LOS ANGELES, Oct. 24 — One of Hollywood’s top five talent agencies has created an online unit devoted to scouting out up-and-coming creators of Internet content — particularly video — and finding work for them in Web-based advertising and entertainment, as well as in the older media.
The move by the United Talent Agency — best known as the home of comedians like Vince Vaughn and Jack Black, filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan and television producers like Dick Wolf and David Chase — amounts to a bet, albeit a modest one, that Web video is on a growth curve similar to that of cable television a generation ago. It is also a return by Hollywood’s core talent representatives to the sort of new-media business they tested, without great success, at the peak of the dot-com boom.
The goal this time around, executives say, is not only to recruit the next generation of television and film writers and directors from the relative obscurity of sites like YouTube and Revver. It is also to help the major Web portals that are hungry for original content to find the creative people they need — just as movie studios have long turned to talent agencies when looking for new directors, screenwriters and actors.
“It starts with just helping identify people on both sides of the aisle,” said Brent Weinstein, head of the new division, UTA Online. “The barrier to entry is so low, everybody is now a potential artist. So there’s this great unwashed of talent out there, 99.999 percent of which is probably not good enough to have a traditional film and television career. But on the Internet, a lot of different types of things go. And yet for buyers, this is a wall of people, so how does a brand know which one of them can help it execute?”
John Moshay, head of business development for Whittman Hart, an interactive advertising agency based in Chicago, said it was becoming untenable for buyers like his firm and its clients to find their own writers, performers and directors.
“It’s very hit or miss at the moment, and we’re at a tipping point: the marketplace is just beginning to ramp up its demand for true talent like this,” he said. “We use it, and we buy it, but we’re not necessarily in the business of developing it.”
United Talent’s online division, whose initial staff is three 26-year-old agents promoted from assistant, will operate independently from the main agency, said Jeremy Zimmer, a founder and director of the company. Defying industry conventions, agents will welcome unsolicited submissions (preferably as Web links), show existing clients’ output on a new agency Web site and be free to sign clients without the approval of the more-established departments.
Already, the three agents have cut six-figure deals with major media portals and signed a handful of clients whose Web-based serials, recurring comedy features and short digital films have drawn one-time downloads in the millions and regular watchers, in some cases, in the tens of thousands.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Weinstein said, one of his new agents showed him a Web video that had been up for less than an hour: “Paxilback,” a parody of a Justin Timberlake music video, “Sexyback.” The agents quickly reached out to its creators, a group of Los Angeles artists called People Food. By the time they could arrange a meeting five days later, the video had been seen 600,000 times.
United Talent is hardly the only agency to recognize the shift of media and advertising money, and consumers, to the Internet. Agencies like International Creative Management and Endeavor frequently bid against United Talent. And the venerable William Morris Agency created a digital media division in May, though that is aimed at helping existing clients find new work in the digital world — like a Web-based talk show that stars the comic Tom Green, a familiar television personality of a few years ago.
Creative Artists Agency, Hollywood’s dominant talent shop, had a big Internet division at the height of the dot-com boom. But that was long before user-generated content achieved its current volume and impact; the unit has since shut down, and no one at Creative Artists is assigned solely to recruiting Web talent, an agency employee said.
United Talent, by contrast, is taking the risk that relatively small deals today will quickly grow in size and scope, and it is banking on the notion that artists surfacing on the Internet may often be quite content to have successful careers that do not make the leap to TV or film.
“In the old days, i.e., two months ago, it was about signing up those clients and immediately figuring out how to flip them into traditional media,” Mr. Weinstein said. “Now we can look at an artist and say, that might be a goal, but in the interim, or while we’re doing that, or instead of that, how can we monetize their interests online?”
Agents, producers and buyers alike say the Web has been an unpredictable medium for making deals. But Mr. Zimmer said he hoped United Talent would soon have enough clout to lay down some rules of the road. “The more market share we have in Web-specific talent, the more we’ll be able to define the rules of the marketplace and help the buyers understand the best way to do their business,” he said.
Jason U. Nadler, one of the three new online agents, said United Talent’s clients were only now waking up to the possibilities. “These are people that realize they have something. They see YouTube being bought for $1.6 billion. They say, ‘Wait a sec, I haven’t seen a penny of this. Meanwhile, my stuff has been downloaded two million times.’ They feel like they might not be getting as good a deal as they should, and they’re excited when we call.”