In the wake of the historic acquisition of UK talent agency Curtis Brown by US behemoth United Talent Agency earlier this year, UK talent agents give their reaction to ripples in the territory’s agency landscape.

UK talent agents 2

Source: The Agency / Fhuad Braimoh

Josh Varney, Ian Benson, Lucy Price

In June of this year, US agency powerhouse United Talent Agency (UTA) acquired UK heritage agency Curtis Brown. The UK firm has more than 120 years of experience, with its roots as a literary agency, evolving in the last 15 years to collate an extensive film and TV talent list including Ncuti Gatwa, Paul Mescal and Bel Powley, and acquiring sister agencies Markham Froggatt & Irwin and Tavi­stock Wood.

Amid the increasingly globalised film and high-end TV industry, the UK has become a magnet for US streamer and studio production — inward investment and co‑productions accounted for 84% of the production spend in the UK in 2021, totalling $5.13bn (£4.77bn). UTA’s strike into the UK space has not exactly shocked the industry, but it has raised questions about what the future holds for UK talent agents, the clients they represent and the impact on UK independent filmmaking.

“It’s disruptive, and I like disruption. Disruption is good for the business. But it’s not a surprise,” says Josh Varney, co-founder of UK management and production company 42.

“To some extent, everybody’s had a door knocked on,” affirms the managing director of a leading UK talent agency. “All of our direct competitors would say the same thing.”

Indeed, toes have been dipped into the UK pond for some time by US agencies. The UK’s Casarotto, Ramsay & Associates and United Agents and US company Anonymous Content set up a television production company together in 2018, under the leadership of veteran TV producer Sophie Gardiner. This year, Lionsgate took a minority stake in 42, and 42 also signed a TV production deal with Lionsgate and 3 Arts Entertainment, with Varney now splitting his time between the UK and US. As far back as 1984, the UK’s Duncan Heath Associates was sold to US outfit ICM Partners, with Heath leading a management buyout to reclaim the company’s independence and form Independent Talent Group in 2002.

The major US agents all have London offices. William Morris Endeavour (WME) has had a footprint in the UK since 1997, then WMA. An attempt to open a fully fledged London branch pre-pandemic did not go down well with UK agents. The plans dissolved during the Covid‑19 disruption, but an office, which focuses mainly on music, remains. Alex Walton, co-head of WME Independent, the film financing and sales arm of WME, is based in London.

Creative Artists Agency (CAA) also has a London office, with the agency operating a borderless business model, and representation not dependent on where a client or agent is based. UTA also has London offices, which are focused on sports and music, and are independent of Curtis Brown.

“This [US interest in UK agencies] is not new,” says Varney, “but what is new is the global appetite for film and television is now truly agnostic to language and location, which is an amazing opportunity for our creatives. You need to be able to service that as a representative and an agent.”

‘If it ain’t broke…’

For now, the official line is that it will be business as usual at Curtis Brown, with CEO Jonny Geller continuing to steer the ship. It is expected the 240-strong staff will not be streamlined but will grow in size. The focus will remain on nurturing local talent, and Curtis Brown will continue to share clients with US agents outside of UTA.

“The smartest version of those sorts of deals is where you leave great people to continue doing what they’ve been great at. You don’t try and stick your oar in,” says Varney.

“Curtis Brown agents will continue doing the job they do, which they do very well,” adds the CEO of another top UK talent agency. “I can’t see that changing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If UTA wanted to then float [its] company, as a lot of the agencies in America do, it adds to the float, doesn’t it?”

Based on previous experiences of US agencies going gung ho into the UK market, UK agents agree UTA would be wise to be respectful of Curtis Brown’s ways of working. In 2020, YMU integrated UK agency Troika into its company, rebranding it as YMU Drama, which led to the departure of co-founders Conor McCaughan and Michael Duff. “YMU was just a bit of a shitshow,” says one seasoned UK agent. “They bought an agency run by brilliant people and then tried to change how those brilliant people work. Those clients weren’t going to stick around without Michael and Conor.”

Many agents Screen International spoke to remain confident in their relationships with their clients, when faced with the possibility of clients signed to UTA in the US switching sides to Curtis Brown in the UK.

“It’s a relationship business, especially in the UK,” asserts Varney. “If you’re doing the job, you’re going to stay in your clients’ life because they are going to be happy to continue to pay you. It is a business at the end of the day. If you’re not doing the job and someone offers you a better service, you’re going to have your head turned.”

There also appears to be little outward worry over talent ending the practice of having a separate UK agent, with the perk of saving on agency fees, as is the case with Florence Pugh, now only represented by CAA, and Tom Holland by WME. “The UK is a small country, America is a continent, therefore you can’t compare the two markets in terms of financial opportunity,” says Varney. “But we definitely have some of the best creators on the planet in the UK and that will never change. We also have some of the best agents on the planet. If you’re great, you’re going to keep your clients.”

“In the UK we nurture and find talent, they don’t really do that in America as intrinsically as we do,” adds agent Florence Rose of Independent Talent Group.

Not all in the industry speak positively about the relationships between UK and US agents. One UK agent says of their experience of sharing a client with a US agent: “They think all work originates in the US. I think that’s a mistake.”

“There is a general perception that US representation will always have the final say, but I don’t agree with that,” adds a UK sales agent with experience working alongside agents on both sides of the Atlantic.

This attitude from the US could prove tricky for UK independent filmmaking, already struggling with soaring production costs and cast and crew shortages. Will US companies care about supporting the modestly budgeted UK indie film industry?

“[US production and distribution company] A24 has just hired two of the best executives in the business [Rose Garnett, director of BBC Film, and Piers Wenger, director of BBC Drama], so that’s a real statement of how important this market is,” says Varney.

“Making films is super hard,” he adds. “I don’t think it’s a negative to have more money coming into the UK, whether that’s money from A24, money from UTA, or any investment into our market. However you look at the Curtis Brown deal, that’s a massive amount of investment into the UK film and tele­vision community.”

Who’s next?

Consolidation among US agencies has boiled down the landscape to three main companies — UTA, CAA and WME. There remains more of a spread in the UK, although pacts have been struck, such as the formation of The Partnership Group, a collection of UK talent agencies that formed in 2021, and includes The Artists Partnership, Sayle Screen and Sara Putt Associates, and UK management and production company Avalon picked up a majority stake in The Agency.

“There will be a lot more consolidation,” believes Varney. “Are WME or CAA going to buy a UK agency? They could do. Would they? Maybe. The businesses are so small compared to the US, so they might not want to ruffle feathers in the small but important market that is the UK. What’s more likely is consolidation in the UK between UK companies.”

“Maybe, in the year 3000, there will just be one agency to rule them all,” muses Rose.

But where will the mergers and acquisitions leave the UK’s boutique agency scene? “It’s hard to be a small independent agency,” says Ian Benson of The Agency. “That’s no reflection on how good the agencies or agents are, but the nature of the business is so international and global that if you’re part of a broader network or bigger group, it gives you that reach and you’re able to offer more to clients.”

“As companies restructure, this could be very unsettling for talent,” says one UK agent. “Perhaps employees are shifted about or leave. We could see the rise of more boutique agencies off the back of this, as agents become dissatisfied. The client-agent relationship is a special one. Any good agent will be very concerned with this being disrupted.”

The UK industry’s move towards more inclusive and caring on-set practices could also be of benefit for agile, homegrown agencies. Lucy Price founded Loop Talent in 2020, an agency that focuses on representation of UK heads of department and crew, and sees the mergers as an opportunity.

“With that localised knowledge, companies like ours can see the issues in the industry, and what roles might be needed to facilitate, like intimacy co-ordinators or wellbeing facilitators,” she says. “Globalised companies might not have that knowledge.

“There will always be a place for boutique agencies with local know­ledge and boots on the ground.”