Definitions: 1) The selling by a talent agency of the personal services of multiple agency clients, particularly leading actors and director, to a studio or independent producer for a project. 2) (also "film packaging") Assembling by a talent agency of most if not all facets of a project, including script, talent, production, marketing, distribution, and financing, employing as many agency clients as possible.
History: In the 1940s, MCA President Lew Wasserman and his “Men in Black,” so-called because they wore black suits, white shirts and black ties, began remaking Hollywood with dealmaking strategies that included points, incorporation and packaging. Points involved the negotiating of profit sharing contracts for actors and directors. Incorporation involved incorporating actors and directors to qualify for a corporate income tax rate and deductions. Packaging involved selling to studios the services of multiple clients for a film. “In effect,” wrote Neal Gabler of the Los Angeles Times, “Wasserman was the man who put the inmates in charge of the Hollywood asylum."
Perhaps it is more accurate to say Wasserman seized the opportunities for a dealmaker created by United States v. Paramount, a 1948 Supreme Court decision that ordered “The Big Five” studios to divest their ownership in theater chains. Wasserman or no, the demise of the studio system made the “inmate” takeover inevitable. Deprived of monopolistic revenue streams, studios could no longer afford the number of box office disappointments they once had. The need to succeed led studios to produce fewer and fewer films. It also placed a premium on actors and directors with star power aka “bankability.” (Fifty years later, bankability of actors would be quantified by the Ulmer Scale, which originated the term “A-list actor.”) Bankable actors and directors became too pricey for studios to sign long term. Turned free agents, many top artists looked to Wasserman’s MCA.
James Stewart, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Gene Kelly, Billy Wilder, Frank Sinatra, Lana Turner, Alfred Hitchcock—the list of MCA clients circa 1950 was practically a Hollywood Who’s Who. Studios wanting to cast an MCA star or hire an MCA director could expect the deal to include additional MCA clients. Often packages were dictated by MCA clients themselves. Not only did Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart package themselves for MCA’s pitch of “Rear Window” (1954) to Paramount Pictures, but Hitchcock and Stewart relied on MCA expertise to form their own production company to produce the film. Little wonder producers and screenwriters also flocked to MCA. Hollywood projects are born where deals are made.
Production companies flourished in the 1950s, most in the MCA fold. Packaging went from actors and directors to including all “above the line” talent—screenwriter, producer, director, actors, production designer. etc. Then, in 1962, MCA purchased Decca Records and a floundering Universal Pictures. Shortly afterward an anti-trust lawsuit was brought against MCA, which MCA settled at a cost of divesting its talent agency business. Although most studios were suffering financially—their woes now exacerbated by television—Wasserman turned Universal Pictures, maker of low-budget films, into Universal Studios, a television juggernaut that also made A-budget feature films. Before divesture, MCA reputedly signed all of its clients to Universal contracts. In any case, Universal became, along with the equally TV-savvy Warner Brothers Pictures, Hollywood’s most successful studio.
A handful of talent agencies, some old (e.g., William Morris Agency) and some new (e.g., Michael Ovitz’s Creative Artists Agency) filled the void. Packaging came to include studio production, distribution, marketing and financing—ideally the entire project. Since the 1980s, packaging has been ever more creative and complex. For instance, distribution involves release to domestic and foreign markets via theaters, DVD, video on demand, pay television, free television and Internet streaming. Timing, licensing, profit sharing, and coordination with advertising and tie-in promotions are among the issues that must be resolved. The leading Hollywood agencies packaging films today include William Morris Endeavor, Creative Artists Agency, International Creative Management, Paradigm Talent Agency and United Talent Agency. Amid the change has been one constant: Anything goes if it is legal and makes for a better deal.
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