In the “Game of Thrones”-style spectacle that is the Hollywood talent agency business, there was a riveting plot twist last week at the house of WME. It didn’t involve any fire-breathing dragons (well, unless you count Ari Emanuel, CEO of WME parent Endeavor) and nobody was disemboweled with a broadsword (that we know of). But power did change hands, and at least one head did roll.
Lloyd Braun, 63, who since 2019 has been serving as chairman of the agency, will be stepping down by year’s end. He’ll be replaced by newly appointed co-chairmen Richard Weitz, 53, a well-liked agent with a sparkling client list, and Christian Muirhead, 43, a communications executive with zero agenting experience but sparkling connections — particularly to Emanuel himself.
The larger narrative here, of course, is the battle royale among the major talent agencies, particularly the long-running death match between WME and CAA to rule as Hollywood’s No. 1 deal-making powerhouse. Just how last week’s shuffle at WME might impact that struggle — as well as how it will change the day-to-day business within the agency — is something not even King Targaryen could say for sure at this point. But in interviews with multiple agents and other insiders (all of whom requested anonymity) a picture emerged of the pressures that WME faces under its new leadership (and why new leaders might have been needed).
The “least surprising” change
There was never much question about Braun leaving the agency, insiders said. The former ABC Entertainment chairman was always seen as a short-term gun-for-hire — his three-year contract is up in December — whose main goal was to scale up WME by making big acquisitions and luring top agents from the competition. But just six months into the gig, COVID-19 arrived.
The former entertainment lawyer — whose clients included David Chase, Howard Stern and Larry David (which is how “Lloyd Braun” became a character on “Seinfeld”) — ended up spending much of his time dealing with layoffs, trimming budgets and figuring out how to get along with Mark Shapiro (president of WME’s parent company, Endeavor) which insiders say may have been one of the more challenging parts of Braun’s job.
Although WME continues to remain profitable — revenues were up 9% for the second quarter compared to a year ago, thanks to a post-pandemic boost in music and comedy touring — Braun’s tenure wasn’t particularly illustrious. (And the agency’s $358 million in revenue was a drop in the bucket compared to Endeavor’s overall $1.31 billion haul for the quarter.)
For starters, he lost as many superstar dealmakers as he ended up bringing in. Scott Clayton, one of WME’s top music agents who guided the touring careers of artists like John Mayer and Zac Brown, bolted for UTA, taking a bunch of clients and some junior agents with him. And while Braun helped Emanuel take WME public in 2021, that achievement was overshadowed by rival CAA’s acquisition of ICM, which strengthened CAA’s sports and books business and knocked WME into second place in some categories. Meanwhile, UTA also bulked up, taking on an equity partner, hiring a bunch of top agents and became more of a threat to WME.
He also had to cope with a challenge from the Writers Guild of America, whose members had dropped Hollywood agents en masse in 2019. In early 2021, WME became one of the last of the top agencies to cave to the WGA and agreed to eliminate lucrative packaging fees and phase out equally profitable production arms. (As a result of the WGA deal, Endeavor spun off its successful film and TV production studio Endeavor Content, which was just rebranded as Fifth Season.)
“He had a thankless job,” one insider diplomatically said of Braun, adding that his leaving WME was the “least surprising” news last week.
A representative for Braun and other WME executives declined to comment for this story.
“The rabbi and the court jester”
The appointment of Muirhead as co-chair, on the other hand, was a surprise. He’s a corporate communications executive — Emanuel’s PR guy — with no experience as an agent. But, insiders say Muirhead does possess a deep understanding of the inner workings at Endeavor, is well-acquainted with the other execs and knows how to structure businesses for long-term revenue success, which is the No. 1 goal now that WME is part of a publicly traded company.
Weitz, meanwhile, has plenty of experience handling talent. His client list includes Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais, Dan Levy, Tea Leoni, Julianne Hough, Cyndi Lauper, LL Cool J and a slew of others. He’s got a reputation for being extremely user-friendly, a highly social player with contacts all over town (he’s a pal of nightlife impresario Craig Susser of Craig’s, the super-popular celebrity hangout on Melrose Boulevard) — all characteristics that should serve him well as co-chairman.
“Lloyd Braun was like a rabbi,” one insider put it. “Richard Weitz is more of a court jester, a very likable guy and a vibrant executive. Christian Muirhead is the operator who knows where all the bodies are buried at Endeavor.”
They could indeed work well as a team, bolstering each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses. “It’s smart to install Weitz because he’s an incredibly likable exec that has done major deals with major talent,” another insider said. “And with Muirhead, they’ve got a true operating executive.”
Added another source, somewhat more bluntly, “Muirhead is going to do all the non-talent related stuff that Weitz doesn’t want to do.” (Another agency insider disputed that characterization.)
Other insiders note that there may be a not-so-hidden agenda behind this dual appointment, particularly when it comes to Muirhead, who has a long, close relationship with Emanuel. Being besties with the CEO not only gives Muirhead additional clout, it enables Emanuel to exert more direct control over the day-to-day goings-on at WME.
And here’s where things could get awkward
WME President Ari Greenberg doesn’t appear to be going anywhere — but his life may be a bit more complicated.
Greenberg must now report to Weitz, who also happens to be one of his best friends. That, of course, has pluses and minuses. In any case, both Greenberg (who represents prolific TV producer Greg Berlanti) and Weitz are seen as scripted TV guys, which could weigh the scales more heavily in that direction at the agency than when a more genre-neutral Braun was in charge.
Meanwhile, Endeavor president Mark Shapiro, who had been Braun’s boss, now has two new underlings, and one of them has a bat-phone connected to everybody’s boss, Emanuel. That could make things more complicated for Shapiro.
“Muirhead has a direct line to Ari all day every day,” one insider explained. “Does this in any way lessen Shapiro’s power now that Ari Emanuel’s PR guy is co-running the day to day of that agency, giving Ari more visibility and insight into the day to day of that agency, presumably cutting Mark at some level?”
Again, it’s not unlike “Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon.” As one insider succinctly put it, “It’s all about power.”
For the record: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported Weitz’s age and his connection with the night spot Craig’s.