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Ari Emanuel, Powerhouse Of Talent Agencies

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. We'll talk next about a man with a rising profile in Hollywood. He is not on camera, not exactly. He is an agent for TV and movie stars. Ari Emanuel represents Martin Scorsese, Mark Wahlberg and Larry David. His tough and profane style became the basis for a fictional agent named Ari in the series "Entourage."

Now he's more powerful after his agency Endeavor merged with another talent agency, the William Morris Agency. Reporter Kim Masters, a familiar voice to many of our listeners, has just written about Ari Emanuel in the Daily Beast. And she's with us.

Hi, Kim.

KIM MASTERS: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: This guy is not a head of a studio. He's a talent agent. What would make him powerful?

MASTERS: Well, you know, the last strong man in Hollywood, which is an era that ended way back in 1995, was the infamous Michael Ovitz. And he was a talent agent. And before that we had Lou Wasserman, who started out as a talent agent to an actor named Ronald Reagan.

So as you can see, it's possible to be very powerful as a talent agent. However, the question is, is it possible to be that powerful today with the industry in such a state of chaos thanks to all the digital revolution?

INSKEEP: Basically, you're the person who's managing the stars. The stars are the people that make movies or any number of other products sell, and so you can put together packages of different kinds of stars and writers and force them down the studios' throats.

MASTERS: Well, that's how it was in the Ovitz era. Today, stars are really losing their star power. Their wattage is waning, you know, because they just aren't opening movies the way they used to. And studios are paying much less money to the stars. They're calling up and saying we'll give you half of your old deal. So the studios are really feeling their oats.

And the other thing is, they're part of much bigger companies now. It isn't like you could just decide to let an agent bully you. Nowadays, if you're at NBC, you have to explain it to those people at General Electric - at GE. If you're, you know, at Columbia Pictures, that's part of Sony. So it's a different, more corporate world, and it is harder for an agent to wrest that kind of power.

INSKEEP: I want to get a sense of the personality of this guy, Ari Emanuel, who with these merged agencies is trying to build a power base in a very changed industry. And let's start with his public image. He's very clearly the basis for this character Ari in "Entourage." And he's portrayed as a really, really tough go-getter. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Entourage")

Mr. JEREMY PIVEN (As Ari Gold): I don't care if he's in the Arctic Shelf. Get James Cameron on the phone. Get Dana Gordon on the phone. Tell her assistant if she does not call me back I will (bleep) worse than I did in Cabo in '92.

Mr. REX LEE (As Lloyd): Do you really want me to say that?

Mr. PIVEN (As Ari Gold): Improvise, Lloyd. I'm going to be there in 90 seconds. Find out who covers Warners. If all this is not taken care of, I will choke you out with a (bleep).

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Kim Masters, you spoke with people who know and work with or work around the real Ari Emanuel.

MASTERS: I have spoken with the real Ari. I've been yelled at by the real Ari Emanuel. Let me tell you, it's - it's - you what he, he - I don't want to take anything away from Jeremy Piven's performance, but Ari Emanuel, the real thing, is way worse than that.

INSKEEP: Does the give him power just to be a kind of force of nature?

MASTERS: Yes, because - you know what? I think in some way Hollywood wants and needs a strong man. And even though, you know, it doesn't quite work out the way it did in the old days when you could gather up these stars and wield this clout, I think there's almost a psychological need.

And if you're willing to play that role, as the head of one of the networks said to me, it's all smoke and mirrors. You can do it with force of personality. So that's what he's going to try to do now.

INSKEEP: I want to note something about that television performance. The program in which Ari Emanuel comes across as this rough, abrasive, profane guy is produced by one of Emanuel's…

MASTERS: Mark Wahlberg, yeah.

INSKEEP: …own clients.

MASTERS: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Doesn't that suggest that Ari Emanuel is actually very happy to be portrayed this way?

MASTERS: Well, I've actually talked to Ari Emanuel about that and he claimed at the time not to be. But I hear that he actually doesn't mind and has been known to, you know, when he's dealing maybe with overseas people, to say, Don't you know who I am? I'm Ari Gold. That's my character. So I think it probably is pretty flattering.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: There's something else about his identity and we've gotten this far in the conversation without mentioning, and that's the identity of his powerful brother.

MASTERS: Yes, his brother Rahm, who is now chief of staff to Obama. And I met him when he was in the Clinton White House. You know, they're very similar. I don't know what their parents put in their Wheaties. You know, there are three Emanuel brothers. The third is a prominent oncologist, Ezekiel, also helping the Obama administration with health care reform. You know, that family needs to be studied.

INSKEEP: Kim Masters reports for the Daily Beast and for the public radio show THE BUSINESS.

Thanks, Kim.

MASTERS: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.