In the summer of 1962, MCA Inc.—the giant Hollywood talent agency so dominant in its field that industry insiders called it The Octopus—acquired a majority stake in Decca Records and Universal Pictures, giving it control of a full-fledged movie studio and a major recording company. For the better part of a decade, MCA had already been the country’s largest creator of television programming. The agency was known for controversially “packaging” its star actors with writing and directing clients into ready-made shows for one-stop, near-monopoly sale to the networks.
But the Universal acquisition was a bridge too far for Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, which filed a civil antitrust suit against MCA and forced it to dissolve its agency business, on the grounds that being both a buyer and seller of talent posed an inherent conflict of interest. For most of the past 60 years, mindful of this precedent, Hollywood’s agents have largely steered clear of trying to produce movies and television that would give them control of the content that their own clients create.
In recent years, powerful über-agents like William Morris Endeavor’s Ari Emanuel have realized what the legendary MCA boss Lew Wasserman himself understood so well when he agreed to get out of the agency business: Producing and owning entertainment is ultimately more lucrative than simply taking up to a 10 percent commission on its creation. That’s why the big agencies have not only reverted to The Octopus’s old practice of bundling their clients into package deals for movies and television—in the process, waiving their standard commissions while pocketing hefty (and often undisclosed) fees for themselves—but also created independent production companies that could amount to mini-studios of their own.