baltimore, which presented him an award for outstanding achievers with learning disabilities, Mr. Emanuel described his idiosyncratic business style as being rooted in a struggle with dyslexia.
Captured in a video now posted on YouTube, a nervous Mr. Emanuel said that dyslexics, if they overcome their disability at all, do so by inventing a path of their own. The effort “actually provides them with insight to find inventive solutions to life and in business that others when they’re in those situations probably never find,” Mr. Emanuel said.
Mr. Emanuel boasted in the video that he now reads scripts for clients like Larry David and Martin Scorsese. More, even Mr. Scorsese would be at home in a state-of-the-art screening room in Mr. Emanuel’s house, purchased four years ago for $9.85 million, as a 10-year-old Endeavor was coming into its own. (As for that Fairfax district eviction, Mr. Emanuel, who had irked the landlord by trying to use his security deposit for his last month’s rent, moved out before any sheriff showed up.)
Mr. Emanuel’s dominance within Endeavor — universally acknowledged, though he had no formal title and shared control with three other members of a permanent governing group — was built around a client list that is unusually scattershot.
It includes those with long-time connections, like the writers John Altschuler and David Krinsky, a team who had started many years before at InterTalent and later helped produce the animated “King of the Hill,” and the actor-filmmaker Peter Berg, who was Mr. Emanuel’s roommate at Macalester College in Minnesota. They are matched by a roster of movie stars as eclectic as Mark Wahlberg, Michael Douglas and Sacha Baron Cohen. Then come writer-producers like Greg Daniels (“The Office”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”), and a grab-bag of performers and media types whose common threat might simply be that they are interesting to know.
In this last category, Mr. Emanuel has represented the documentary filmmakers Michael Moore and Errol Morris, “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien, basketball star Shaquille O’Neal and interviewer Charlie Rose.
A year ago, Mr. Rose, on his television show, moderated a freewheeling session with the brothers Rahm, Ari and Ezekiel Emanuel, a renowned bioethicist who described his brothers as being driven by an ethos: “What are you doing today to make the world better?”
In Ari’s case, that has meant driving a hybrid Prius and electric Tesla, keeping the roof of his home lined with solar panels and serving as a director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Action Fund.
But Mr. Emanuel has also undertaken less high-minded ventures. For instance, he became one of the biggest shareholder in, and a consultant to, Tablemax Holdings — a small Las Vegas-based company that makes electronic gambling tables (“Caribbean Stud Poker”) for Indian casinos and other gambling operations.
“I do actually believe it’s going to come through,” said Gavin Polone, a Hollywood producer who was recruited as a fellow investor by Mr. Emanuel. Mr. Polone joined the agent in guaranteeing millions of dollars in bank loans for the company, which has been struggling in the tough economic climate.
Another foray involves Live Nation, the concert company whose proposed merger with Ticketmaster is under review by federal antitrust regulators. Mr. Emanuel is on the Live Nation board, but directors of the combined companies have not yet been named.
Mr. Emanuel’s position will be complicated by the merger of Endeavor, which had no significant music business, with William Morris, a music powerhouse whose performer clients will find their fortunes affected by deals with the new concert company.
But Michael Rapino, chief executive of Live Nation, said he did not see a potential conflict of interest in Mr. Emanuel’s evolving roles. “We hope he would find time to continue to be a member,” he said.
Mr. Rose, a friend who describes himself as “the fourth Emanuel brother,” acknowledged that something about Mr. Emanuel’s status has changed in recent weeks.
“It seems to have kicked to another level,” Mr. Rose said. “A convergence of things has enabled him to be seen at a more commanding height.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Natural Resources Defense Council.