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CAA Will Buy ICM to Take on WME, but the Destination Appears to Be the Same: IPO

CAA is acquiring ICM with an explicit mission to focus on talent representation, but its parent company has an eye on going public.

The CAA Buidling

CAA’s office in Century City, Los Angeles.

Michael Buckner for Variety

CAA’s planned acquisition of ICM Partners would reduce the big four agencies to three, but the deal suggests that the magic number may be two. Each of the two largest agencies have embraced a different business model: Be like CAA and double down on the representation business and strengthen negotiating power against increasingly powerful studios and streamers; or, be like WME and try to have it both ways as part of media empire that competes with Disney while also negotiating with it.

And finally, there may be only one path for agency enlightenment: While CAA’s focused strategy is very different than the deeply diversified Endeavor, its likely that CAA will also see exposure to public markets: Its majority owner has spent much of the last year working on an IPO.

Like rival WME, CAA attracted investment from private equity. In 2010 it sold a stake to global private investment firm TPG, which has some $70 billion under management and investments that include everything from Vice Media and DirectTV to health care companies and real estate firms. In 2014, TPG increased its CAA holdings to a majority stake of 54 percent. Buyout Insider reported in June that TPG was preparing to close a deal with CAA that would increase the stake “slightly,” with a valuation between $1 billion and $1.3 billion.

WME parent Endeavor, which went public earlier this year on the New York Stock Exchange as Endeavor Group Holdings, is led by CEO Ari Emanuel. He represents boldface names like Martin Scorsese and Dwayne Johnson while leading a growing empire that includes UFC, Miss Universe, and professional bull riding as well as film and TV production arm Endeavor Content. WME has a market cap of just under $7 billion.

CAA, while remaining private, could see its majority owner TPG go public. On August 24, the Wall Street Journal reported that TPG hired JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group to underwrite its IPO, which could be valued at around $10 billion.

“That’s the strongest circumstantial evidence there’s a much bigger plan, one that’s consistent with an Endeavor-like IPO,” said Eric Schiffer, chairman and CEO of private equity firm Patriarch Organization. The end result could be a CAA with billions in backing, like Endeavor, with less of a perceived conflict of interest.

In 2018, UTA sold a “significant equity stake” to the publicly traded Investcorp and the Public Sector Pension Investment Board in a deal positioned as a bet on UTA’s core business. “We believe UTA’s client-centric business model has strategically positioned the company to capitalize on the ongoing convergence of talent, content, distribution and marketing,” David Tayeh, Investcorp head of private equity, North America, said at the time.

After the ICM announcement September 27, CAA made a point of doubling down on the facts that built its business. As the CAA partners made the rounds with press, their talking points were clear: It’s all about the 10 percent. CAA managing partner Kevin Huvane told The Wrap that his company and ICM “have a shared belief that representation is everything,” while managing partner Bryan Lourd told Deadline that “Our whole strategy is about representation, and about being aggressive advocates for artists. With this deal, we feel really righteous about it, and it’s going to serve the clients in every capacity.”

If CAA is still feeling acquisitive, the mid-size, family-run Gersh Agency could make an intriguing pure-play target. Gersh showed its outlier status last year when it became the first major agency to sign an agreement with the WGA during the 2019 dustup over packaging, the lucrative practice of collecting fees in bundling talent for specific projects.

Other agencies eventually signed on and as a result CAA sold its majority stake in “Mare of Easttown” production company Wiip to a South Korean studio. Similarly, Endeavor agreed to reduce its stake in Endeavor Content to 20 percent. On Monday, WME launched its WME Independent Division, bringing Endeavor Content agents under the agency’s umbrella to handle film sales and financing.

Talent representation is still a big part of WME’s business with its hundreds of agents and thousands of clients. It’s also a big source of its power in an industry where consolidation at the studio level coincides with shrinking compensation for talent, making it tougher to negotiate solid deals for clients.

A combined CAA and ICM could set the stage for more fights like that being waged by CAA client Scarlett Johansson, who sued Disney in July over the studio’s decision to debut “Black Widow” simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+. And judging by his vocal support of Johansson in her suit, it’s a cause that Lourd has proven willing to take on.

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