The Inside Story Of The Deal – Deadline

When UTA announced its surprise acquisition of London-based Curtis Brown Group last month, it was heralded as an aggressive and strategic move into the UK talent space, causing industry on both sides of the pond to sit up and take notice. U.S. agencies have been canvassing UK companies for a number of years but this deal marks the splashiest effort yet and potentially draws UTA closer to major talent on Curtis Brown’s books such as Robert Pattinson, Margaret Atwood and John le Carré.

There are now question marks surrounding the sharing of talent, potential structural changes and what this might mean for UK agenting at large.

A current interesting case study involves British actor Joseph Quinn. After his breakout role as mop-haired metal head Eddie Munson in the fourth season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, Quinn has become one of the most in-demand rising UK talents up for grabs in the U.S. agency sphere. He’s repped by Curtis Brown and Deadline understands that he and his British agent, Sam Turnbull, have met with all of the three major U.S. agencies – the newly bulked-up CAA (following the acquisition of ICM), WME and UTA – to discuss a potential signing. This is an indicator that, for now at least, it remains business as usual for Curtis Brown and UTA.

While there are no signs yet that UTA is going to demand Curtis Brown send its best British clients their way, many within the wider agency community are wondering whether this will change down the line.

UK foothold

While many U.S. agencies are weighing up stronger footholds in the UK, it’s not always easily achieved. Most recently, WME planned to launch a UK office in 2019 under respected literary agent Rich Cook. Inevitably, not all UK agents were thrilled at the prospect. Ultimately, the advent of Covid meant the plan was scuppered and Cook later left the agency and became a partner at Range Media Partners.

The UTA deal with Curtis Brown is very different and by aligning itself with one of the oldest literary agencies in the business with a strong connection to IP, UTA will be hoping it can steal a march on U.S. rivals in a vital overseas market.

Could the move be a precursor to much bigger structural changes and more consolidation? And, as many are wondering, is this the beginning of the ‘Americanization’ of UK agenting where Hollywood agencies will swallow up UK firms to gain greater long-term cultural influence?

UTA has stressed it will not alter the Curtis Brown model and says there is a deep respect for the culture of the 123-year-old UK agency. For now, there are no plans to merge the two businesses and each entity will operate side by side. Cuts are not expected, the firm also said.

“This acquisition is predicated on our deep respect for Curtis Brown Group’s leadership, team and culture, as well as great respect for all of our UK partners and our longstanding way of doing business together,” UTA told Deadline.

The agency insists the deal is fundamentally better for its clients, opening up more opportunities across both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, both companies have been on paths of expansion in the last few years and we hear there’s little appetite for major cultural overhaul.

“Of course our staff had questions at first but they were quickly reassured that this deal was founded on an admiration for each other’s business and a deep respect for our longstanding relationships with other agency partners in the UK and the U.S.,” Curtis Brown Group CEO Jonny Geller told Deadline. “Our team are genuinely enthusiastic about the opportunities this offers our clients, as well as the potential for the agencies’ continued growth.”

Within the UK and U.S. agency spaces, there are differing views on the sustainability of such a model.

“These are two deserving, quality companies,” said the CEO of one major Brit agency. “It’s difficult to merge the cultures of two agencies.”

Others are less convinced about compatibility: “There is no way in the world that you buy it to leave it the same in the long term,” said one senior Brit agent with good knowledge of the companies.

Multiple sources have speculated to us that a long-term play could see the company turn into an American bridgehead — a ‘UTA Europe.’

While it’s hard to predict where any business in the industry will be in a few years, one veteran UK agent and media investor warned: “UTA needs to leave Curtis Brown alone. YMU insisted on rebranding Troika and that went downhill very quickly. They could write ‘a UTA company’ in small print, I guess.”

The Curtis Brown story & what’s next?

Curtis Brown, founded in 1899 and now led by CEO Geller, boasts more than 240 employees and represents actors such as Robert Pattinson, Stanley Tucci, Dev Patel, the next star of Doctor Who Ncuti Gatwa, his Sex Education co-star Emma Mackey, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, among others in robust TV, film and theatre departments. The company’s respected literary business represents the estates of authors including Atwood (The Handmade’s Tale), Winston Churchill, le Carré, James Bond author Ian Fleming, Daphne du Maurier, A.A. Milne, John Steinbeck, Matt Haig and Nigella Lawson.

Geller, widely considered one of London’s most connected agents, joined Curtis Brown in 1993 as an assistant and worked his way up to CEO of the agency in 2012. He later became head of the wider Curtis Brown Group, which was formed after a 10% minority stake was sold to BBC Worldwide (now BBC Studios) back in 2016. At that point, Curtis Brown became a combined agency, production and management group and expansion became the name of the game: Curtis Brown merged with Markham Froggatt and Irwin in 2020 after acquiring Tavistock Wood and Meryl Hoffman Management in 2018 and Ed Victor and DAA Management in 2017, having already bought C+W in 2014. It also owns McMafia and Coalition producer Cuba Pictures and The Pursuit of Love co-producer Open Book Productions.

The firm had long been mulling a sale to expand its business and boost its relevance in the global marketplace. The fact it has handled international book sales for ICM’s publishing division for more than a decade, many expected ICM to be the buyer. We hear that option was explored, but that interest dissolved when CAA bought ICM for $750M last month. Now ICM’s long-term book affiliate is part of another major U.S. agency.

“I imagine CAA will solve that problem by hiring their own international team, maybe even from Curtis Brown,” said the head of one major U.S. agency.

We’ve heard suggestions that had a deal not made with UTA, Curtis Brown may have looked to raise private money so it could expand into Europe as well as branding and podcasts. Several sources estimate the acquisition to have cost in the region of $55M but UTA and Curtis Brown declined to comment.

For UTA, aligning itself with a vibrant UK business puts more oil in its tank. With the ongoing production boom in the UK, having seasoned Brits on the ground who know the lay of the land is also a more authentic way for UTA to tap into another creative market.

The deal is the latest in a string of strategic investments for UTA, which last month bought data and analytics company MediaHound, bringing proprietary software to the company (great for deals with those data-driven streamers), and last year acquired media consulting company MediaLink for $125M.

“Curtis Brown is a wonderful agency. They have terrific agents and scale,” said one U.S. agent from a UTA rival, while adding that they have spoken to several agents inside the British company who are questioning what the future holds.

Indeed questions were rife among sources we heard from, too. Most raised queries around commissioning structures — will clients with Curtis Brown and UTA representation want to pay the same company twice? Could they seek reduced terms or does consolidation ultimately provide UTA/Curtis Brown with a compelling case to gain a competitive advantage? Deadline hears that, for now, if a Curtis Brown client signs with UTA, the talent will receive two sets of commission in line with market rates.

And how will British agents who share clients with UTA feel? According to a UK agent source, “really paranoid, because what’s in it for UTA other than to try to move them?” Curtis Brown and UTA will see this very differently but our source contended: “A lot of the relationships will be disrupted on a micro level.”

The source added “delighted” rival agents will design a narrative for potential clients claiming that moving to Curtis Brown will mean being controlled by the U.S. and being forced to sign with UTA. Regardless of whether it’s true, it’s a compelling story and UTA will need to keep Curtis Brown agents happy.

“That’s a problem in the talent business – the most valuable assets aren’t in the building every day, so you have to make sure their agents stay,” said one British source, who was previously the MD of a major London management firm. “If I were UTA I would tread carefully, especially for the first year. You want to keep the spirit of the way Curtis has been run.”

Bigger picture

So what’s the broader picture? With so many streamers in the country, some have mused to us that UK talent will begin opting for a single agent with access to the biggest buyers to oversee all their affairs.

“The concept of having separate UK and U.S. representation is increasingly being questioned by clients,” said one LA agent. “With the closer connection between UK and U.S. television, in particular, it seems something that needs adjustment.”

A senior British agent added this could mean more M&A: “There could be a medium-to-long term merger of the markets, which will effectively mean that the Americans turn up and the UK just gets absorbed. It started happening with production companies about 10-15 years ago, and you’ll start to see that here.”

One source said the next “obvious step” will be more expansion of UTA and CAA in the M&A space in Europe, with both fighting for more scale and access to IP across the continent. WME is understood to be closely considering how it next approaches Blighty.

This could put companies such as Casarotto Ramsay & Associates, Independent Talent and United Agents in play (though there are several involved reasons why each of these companies could be tricky to acquire). Management firm 42, which produces and manages talent, recently sold a minority stake to Lionsgate, as we revealed in March. Anonymous Content has been striking partnerships across Europe, while CAA and Endeavor Content (now sold to CJ ENM) has also been investing in European companies.

One established agent said U.S. agencies are “watching intently,” happy in the knowledge UTA has made the first significant move in the UK (at least during this era). Another suggested this is a prime opportunity for one or more of these European companies to raise some capital to set up a larger European agency.

That same source also suggested that an over saturation of representation companies could herald the beginning of an era where there is more direct conflict between different kinds of representation companies, whether agency or management.

Watch this space.

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