“I know who my clients are that I can call up and say, ‘I’ve got this crazy idea,’” enthused Jon Rubenstein, the president and CEO of Authentic Talent. A statement like that might strike fear into the hearts of many in Hollywood.
Leveraging today’s “attention economy” while building long-lasting relationships with clients such as Brie Larson, Simu Liu, John Bradley, Vera Farmiga, and Barbie Ferreira and developing their ideas are cornerstone principles for the talent and literary management company. Based in New York but with an office in Los Angeles, Authentic also has a podcast network and what is described as a “flourishing” production operation that continues to grow. The company has been around for 15 years.
“If our clients are successful and happy, we’re all going to make money,” Rubenstein explained. “I’ve never been one to follow the money. I’ve always been about trying new things,” added Anne Woodward, the head of Authentic’s Los Angeles office. “I’ve always found that the money will come.”
With a talent roster in the hundreds, the almost 50-strong management team (with a combined 700 years of experience) is laser-focused on continuing to build something that is “more than a talent management company.” I caught up with Rubenstein and Woodward to find out more.
Simon Thompson: When did you discover this opportunity to do things differently?
Anne Woodward: It was maybe four or five years ago that the business really changed. It was constantly changing, but as social media and digital became things for talent, not just individual YouTube or TikTok stars, who could go directly to their fan base through their social media, it became a much bigger picture. It offered more than an agent or old-school management did because there were so many platforms.
Jon Rubenstein: When we started Authentic Talent, it was always about how we empower clients to fulfill what they cared about, live their dreams, and go after what they were passionate about. Naturally, our job has been to keep an eye on how they can do that. What are the ways that they can tell their stories and express themselves most clearly? I have two kids, 18 and 21, and my son hasn’t watched a television show on regular television for as long as I can remember. I used to put on a TV show, whether cable or network, and my son would say, ‘I’ve got my phone.’ From the time he had a phone, he was watching YouTube or whatever. Many managers knew back then that maybe we were watching these shows, but our kids, the next generation, and the consumers, are not. They are the ones who are going to dictate how it’s going to go in the future. We’ve always been aware that we’ll eventually be out of business if we can’t predict the future, see things coming, jump on board and try to do the best we can for our clients.
Thompson: The industry is always searching for new ways to do things but also fears trying new things. People often don’t want to be the first to try something and fail. I’ll use Quibi as an example that I have personal experience of. When you approached people with this idea, did you face much resistance and skepticism?
Woodward: That’s an excellent question. I haven’t come up against that but technology has changed a lot. I think people are interested in that flip side and being somebody who leads the way on a platform or technology. It has almost become okay to fail. Quibi was out there with some of the biggest hitters in the business, and it failed. But do you know what? They tried.
Rubenstein: I think that part of our job as managers is to know our clients. There are going to be some who are all for new technology. We’re trying new things, and they’re excited about them. I know who my clients are that I can call up and say, ‘I’ve got this crazy idea.’ I know other clients who take a bit of a different approach. Our job is to know our clients, try to lead them in a direction, and help them see the opportunities but respect where they’re coming from.
Thompson: This is a business, so what’s the financial model behind this? This goes beyond managers simply taking a cut of their client’s earnings.
Rubenstein: If our clients are successful and happy, we’re all going to make money. All of us take on things that we don’t know whether will work or not, but if we’re doing our jobs across the board, that’s never top of our minds. Sometimes we don’t make money, sometimes there’s no money involved, although it’s great if there is. If it’s a philanthropic project that will be exciting for the client, it’s more about the expression. The money will come if you keep doing the things you’re passionate about and do them well. You never can predict where it’s going to come from.
Woodward: I agree. I’ve never been one to follow the money. I’ve always been about trying new things. You do it on a smaller scale, and if it works, you keep growing with it. I’ve always found that the money will come.
Rubenstein: Production is the most straightforward example because the process of developing and producing TV and film is long, slow, and, more often than not, it doesn’t end in results. Like a lot of companies, we produce, develop things and try to sell them, but how many of them are successful? That’s part of the fun of the game. The client gets to explore these processes and the creative vision and try to be a part of something that otherwise wouldn’t be a product. It’s okay that some things don’t work, and we must be willing to take those chances with our clients. If we’re unwilling to, we’re not giving them what they want.
Woodward: We’re speaking generally about this stuff because there isn’t any one business model for everything. You feel it out as you go. Some of it is obvious, but everything is different.
Thompson: Bearing all that in mind, how do you measure success? If it’s not always about the money, is it the project or what comes after as a result?
Woodward: It’s people watching it and commenting on it. As long as someone is watching it and getting something from it, even when you get trolled, someone watched it and had strong feelings about it.
Rubenstein: It’s great to be part of something where people pay attention and care. Sometimes it’s about hearing directly from a fan or the client about what it meant to them. It’s great to make money, and this might sound corny, but I live for my clients to say things to me like, ‘Wow, I got to do something here that impacts the people, something that I believe and felt great about and was a collaborative process.’
Thompson: Many of your podcasts and your growing production work are driven by ideas that come internally or from clients. That is its own ecosystem. Moving forward, how does that evolve?
Woodward: Collaboration with others is part of the fun.
Rubenstein: It depends on the client, the situation, and what’s out there. Some of the stuff we do is unique. We have a regular meeting where we discuss ideas from all over the company, from the new assistants to the experienced managers. Anyone can say something like they read an article or heard a podcast or their grandmother told them a story and think about how we can fit that into something that would make sense for a client. Do we have a writer, actor, or comedian who could run with it? Sometimes we read scripts where we think it doesn’t work, but its kernel is amazing and has possibility, so do some development work on it, and we’ve got it done.
Thompson: You have proven this works. What’s the scaling plan for Authentic Talent?
Woodward: There’s so much changing right now, and so many platforms are coming up and things that we haven’t thoroughly mined. To me, scaling is about learning something new every day. You keep building on what you’ve found to be successful. The sky’s the limit, and do as much as you can handle.
Rubenstein: First and foremost, we’re a management business, and it takes a lot of time and care to do the job well. We’re not like a tech company where we can suddenly 100x
Thompson: What was the project where you realized that the new way you were doing things as a company was the right way for you?
Rubenstein: The first example I can think of goes way back. We’ve said to our managers, ‘How can you be more entrepreneurial? How can you create opportunities for clients? How can we be more connected and in tune with our clients?’ Fourteen years ago, with our client Vera Farmiga, we read a script; we thought it needed work, so we worked on it. I worked with her to take the helm and become a director. We found financing and the cast, and we went to Sundance and sold it to Sony for a good amount of money, but ultimately, nobody really saw the movie, and it wasn’t a huge success. However, the process showed me what it could be like for a talented person to take the reigns on something they were passionate about. She was incredibly passionate about the material, had a vision for it, and saw what it could be, and it was easy then to get behind it. That was when we started saying to people, ‘You can do this. You can be that person.’ It was proof to our clients that they could go beyond what they previously thought they could do or have success doing. It’s always exciting to see it happen.
Woodward: One thing that changed my way of thinking, in general, was House of Cards when it was being developed at Netflix
Rubenstein: You don’t want to bet against these things because you never know what the next thing will be.
Thompson: You have strong presences in New York and LA already. Are you looking to explore other markets?
Rubenstein: I’m deeply passionate about international. I spent a great deal of time last year in South America and Mexico, we have clients from all over the world and are working to bring more international talent to the US, and we’re building quite a bit of business in Asia. Whether our clients are living here in the US, the UK, Canada, Mexico, or wherever, we’re finding ways to make partnerships with companies all over the globe. The days of the domestic American business being the be-all and end-all are long gone. We are now way beyond a Korean show being a hit in the US because it is being consumed worldwide. About ten years ago, I had that wake-up call in a movie theatre in Colombia. The multiplex was showing 14 movies, and only one of them was an American movie that I recognized. It was an animated movie, something like Despicable Me, but everything else was locally produced. I could turn on the TV, and there was a rerun of Law & Order and 100 other shows either locally produced or from Argentina, Mexico, or Spain. I think it would be crazy not to be trying to do that. We just started working with a huge Mexican movie star. For us, it’s now about how we help this guy break into the US market and beyond. Audiences are more than ready.