Verve Launched In A Recession & Turned 10 In Covid Pandemic; Founders Ponder A Future Staying Independent When Other Agencies Emphasize Growth & Acquisitions

Editor’s Note: Deadline closely covered the seismic impact that disruption, and the pandemic had on every segment of film, TV and stage, and the companies that make and distribute them. This will start a series of occasional features on how they’ve emerged from the darkness of the past two plus years. 

Verve is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Two years after the agency hit the decade mark.

When the agency started by former Endeavor lit agents Bill Weinstein, Adam Levine and Bryan Besser hit the 10-year milestone, grand celebrations of any kind would have been unseemly. While Verve mustered through without any layoffs and furloughs that beset most other agencies, while it also created the first crack in the resolve of agencies when WGA successfully forced the percenteries to end packaging and affiliated production companies, the Covid pandemic made the uncorking of champagne impossible, with most of Hollywood shuttered in their homes.

“We did one nice event for our 10-year,” Weinstein said. “We had all the original clients who took the leap with us to Verve, and we hosted a dinner in Culver City, where our first offices were, with all the employees who worked in the first office. Everybody gave speeches about what it was like that first time interacting with Verve, their impression of us the first year. It was like pulling heartstrings and that did certainly speak to some of the principles and values of who we are, how we collaborate, what the mission has been, and how we’ve gotten there.”

The company is a lot bigger, he said, but the mission statement hasn’t really changed, even as everything about the agency business has.

“The acceleration of growth has been just in line with the principles, values, and practices that we’ve had in place so that we would be ready for this moment,” Weinstein said. “It hasn’t put a crushing pressure on us., it has been an extension of what we’ve designed this place to be even more effective in more areas of the creative business. That stuff is just really rewarding, fulfilling, exciting for the three of us. We started this when we were in our early thirties, and now, to see 115 employees and…

“No, we now have 116,” Besser corrected. That includes 44 agents.

They’ve unveiled a new logo. Aside from the staff growth, the agency has broadened into new areas.

Verve broadened into TV a decade ago when it brought Gersh TV lit agent Amy Retzinger into the fold in 2012 as partner, to balance the founding trio’s lean toward the lit side of film. Prolific spec seller David Boxerbaum bolstered the lit side as partner, and Verve most recently branched into talent when it brought in CAA and WME vet Sean Grumman to steer it. The growing talent business includes Milo Ventimiglia, Ben McKenzie, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Sean Bean, Josh Hartnett and recent Oscar-Winner Troy Kotsur. Verve recently brought on Elise Bergerson to start an Audio business, developing and selling podcasts for the agency’s clients. During the pandemic, Verve branched into New York, hiring veteran CAA theater agent Chris Till to start a Theater Division and run that office. The agency now reps 10 Tony Award winners including Bob Martin Robert Horn and Rock of Ages creator Chris D’Arienzo, and up and coming writer Kate Wetherhead.

When the founding trio formed in early January 2010 after Endeavor swallowed WMA, it was with a pledge to go from the agency first culture common at agencies to artists first. In the early days, business was often done in the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf outpost in Century City. Rumors went that they were helped financially by their mentor Tom Strickler, a founding partner at Endeavor who left after the merger. The Verve founders said that was never true. While Strickler — who along with Ari Emanuel, David Greenblatt and Rick Rosen exited ICM with their clients and files carted away in a station wagon in the middle of the night to form Endeavor, has certainly continued to be a mentor, the ex-superagent who pivoted to running charter schools never gave them anything more than encouragement.

“He has been a friend and mentor to us, and part of his exit deal was a pure non-compete,” Weinstein said. “So, even if we were looking for an investor, it wouldn’t have been him. That would have cost him millions of dollars.”

The formative funds came from a trio willing to bet on themselves.

“The entirety of VC was bankrolled by our last bonus checks that we got on December 15, 2009,” Levine said. “Whatever Bryan got, whatever Bill got, whatever Adam got, we rolled into this, and added a little bit of savings, and that’s it. We took a small business loan to start, for computers and stuff and paid that back within 10 months. We’ve been yearly profitable since year one, a lot of factors as to why, but a lot of it had to go with going digital.

“There was no such thing as needing to print scripts and messenger them around town,” Levine said. “We were able to work from anywhere, and accomplish the things that previously required an office. People always ask, how’d you do it? What was your business plan? Well, we bankrolled ourselves, just put it all on the line and said, we believe in this, and hope to god we’re right.”

It was a more modest start than former ICM chief Jeff Berg had when he started the agency Resolution shortly on the heels of Verve, with lavish offices and high-priced hires .

“They raised all this money, and 18 months later, it was gone,” Weinstein said. “At a time when President Obama was saying small business is going to be the way forward, we went to City National Bank during the credit crunch and secured a $50,000 loan and $200,000 line of credit that allowed us to get our office space, phones, computers, and get working. The three of us made an agreement with each other that we were not going to draw a salary until we are a profitable business. As Adam said, within 10 months, we were profitable and have been reinvesting those profits back into the business at every turn.”

The former Endeavor leaders were not hostile to the newcomers — though WME did recently pick off longtime Verve writer/director Colin Trevorrow, helmer of Jurassic World Dominion. Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell were at the time going through a painful mashing of two big agencies. WME has since grown into a colossus, buying IMG, UFC and the Professional Bull Riders circuit and an IPO. Emanuel’s last reported recognized compensation was $67.5M, with Whitesell’s compensation $123 million, most from stock and stock performance.

The Verve trio will surely have an opportunity to bolster its ranks when an expected flood of agents and clients shake loose from ICM than that agency is swallowed by CAA — young talent agents Josh Rahm and J.R. Ringer were hired from that agency — but the Verve founders said that they have tried to veer from the traditional agency formula, where a few at the top make the most money, and the biggest clients get the bulk of the attention.

“When you look at some of the other agencies, 5% of the list make 95% of the profit, and that imbalance is super challenging,” Besser said. “This creates a culture where everybody’s working to feed those five names. Those become the number-one agendas, and everybody else flounders. What about the other 200, 300, how many other people who might have an idea or a thought or a plan or a vision other than just servicing a giant piece of business. We’ve built our business to be diversified.”

The strategy of not seeking venture capital paid off during the pandemic when commissions screeched to a halt, the founders said. Verve avoided layoffs and furloughs common at other agencies. Instead, the founders instituted temporary pay cuts, with the partners take the biggest haircuts.

“If you look at April – July of 2020, legacy agencies with private equity investors and carrying balance sheets and growth strategies, they had to make cuts when the economic tides shifted,” Weinstein said. “Our nimble dynamic, reinvesting the profits, was resilient during that period of time. The expansion of our animation business, and our writers left us profitable every month of the pandemic. When the legacy agencies made cuts, and maybe didn’t have the vision to see where this was going, we didn’t have to make those decisions.”

Verve made a splash during the pandemic by being the first significant agency to sign a WGA code of conduct that created a crack in agency solidarity and allowed Verve to once again rep writers whose agency ordered them to fire reps which didn’t agree to curtail packaging and production. The Verve founders said they merely followed the will of their writer clients.

“We’d been growing our business on the 10 percent business, year over year, for the last 12 years,” Besser said. “There’s not an agency in town that wouldn’t want to have that track record, right now. They’re all retrenching and trying to figure out how to be profitable without the packaging part. Whether that is through cutting people, acquiring certain agencies, trying to capture earnings through acquisitions outside the core business. In the 10 percent business, we’ve doubled in size in the last two years. Who wouldn’t want that, and who’s saying the 10 percent business is a bad business? Not here.”

Levine said wariness eased when they began meeting with WGA leaders. “It was shocking to understand how in the dark they were about the day-to-day operations of how agencies work,” he said. “It was actually kind of sad because it was like, how do you represent a producer? How do you represent a financier? What does it mean when you do this? So, a lot of what we did in our partnership with the guild was just like, let’s spend too many hours in a conference, talking about, this is how the business operates. And let’s find an application that makes sense, most importantly, for our writers, where they can share in the success that is owned them.”

Some agencies bristled about sharing member contracts with the Guild, but Weinstein said it wasn’t that big an issue for Verve.

“I can’t remember about the contract provision,” he said. “We’re on record, so I’m not going to speak to the reaction that one of our competitors had. This idea that sharing invoices with the guild is an onerous and challenging thing is utter nonsense. The accounting portion of our business sends an invoice to the studios for money. They can BCC the @WGA.org address and invoices are shared. It was our responsibility to look after our Guild member clients. We surveyed our clients when these threshold issues were in front of us. We saw that the majority felt very aligned with certain positions that were brought by the guild. Some positions needed some adjustment. We went in, we engaged directly, got the changes that we needed that were important, some of the things that others were saying that were really important was not important to those who we look after, and that made it easier.”

Once the code was signed, Verve made it clear it would not sign any clients “who seek temporary representation and intend to return to their previous agency when a deal is made between the WGA and the ATA.” Verve brought back most former clients and signed new ones like John August and Adele Lim as a result.

Lim had been with WME for 15 years and said Verve’s decision to sign the Code of Conduct was 100 percent why she moved. She stayed because of the work put in by Bill Weinstein and Melissa Fried, and integrity she said is hard to find at the major agencies.

“Integrity isn’t a word normally associated with reps in this town, but it’s a quality that I’ve seen firsthand in how they conduct themselves, how they fight for their clients, and how they treat their employees.” Lim said. “Verve was the first agency to pay their assistants a competitive wage – it speaks to their values and, as someone paid her dues as an assistant for years, that counts for a lot. I knew from day one Verve’s top priority is their clients – not side deals, or trying to become a studio, or launching an IPO.  They do well when I do well, it’s as simple as that. Okay, that, and they’re fucking killers,” Lim said.

Playing The Talent Game

While the Verve founders stress they are following their own course, their progression is reminiscent of what Endeavor did in its formative years. That agency began as a lit powerhouse, and didn’t get into the talent game until star agent Patrick Whitesell left CAA and brought clients like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. It enabled Endeavor to put projects together.

“We did not sit down and say, okay, we’re going to get into talent at year 10,” Besser said. “We said we’re going to get into talent with the right people, at the right time. We did not say, okay, we’re going to set up our business, and at the 9-year mark, there’s going to be a major crisis with the Writer’s Guild, and we will jump on that opportunity, ahead of our competitors.

That catalyst was Grumman, a veteran talent agent who got his start in the agency world in 1997 as intern when he was a summer camper, eventually making it to CAA’s mailroom in 2001. After 15 years there he would move over to WME, repping Ben McKenzie and Milo Ventimiglia. Grumman reached a crossroads during the pandemic, conflicted about what he felt was indifference by the legacy agencies to most of the clients they repped.

“I looked at my wife and kids, and I went, do I just want to stay here, and what if this falls to the ground, or do I want to go build something,” Grumman says.

While there were opportunities to move to another legacy major, Grumman’s decision to start the talent team at Verve came over a Zoom call where an unlikely individual helped nudge him in the right direction.

“I was on a Zoom with Bill and Amy and they were like, what do you want to build? I had been sitting at home for three months, going, ‘I’m going to build my own agency.’ In my brain, I could do it. I was going to hire a lit agent. I already had computers. My wife was in the corner because I was working out of my bedroom. I’m 45 minutes into answering their question, and my wife goes you should shut up now.”

The Verve partners asked her to come on the call, and from there, the talent department was hatched. “I’d done 45 minutes of me pitching what I was going to build, and then it was 45 minutes of us just being normal, just talking.” His takeaway? “I can build with them, and then they called afterwards, and they’re like if you do everything that you said on this Zoom that you’re going to do all that, that’s what we want.”

As for the future, Verve’s founders expect to resist the herd call to grow big. Being an indie leaves them vulnerable to losing clients who want to be at the majors. Aside from Trevorrow, Top Gun: Maverick helmer Joseph Kosinski moved to CAA, which brokered a big deal to Apple for a race car movie Kosinski will direct with top client Brad Pitt. Longtime clients Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger landed on This Is Us and rose to co-showrunners on the acclaimed drama while at Verve before leaving in 2018.

The founders prefer to focus on careers they’ve helped build. Verve is strong in the animation space, repping animation clients who’ve been a part of six of the last 12 Best Animated Film Oscar winners (Soul-Mike Jones, Toy Story 4-Stephany Folsom, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse-Peter Ramsey, Inside Out-Meg LeFauve, Frozen-Jennifer Lee, Toy Story 3-Michael Arndt). Verve has hung onto Trevorrow’s Jurassic co-writers Emily Carmichael, and Derek Connolly. On TV side, recent strong deals include Jac Schaeffer on the Emmy-nominated WandaVision, with JD Payne and Patrick McKay the EPs and showrunners of The Lord of the Rings series at Amazon, which bows this fall.

“I think we’ve actually kind of stayed very close to the founding principles of the company,” TV head Retzinger said. “We’ve added to the ranks and grown very organically, and we’ve brought along like-minded people because one of the things we say a lot is though the goals may shift, the business has changed, and we’ve gotten into many other areas that we weren’t in 12 years ago. But the values don’t. As we find likeminded people we’ll continue to deliver that service.”

The founders said they continue to want to stay independent, and not chasing private equity money for acquisitions. They’ve been approached, they said, but never saw a good reason for it.

“We’re not looking to get into all these other businesses just because it’s expected or because there’s money to be made there,” Levine said. “It’s really going to be because it helps our clients. From day one, a lot of the reasons we got into some of these other businesses was because our clients had a need for them. They pushed us to this area. They said, hey, we really need some support here. So we went out and got the right people to help support their desires. We’ve resisted any kind of merger up until now. We resisted any kind of investment up until now. Who knows what the future brings?”

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