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Hollywood’s Biggest Talent Scout Wants Washington’s Brain Trust

What does a Beverly Hills conglomerate whose properties include a reality-TV production house, a leading Hollywood talent firm and America’s most famous professional wrestling circuit want with a boutique Beltway literary agency best known for representing Washington-based authors of highbrow nonfiction?

The question hovers over this month’s news that WME — the legendary talent agency whose clients include Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Rihanna and Matt Damon — has purchased Ross Yoon, the Dupont Circle firm whose stable includes TIME’s Molly Ball, NPR’s Steve Inskeep and my POLITICO colleague Ryan Lizza.

And the answer says a lot about the changing structure of the entertainment industry — but also reveals a bit about Washington’s changing role in producing America’s culture.

It turns out that the pool of writers a Beltway-based agent might encounter (disproportionately but not uniformly residing in the capital area) are attractive for things beyond the scoop of the minute. Between crises, book writers of the D.C. think-tank and journalistic worlds, are long on the sorts of historic curios and lost real-life characters that drive a ton of content in the age of streaming and podcasts.

On the industry side of the equation: It’s all about gigantism. WME, where Ross Yoon principals Gail Ross and Howard Yoon are now partners, is part of Endeavor, the publicly-traded entertainment behemoth led by legendary superagent Ari Emanuel.

In addition to its sports and entertainment properties (Ultimate Fighting Championship, World Wrestling Entertainment, Professional Bull Riders) and its media outfits (Asylum Entertainment Group, the unscripted television outfit whose brands are behind things like TNT’s “Shaq Life” and AMC’s “Eli Roth’s History of Horror”) the conglomerate remains big in its original mission of talent representation. The WM in WME stands for William Morris, the venerable firm whose roster of clients extends from movie stars to pop musicians to TV anchors to podcasters and speakers-circuit staples.

The business logic of bringing all these properties under one roof is that it makes it that much easier to turn one cultural product into another line of profit, or three. If one of their recording artists wants to do a book, there’s someone in-house who can sell it. If that book has the makings of a movie, there’s someone whose Rolodex contains just the right names. And if the writer behind the movie wants to become a TV talking head… well, you get the idea. (A few years ago, WME also bought the Harry Walker Agency speakers’ bureau, in case our talking head wants to hire herself out for corporate events.)

Against that backdrop, the Washington side of the acquisition looks different: It’s more than just a collection of newsies, think-tank wonks and political memoirists, folks whose books sometimes hit big but more often occupy the not-especially-remunerative middle rungs of the book world. Rather, it looks like a broad, diverse array of the industry’s favorite products — “intellectual property,” those building blocks of tomorrow’s streaming series and podcast sensations.

“It’s an IP supply chain,” said Larry Weissman, an agent based in Brooklyn, who works with a similar list of writers but has kept his agency independent. “You’re buying an IP supplier.”

Ross, a lawyer before she hung out her agenting shingle a couple decades ago, said that in just her first week at the bigger firm, she’d been in meetings with colleagues looking for ways to turn her clients’ ideas into things other than books — areas where she hadn’t had a whole lot of prior expertise. Of course, writers could always connect with other agents who handle film or TV rights, but having them at the same meeting is convenient. It also means there are now folks dedicated to thinking about ways to further monetize the passion project of some researcher who might not have been thinking about synergy when he sat down to work on that non-blockbuster book.

“Part of what I talked to the people around me about when we were exploring this was my being sort of an ambassador to Washington on behalf of the whole company and looking for — we can call it IP, or we can call it talent,” she told me. “It’s just this thriving ecosystem of people talking to each other.”

“Beltway culture has profound implications for the rest of society and inspires a lot of thought and scrutiny and leads to a lot of book publishing,” said Jay Mandel, who runs WME’s book business. “So to have boots on the ground, there was going to clearly be a benefit to it.”

Ross’ agency was actually not the first example of a D.C. talent rep being acquired by a big fish of the entertainment industry. Rafe Sagalyn’s agency, which represents boldface Beltway writers like David Ignatius and Eugene Robinson, last year became part of the mammoth CAA agency, having merged a few years earlier with ICM, another Hollywood-based firm. As with WME’s move into Washington, the acquisition didn’t change much about what sorts of writers the firm represents, but did offer a quicker route from one medium to another.

The third of Hollywood’s big-three talent shops, United Talent Agency, has no D.C. outfit but throws a glittering annual party before the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner — an indication of interest in showing off its muscle in front of a Washington audience. (The firm represents large numbers of TV-news folks; its most recent soiree drew both Chris Licht, then the boss of CNN, and Don Lemon, the celebrity anchor he’d just fired.)

There’s also been corporate interest in Javelin, the high-profile Alexandria shop founded by a pair of GOP political veterans that originally made its name representing conservatives but has since expanded its roster to include top journalists and bipartisan Beltway notables. Keith Urbahn, one of the firm’s principals, said that in his case it was easy to walk away: “We wanted to be independent,” he said. “There’s not a lot of upside, particularly when you’re still building something.”

Ironically, the Washington acquisitions come as Beltway-themed books are in the tank after the fury-driven sales of the Trump era. Books about Joe Biden and his administration have been slow in coming — and slower in selling. The only vaguely Washington book on the most recent New York Times bestseller list is by Utah Congressmember turned Fox commentator Jason Chaffetz. Conventional wisdom has it that American book buyers, movie goers and TV streamers want escape, not reports from the front lines of our national tumult.

But I think that misunderstands the universe of writers that congregates around the Beltway-focused agents — or the sorts of IP that are most sought-after by bigger spenders elsewhere in the media and entertainment industry in the 21st century.

From a spin-off point of view, the industry is less keen on what Washington-type writers produce in the face of big news than on what that same demographic creates between news cycles: books of history, biographies, arguments about ideas. Ross Yoon’s cadre of clients is actually quite thin on partisan screeds, senatorial vanity books or even short-lived scoop sensations a la Bob Woodward’s books.

On the other hand, it’s a list that’s long on storytelling, one that has produced its share of bestsellers and spin-offs: The Netflix series “Self-Made,” about the entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, was based on a book by Ross Yoon client A’Lelia Bundles, a longtime ABC News exec. Another client, Kate Andersen Brower, wrote The Residence, about the White House, currently being made into a Shonda Rhimes TV series. And this summer’s big Christopher Nolan movie about Robert Oppenheimer is inspired by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s American Prometheus, which Ross sold years ago.

A book by Ross’ client Christian Cooper, the Black Central Park birder whose racially charged 2020 encounter with a dog-walker went viral, dropped this week. “The TV people are working on it as we speak,” she told me.

Which is all just to say it’s not all scoopy dish about whoever’s currently in power.

For WME’s book business, serious nonfiction was a relative weak spot. So it was a fairly intuitive purchase no matter where the firm was based. (About 35 percent of their current writers are in the capital, according to Yoon.)

“We have an entire IP-driven, books-to-film-and-television business in Los Angeles,” said Mandel, a longtime friend of Ross’ before they spent nine months negotiating the acquisition. “There’s supposedly rules about what can work or what can’t work, certain kinds of protagonists, or certain historical eras or certain components of the culture. Those rules go out the window when something excellent surfaces. It’s not about trend lines so much as it is about trust. I trust her.”

Yoon says he thinks that a D.C. agency might have an easier time putting its finger on the national pulse than one in New York, where almost all the top book agents do their business. “They’re both bubbles,” he told me. “But they’re a bigger bubble.” Both partners say they’ve been assured they’ll continue to follow their own tastes despite being part of a much bigger venture — i.e., no special favors for that random power broker who may be able to pull strings for some other corner of the corporate empire.

For Ross, who’s been working with writers in Washington for over 35 years, the notion of being part of a celebrated Hollywood firm represents quite a departure. A history and Spanish lit double major who went to law school before realizing that big corporate firms weren’t for her, she made her way to the industry via a legal colleague who did some work for a D.C. writers’ group. At the time, a lot of writers didn’t have much by way of representation, and found themselves flummoxed by book contracts. Ross developed an expertise in reading them, which led to writing them, representing writers as a kind of sideline.

It wasn’t until after 2000 that she actually set up an agency, though she kept practicing law, too. She hired Yoon, who’d worked for her at her law firm, then made him her partner about a decade ago. I first met them both at a happy hour for their writers in a second-floor bar above U Street not long after. It wasn’t the sort of place you could imagine spotting a master of the universe like Ari Emanuel. Ross says the lo-fi vibe will continue, though word is there will be a much fancier launch party for the WME merger this fall.

Meanwhile, Ross says she’s getting to know an array of clients with expertise that might have baffled her a few years ago. One of her assignments: She’s on a committee about “thought leaders” and ways to turn their IP into product. “We represent a lot of them,” she said. “Whether they be journalists who know more about their beat than anyone else, or experts in their field. It’s all about talking about possibilities.”

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Author: POLITICO