Brent Weinstein is a partner and the Chief Innovation Officer at UTA, one of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies and one of the first to aggressively move into the world of technology. Now the agency represents online influencers, live streamers, esports athletes and other digital stars alongside its portfolio of traditional Hollywood creators, artists, athletes and major brands. The company also has invested in and incubated a portfolio of tech-related startups, and seen some big hits, such as Lyft. I sat down (by Zoom) with Weinstein last week as part of the new Let’s DEW Lunch daily webinars to talk about Hollywood, how it’s adapting to the pandemic, and what companies are finding ways to thrive in an extraordinary time. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You also can hear the entire conversation on my Bloom in Tech podcast.
TVR: What’s your general assessment of where Hollywood is? As you look at that portfolio of investments in clients who are in the digital space, who’s doing really well here, who is making the most of this challenging time.
Brent Weinstein: Our company’s been incredibly bullish and entrepreneurial, and has been willing to take leaps, even when we weren’t exactly sure where we would land or even if we had a parachute strapped to our back, even back in 2006.
TVR: Parachutes are so overrated.
BW: I just say they’re for wimps. In 2006, we became the first agency to start representing what people now think of as influencers and Digital Natives, people and artists and voices that were emerging from platforms like YouTube. And today that extends to things like TikTok. When we did that, in 2006, people thought we were crazy: ‘Oh, these are just flashes in the pan. They’re one-hit wonders, they’re viral video stars, there’s no way there’s going to be careers that are built out of this.”
We weren’t smart enough to know exactly when or how the marketplace would mature. But we certainly had a very strong hunch that it would. And we knew that we wanted to be ahead of that curve, so we invested very early and very aggressively.
If you fast forward to today, again people have different ways to talk about it. Some people are allergic to the word “influencer,” but the influencer economy is a billion-plus-dollar business. A lot of people thought that people were using those platforms as a steppingstone to become film and TV stars. What we found is that’s not the case for our hundreds of clients. Very few of them are interested in film and TV as a full-time job, (though) they may want to dabble in it. But there really is a robust career to be had as a digital native. And if we look at the moment that we’re in right now, that business is seeing far less disruption than many of our other more traditional businesses. Right now, it’s one of the most vibrant things that we’re doing.
TVR: I remember that time when everybody thought, “Well, of course, all I want to be is on a network sitcom.” But many influencers would say something like, ” Dude, I have 3 million followers that I own. Why do I want to go be rented for somebody else?” Now, they’re doing better than some of the more traditional sectors.
BW: I don’t want to say we’re doing better. We’re really happy that we invested in that space when we did. That space did mature and there’s still lots of maturation to come in that business. As the business became more sophisticated, we were ready to be leaders and help our clients succeed in that space. And it’s one of many things that we’re proud to have been first in And we’re the first agency to really build a dedicated social media advisory practice, which has since become part of a division that we call UTA IQ, which really is the data center of the agency. You know, people look at agents and think that they’re cowboys shooting from the hip. And there’s some of that, but we’ve morphed into being an agency that advocates for our clients and identifies and seizes opportunities for our clients based a lot on data. And we really believe that if we can come to the negotiating table with more data than our counterparts, or if we have more data that we can deliver to clients to help steer their career, then it’s fuel that will lead to really great things.
TVR: Are you seeing data yet about what’s working out there for your clients and companies?
BW: About a month ago, when we saw this train coming down the tracks, we assembled a team internally of the right experts that we could bring to the table to be prepared to advise our clients. As that’s played out, it tends to fit into a couple of buckets. The first is clients who simply want to use social media and their existing audiences to do cool stuff: “I’m gonna teach a cooking class from my kitchen. I’m gonna play a song from my living room.” But they’re still looking for guidance on either how to do that or how to do that in the most effective way. The second is an extension of that, which is, if they’re going to do things using their social channels, how do they do it with a longer-term perspective, so, “Let’s engage and entertain and be there for (our) fans in this moment.” But let’s also do it in a way that helps them build an audience that they can engage with for months and years thereafter. The third is artists who want to do maybe bigger, more ambitious things in this moment, and to do it, they need some version of a partnership. They need capital, they need technology resources, something more comprehensive than simply publishing through YouTube or Instagram or Facebook or TikTok. And then the fourth is, we’re spending a lot of time engaging with organizations and individuals all over the ecosystem who themselves are hosting events. So Twitch had a 12-hour live stream that featured dozens of artists, and we worked with Twitch to make sure many of our artists were part of that.
TVR: Who are some of the creators doing more ambitious projects?
BW: I don’t know if I want to sort (our clients) into what’s ambitious and what isn’t. But for example, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, his wife, launched a podcast called Staying In, with the intention of donating the money the podcast would generate to charities. It’s a really cool podcast and people are really liking it, and they’re engaging with it in a material way.
Chip and Joanna Gaines from Magnolia are IGTV stars. They’ve been doing some really cool interactive challenges and activities, and inviting fans to use the hashtag #WeBelieveInHome on their videos. They’ve been using their platform for a lot of good.
Kevin Hart, one of the biggest stars in the world, launched a (YouTube series that he did from home called Confessions from the Hart , where he just opens up and talks about whatever’s on his mind that day, These are things that typically don’t make their way into his routine.
Joe Jonas has been interested in the gaming space, and launched his gaming profile on Twitch during that livestream we mentioned. Kaskade, one of the biggest electronic dance music stars, partnered with Chipotle to get free burritos in the hands of his fans during his live stream. That’s an example of where an artist came together with a partner to deliver something to the audience.
So those are just a handful of literally dozens and dozens of examples of how our artists are using this moment to try to give people hope, give them something to look forward to, give them something to smile about. And I think that there’s going to be a real long lasting effect for this. Many of these artists are going to realize that engaging with their fans in this way is something that they’re going to want to continue to do. And I think that we’re going to see a lot of cool stuff even when this fog clears.
TVR: With Quibi, HBO Max, and Peacock are all launching at a time of record demand for online content. Is this a good time to be launching a new service?
BW: I’ll leave it to analysts like Rich Greenfield and the real smart ones out there to give a much more sophisticated answer. But it certainly seems like people are craving entertainment, they’re stuck in their homes, there’s no sports. Launching these new services, in this moment, can be a real bright spot. They have a real opportunity. You can imagine if Peacock launched (it’s set for wide release in mid-July) and you could binge Friends right now, that would probably be a pretty compelling thing. I’m really excited for everything that Jeffrey (Katzenberg) and Meg (Whitman) are doing (with Quibi). I think that they’re spending the right amount of money, working with the right creators. The shows, or at least the parts of the shows that I’ve seen, are really good. And I think that they’ve got a captive audience right now. It’s a good time to be putting you entertainment in front of people.
TVR: Any particular platforms that you think will especially benefit?
BW: Any entertainment that that isn’t on pause right now, that people can engage with, has an opportunity to see growth. So whether that’s eSports, more traditional console or casual gaming, whether it’s new platforms like the ones we’ve mentioned, there’s a real opportunity.
I also think there’s an opportunity for technology innovation. I can’t ever say that there’s a silver lining to what we’re going through right now. There’s just too much horror that we’re seeing every day. But there likely will be some significant innovations born in this moment. I’m excited to be a part of them if we can and to position our clients to be a part of them because there will be some pretty meaningful new models and businesses that emerge .
TVR: Do you think we’re training even traditional viewers of traditional media to sample this whole other universe of content and distribution methods? Are viewers getting used to new norms?
BW: (Home webcasts by Trevor Noah or John Oliver) might seem like the same show that our clients Rhett & Link, (of Good Mythical Morning) do from their studio, but in many ways it’s different. I think that many traditional talk shows and late-night shows are starting to realize how hard it is to produce a show in that format.
I also think viewers understand how much work goes into the shows. It’s not as simple as a really talented comedian sitting at a desk and asking questions of a celebrity. And the live audience is typically a big part of it. So I imagine when all this is over, they’re gonna very happily shift back to their traditional studio environments. But I applaud people for doing everything that they can.
And again, there’s going to be some really exciting shifts. I’m participating in this (webcast) via my laptop. I imagine very few people are watching on their smart TV, and yet, how accustomed to Zoom and web conferencing are we all going to be when this is over? Doesn’t it stand to reason that most consumer-electronics manufacturers are going to make a pretty sizable shift and start introducing these components directly into TVs? That’s going to be one of the things that comes out of this: a change in the way people use their personal and consumer electronics and how manufacturers change as a result. I can’t imagine that if we look back a few years from now that every major screen in your house will have a camera to enable these types of communications.