William Morris endeavor partner talks about the past, present, and future of film and television
Tim Curtis works at one of the biggest and oldest talent agencies in the world: William Morris Endeavor. As a partner and agent for celebrity endorsements and voiceovers, he represents some of today’s biggest stars including Dwayne Johnson, Christian Bale, Alison Brie, Ellie Kemper, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Matthew McConaughey, Steve Carell, Allison Janney, Mandy Moore, Tina Fey, Halle Berry. The list goes on and on. And while many would assume an industry player of his caliber would be oozing of that Ari Gold infamous Hollywood persona, Tim is anything but. In the last few years of our friendship, I’ve almost had to force any sort of business talk or fun details about his 75-100 set visits per year out of him (a true rarity in our obsessive industry). Instead, he talks about the 10 Broadway shows he just saw on one of his frequent week-long trips to New York. Or, all about the times he fully produced a mini 2-day Amazing Race competition for a group of his friends complete with cameramen recording the entire experience and perfectly branded clues. He also throws one of the best Oscar-watching parties in town—a 20+ year tradition that I’m determined to finally place Top 10 in next year. So although Tim’s accomplishments of being a top Hollywood agent are obvious, he caries a silent wisdom that speaks for itself. I’ll continue trying to squeeze more industry knowledge out of him, but for now, enjoy our lunchtime conversation from the beautiful insides of Neiman Marcus, Beverly Hills.
How did you get to where you are today?
TIM: I went to theater school for undergrad, then law school and then drove out to LA and wanted to be an agent at William Morris because it was the one place my grandparents had heard of. I tried to get a job there but they never responded because I didn’t know anybody. So I decided to go after the temp agency that was providing all of the temps to William Morris and I called the head of the temp agency and said, Put me in for one day and I promise you they’ll buy me from you, and thankfully they did. They put me in the commercial department and I never left! That was 24 years ago and now I’m a partner at the company. The commercial industry has changed considerably since then. It’s been amazing to watch it grow and become what it is.
Wow! Rarely do I hear that someone knew they wanted to be an agent and, even more rarely, the specific company! So how has the commercial business changed?
TIM: I focus mostly on celebrity endorsements. Nowadays, pretty much every talent wants to do commercials, whether they’re an Academy Award Winner or whether they’re just starting out, because it helps their brand and the payday can be very substantial. It used to be that we had to beg people to do commercials. Aside from perhaps getting a big actor to do a commercial overseas, you’d be lucky if you could get the 5th lead on a series to say ‘yes’ to something, but now you have Julia Roberts and George Clooney and Brad Pitt and Robert De Niro and all of these people doing commercials. It’s a much different landscape.
Do you have to work closely with managers and publicists to make sure the commercials are right for the actor’s brand?
TIM: We say ‘no’ more than we say ‘yes’ to things because it really does have to check a lot of boxes. If it’s not going to be something that enhances an actor’s brand or helps them with the theatrical side of things, then we don’t do it. It has to be a brand that is an organic fit otherwise we encourage our clients to say ‘no.’
A PIONEER IN CELEBRITY VOICEOVERS FOR ANIMTED FILMS
Aside from celebrity endorsements, I remember you telling me about your journey with voiceover talent and how you were a kind of pioneer in getting big-name actors to voice all of the animated movies.
TIM: Well, 20+ years ago, Disney was really the only studio that was dabbling with using celebrity talent for their animated movies. There was Aladdin that had come out with Robin Williams and The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. But the other studios really weren’t doing this so we took the idea of the celebrity-driven animated movie and shopped it around to all the other movie studios and started building out the casts with our celebrity clients and eventually, it became the new norm.
Was it Ice Age that was the first big animated movie to have all celebrity actors? How was compensation for the actors?
TIM: Deals used to be structured with very minimal compensation because the actors wouldn’t be required to participate in any publicity and they wouldn’t use the actors’ names on posters. It would all be done very quietly. So Ice Age was the first film to really step forward with utilizing the celebrity of the talent and we represented the entire cast of Ice Age, at the time. So, when we went in and negotiated those deals, we created box office bonuses and back-ends in exchange for the PR services of the talent. Now it’s not uncommon for actors to make hundreds of thousands of dollars to seven figures when an animated film is successful, whereas before, you would make $25,000 and that’s it. So it’s changed quite a bit in the actor’s favor and thankfully, we were able to help shape that.
WORK WITH TIM CURTIS
How incredible that you were part of such a shift in the industry! So how do I get a client with you?
TIM: Typically, the second season of a successful show is when brands will start noticing an actor. During the first season, the brands notice but they still want to wait and see what will happen. During the second season is when the actor is usually getting out more and doing more press and making more of a name for themselves. Usually it’s around the second or third season that actors start getting endorsement offers but it really depends on the talent. Also, if they’ve been actively talking about, let’s say, Pellegrino and how much they love drinking Pellegrino, a brand will sometimes notice that in their social feeds so they’ll come to us and want to do a bigger deal because they know the actor is already a fan of the particular brand.
Should I start telling my actors to push products they like?
TIM: Only if it’s something they truly use and truly love and would love to work with in a bigger capacity, then it doesn’t hurt. But the downside is that you don’t want to be too aligned with a brand that you’re not being compensated for because if the actor is promoting Pellegrino for free, then Evian may not want to hire them because they’ll think they have a deal with Pellegrino. So it’s a balance. Put things in your social feed that you would anyway without any expectation. But yes, it can be a way that brands will take notice of someone that might differentiate them from other talent.
Noted. Don’t have all my actors start posing with 1 brand in all of their Instagram posts!
Since you’re not begging to sign all of my actors just yet, how in the world do you find your new actors?
TIM: I try to watch every pilot that gets picked up. So as soon as the upfronts happen, we watch every show that’s going to make it on TV. We think about which shows are going to be successful (which is often so hard to predict) and then who of those shows catches our attention. Who do we feel the brands will notice? Usually, it tends to be one of the leads of the show. It’s rare for it to be a supporting person on a show just because it’s too early from the endorsement standpoint. But if we know that Matthew Perry (for example) is going back on TV and his show is going to be a huge hit and it has a great time slot, then maybe it makes sense to get Matthew Perry as a client. Then, you reach out to his manager or publicist or lawyer and you start to ask questions to see if this is something he’s interested in. Or if there’s someone that emerges in the film world overnight, like Tiffany Haddish, or whoever it is that seems to have a career out of nowhere even though they’ve been working hard for a long time, of course. We think: Are they the right fit for brands right now? Or, more often than not, it’s just a phone call from a manager or the talent themselves saying that they’d love to come in and talk with us.
What is your favorite part of the job?
TIM: I love negotiating deals. And on the other hand, I love the creativity of a producer calling me and talking to me about their next animated film and helping build the character and helping essentially function as a casting person, as well.
THE FUTURE OF HOLLYWOOD
Let’s talk about producers and films. I’ve been reading this book called The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies by Ben Fritz. Ben is a Wall Street Journalist that went through the thousands of emails from the 2014 Sony hack and wrote this highly fascinating book about how the movie industry in changing. He demonstrates how the future of movies will mostly be comprised of huge franchise movies like the Marvel features or Fast and the Furious and animated movies. What do you think?
TIM: I do agree. I think that it’s really tough for movie theatres and the film community to do much outside of the big tent-pole movies because if you don’t open in the first weekend in a huge way, the movie will be out of the theatre in two weeks. So a lot of the studios are taking a lot less risks. But I think the response of the industry to that is with studios like Netflix and Amazon creating their own content and attracting incredible stars and incredible writers and directors, and so now, for that mid-level drama, you’re probably going to see it on Netflix or HBO or someplace outside of the traditional movie theatre. They’re the ones taking the chances on those projects and creating really smart, creative, beautiful, thought-provoking movies rather than actually going to a movie theatre.
It’s fascinating to learn about this change. In the early 2000’s, a movie didn’t have to do so well in theatres because it would still make money from selling DVDs, but with that being a thing of the past, movies really have to profit at the box office. And with more parts of the world being developed, there are now movie theatres in small villages and towns in Albania and Ecuador and China. But those people aren’t going to want to see, let’s say, a drama about the nuances of an interracial relationship in Midwest America. They want the big franchises, characters, universes and brands that they know. Plus, animated films. Those seem to always do really well.
TIM: Even then, people think that if it’s animated it will make a lot of money but it’s really not the case. It’s just the big studios- Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Illumination. Those are the only ones that can guarantee that that film is going to make $150- $200+ million but the independent or smaller studio animated movies sometimes don’t even make $50 million, which sounds like a tremendous amount of money, but it’s really not when the budgets of them are fairly high. So animated films still do really well as a genre but they still have to be smart, well-made movies for them to make big profits.
I’m very curious to see what the Hollywood landscape will look like in another 10 years. But looking back, what do you wish you had known when you first started in this industry?
TIM: I wish I knew how to balance life better instead of letting the industry and work consume me entirely. I wish that I would have taken more time for me and my relationships and friends and not worked 80 hours a week. No regrets, considering everything and where I am. I do feel like I’ve struck a pretty good balance now as I’ve gotten older but I think it’s important not to become so career-obsessed.
Is that the advice you would give me?
TIM: Yes. Absolutely. It’s a fine line. You want to work really hard and be successful and these are the years to plant all of the seeds to take your career to the next level but at the same time, at the end of your life, no one will ever look back and say, What a hard worker she was. You want them to look back and say, What a great friend, sister, daughter, parent, wife she was. I think it’s better to be known for that. It’s hard work to be successful but make sure you’re giving as much to yourself as you are to your clients. And hopefully clients are respecting some of those boundaries as well, because a lot of them won’t, so you have to set them yourself. If it’s a real emergency, I’m available any time but otherwise, call me during these hours.
It’s definitely hard to find that balance. Working in an industry that is so competitive makes you feel like you can never stop working.
TIM: We now have evolved into an industry that is so immediate, especially with technology today. You get a text or an email and people don’t always understand if you’re not responding back within ten minutes. We, as an industry, need to relax a little. Just because technology has allowed us to move a lot faster than things used to move, doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to.
I completely agree. But it seems like all of your hard work did pay off and hopefully now you can enjoy yourself more. Thank you so much for sharing with me, Tim.
TIM: I just feel very fortunate. WME has been so good to me. I feel that when anybody finds something in life they really love doing and can make money at it, it’s a blessing. You spend so much time building a career that if it’s not something you love doing then you should use that same energy to build something else and you’ll probably be equally successful doing that. If you’re not happy doing it, then what’s the point? I just kind of had a vision about what I wanted and then figured out the path to get there. I worked hard and had some lucky breaks along the way. And now, I look back at the hundreds of animated films that I’ve had an imprint on for the last 25 years and that will live on far longer than I will and it just feels good to know that I was able to help shape that.
WHAT’S FOR LUNCH
RESTAURANT: Mariposa @ Neiman Marcus
LOCATION: 9700 Wilshire Blvd. Beverly Hills, CA 90212
DISH: Cobb Salad
NOTES: Chic restaurant located inside Neiman Marcus on the bottom floor. You’re immediately brought chicken broth with a fresh croissant with butter and jam. Large menu, full bar. The Cobb Salad was one of the best I’ve had. Hard not to buy makeup or facial products on the way in (or out) of the restaurant so be careful! Hidden (literally) gem.