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Abu Dhabi Media Summit: WME's Emanuel says now is 'greatest time' for content creators

Ari Emanuel says range of distribution options opens up more money for content creators. He says Silicon Valley is now taking steps to work more closely with Hollywood, and Madison Avenue also needs to come into the mix.

The boom in digital platforms and the continuing strength of traditional media makes this “the greatest time of all” for artists involved in content creation, said Ari Emanuel, co-CEO of WME, at the opening of the third Abu Dhabi Media Summit. “It’s a very dynamic environment we live in now in terms of form and content.”

That, in business terms, means more buyers of content. “I think it’s the greatest time for clients that it’s ever been, because of the proliferation of distribution points. It’s only going to become greater and greater,” he said, noting that WME’s current challenge was to “to stay ahead of it.”

In a conversation with Conor Dignam, Screen International’s Group Editor, Emanuel told the top-level audience that “old media works perfectly well” currently, especially at the high-end level of tentpole studio films and big broadcasters. But he knows the shift in power to include more new media will happen in coming years. “I’m changing every day” he said of adapting to new business models. As an agency executive, he noted: “my job is to understand as much as I can about different opportunities.”

The expanding global reach of content is also good news for his clients. “We have theatrical movies from the US that open first outside of the US, whether that’s in Brazil or Russia. That is a fantastic opportunity,” he noted.

In may ways, ‘old media’ is still king, he noted. “For large scale productions you can’t beat the traditional system right now. You can’t crowdfund a $200m movie, that dog don’t hunt,” he said. “But we can try with a $4m movie for a certain client.”

He added: “As we move down this path we will figure out other models. There is a place for movies that are niche,” he said, pointing to the recent successful theatrical and online simultaneous launch of Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate’s drama Arbitrage in the US. “That was platformed properly, the models are happening.”

Backtracking on more inflammatory comments he has made in the past, he said: “Silicon Valley and Hollywood are working together pretty well on certain aspects….There is a great deal of conversation going on.” Of Internet companies, he added: “I love them, I just don’t like them when they don’t restrict people who are stealing our content. But they are getting there.”

Even WME itself is more tech-friendly with its new stakeholder Silver Lake, a tech-centric equity fund that earlier this year acquired a 30% stake in the agency. “They see the merger of content and technology,” Emanuel said. He added that WME would pursue further acquisitions, but probably not of an advertising agency at this stage. The agency also has no plans currently to move into production itself.

WME has worked with YouTube on 11 different channels and has sold content directly to web platforms. He pointed to other encouraging developments such as Netflix working on 20 original TV shows, kicked off by House of Cards and Arrested Development.

He posited that 10% of films at Cannes and Sundance this year would have some crowdfunding (a high figure disputed by some in the audience). Of crowd sourcing, he said: “I definitely think it’s going to be part of the conversation. You need to work out the equity splits. But it’s going to be a viable alternative depending on the budget,” not just for film but for TV and film but also for web series, music and books.

Emanuel wouldn’t be drawn into the piracy debate. “That’s a conversation for the majors — whether that’s the publishing houses, the studios, the TV networks — with the government…The content creators have had their conversations [already].”

In addition to the marriage with Silicon Valley, he said that Hollywood also needed to “make a marriage with Madison Avenue,” and that new models with advertisers would start to be seen soon on Internet platforms before moving into TV, film and publishing.

Speaking to aspiring content creators here in the MIddle East, he did note that the US agencies don’t have outposts here yet, but said that ambition anywhere can be rewarded. “The infrastructure we have created in the US doesn’t exist here, or in China. [But] It’s never the case where talent that can be monetised across international markets will not get noticed. If you’re talented I don’t care where you live.” To drive home the point, Emanuel made a point to note that he is now visiting the Gulf states more frequently.

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