After shocking the corporate world last year with the news Discovery Communications would merge with WarnerMedia, incoming Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav had a mission: learn as much about Hollywood as possible and choose the right leaders to help him run the combined company.
Zaslav begun a year-long quest to inform his decision making. He reached out to dozens of Hollywood's elite, including ex-Disney CEO Bob Iger, former WarnerMedia CEO Bob Daley, former chairman of Walt Disney Studios Alan Horn, Endeavor Group Holdings CEO Ari Emanuel, and Creative Artists Agency co-chairman Bryan Lourd.
Lourd, 61, isn't a household name, but he wields a stunning amount of influence in Hollywood. He has helped run CAA, one of the two largest global talent agencies, since 1995. Lourd's Hollywood clients aren't just A-listers, they're A+-listers: Brad Pitt. George Clooney. Scarlett Johansson. Octavia Spencer. Alejandro González Iñárritu. Lorne Michaels. The list goes on and on.
While Zaslav solicited Lourd's advice about whom to hire for Warner Bros. Discovery, he floated an idea by him: Would Lourd consider giving up his job at CAA to come run the famed Warner Bros. studio?
The Lourd of Hollywood
Agents have made similar career moves before. In 1995, Universal precursor MCA hired CAA co-founder Ron Meyer to run its operations. Weeks later, Disney hired another CAA co-founder, Michael Ovitz, to be the company's president and then CEO-Michael Eisner's No. 2.
Ironically, those hires, along with third co-founder Bill Haber leaving in the same six-week period to run the Save the Children Federation, were what catapulted Lourd into running CAA, part of a group of so-called Young Turks who took over in 1995.
Lourd heard Zaslav's pitch but never seriously considered leaving CAA, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because the discussions were private. At the time, Zaslav was considering Michael DeLuca, who recently departed MGM as its motion picture chairman when the company sold to Amazon, to run Warner's DC Comics film and TV division. Lourd ultimately recommended Zaslav hire DeLuca and fellow MGM executive Pam Abdy to run the Warner Bros. studio.
It's not hard to understand why Lourd chose to keep his job.
The entertainment industry is in an "age of great anxiety," Iger said earlier this month, "because this is an era of great transformation." The biggest global media companies are consolidating and transforming their businesses to revolve around streaming video. Technology giants Apple and Amazon have become active, deep-pocketed competitors. A new generation has taken over: The CEOs of Disney, NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia and CBS have all turned over in the past four years.
On top of that, investors have soured on streaming video leader Netflix, driving shares down about 60% this year. That's giving media leaders even more agita as an existential question hangs over the industry: Have the best days in media and entertainment passed us by?
That has caused corporate leaders to lean on Lourd more than ever before, according to more than a dozen media executives interviewed by CNBC. Zaslav calls him "possibly the last true Hollywood star." An old-fashioned talent agent who loves discussing old movies and doesn't mind pointing out the flaws in his own clients' work, Lourd has become arguably the most powerful person in Hollywood. He's a "wise consigliere," in the words of ex-HBO chief Richard Plepler, to nearly every major company in the entertainment industry.
Whether it's advising Zaslav on whom to hire at Warner Bros., or convincing Apple TV+ to outspend everyone on his clients' future projects, or advising companies on potential board members, Lourd has become a man-behind-the-curtain figure who stands out not only for his power but also for his lack of public persona.
"He's one of the most powerful people in the history of Hollywood," said Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos. "But you'd never perceive him to be powerful."
Lourd declined to participate in this story.
"Trustworthy," "consistent," "supportive," "very nice" and "almost quiet" aren't terms typically associated with Hollywood representation — an industry many associate with Plepler's old HBO show "Entourage." That series features superagent character Ari Gold, who is played by actor Jeremy Piven and loosely based on the brash, in-your-face Emanuel.
But those terms of endearment are how five top showbiz executives – Iger, Paramount Pictures head Brian Robbins, Starz CEO Jeff Hirsch, NBCUniversal chief Jeff Shell and Zaslav, respectively – describe Lourd.
"He's unique," said Iger. "He's a statesman in an industry defined by superagents who rose to positions of power by being intimidating. He's honest. He'll say things like, 'Yeah, that could have been better.' He brings people together and takes positions that people galvanize around."
While Emanuel has become famous for short conversations and one-word e-mail responses, one executive after another noted Lourd always seems to have time for longer discussions about strategy, problem-solving and checking in on personal lives.
"Bryan never feels rushed," said Apple TV+ co-head Zack Van Amburg. "He's ready to have as long of a conversation as it takes. That's a super skill, as mundane as that may seem."
Emanuel's job also no longer mirrors Lourd's. Emanuel has become a public company CEO, growing Endeavor first with a number of agency acquisitions and then buying popular professional mixed-martial arts league UFC. The purchases have turned Endeavor into an $10 billion company.
Lourd's persona is "brilliant counter positioning" to Emanuel, said Sarandos. Lourd and his co-chairmen have kept CAA private, recently doubling down on the business with an acquisition of talent agency ICM.
"I don't think it's by accident," said Sarandos. "It's two very different styles at play."
Emanuel declined to comment for this story.
Lourd has been a mainstay in Hollywood for decades despite growing up in New Iberia, Louisiana (population 28,143), a little more than a two-hour drive west from New Orleans.
After graduating from the University of Southern California as a double major in international relations and journalism, Lourd began thinking of becoming an agent after reading a New Yorker magazine article on the Hollywood representation industry, according to a CAA spokesperson.
Lourd joined William Morris Agency in 1983, literally working his way up from the mailroom to agent. He left William Morris to join CAA in 1988. By the time he was helping to run CAA in 1995, Lourd was already representing Woody Harrelson, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, among others.
Lourd's obsession with Hollywood bled into his personal life. He dated actress Carrie Fisher from 1991 to 1994. The two had a daughter, Billie, who is also an actress. Lourd later married longtime boyfriend Bruce Bozzi, who worked as executive vice president of the Palm Restaurant Group for decades, including running its L.A. hotspot for entertainment industry stars and moguls. Lourd shares a second daughter, Ava, with Bozzi. She was born in 2007.
Lourd is the quintessential behind-the-scenes maestro, said Zaslav, with aspirations that extend beyond Hollywood.
Lourd recently held a dinner party at his home for Vice President Kamala Harris, after strongly advocating on her behalf behind the scenes to be Joe Biden's running mate, according to people familiar with the matter. He's on a number of charitable boards, including New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and two foundations developed by his clients — the Clooney Foundation for Justice and Sean Penn's J/P Haitian Relief Organization.
When Plepler decided he would leave HBO in early 2019, Lourd was one of a very small handful of people with which he shared his decision weeks before he made it public or told his then-boss, AT&T CEO John Stankey.
"He's an ally you can trust in a world that can be purely transactional," Plepler said.
Still, in spite of his charm, Lourd is an agent. His primary role is to extract money for his clients. That's not entirely lost on Zaslav.
"He's both charming and sensitively thoughtful, but at the same time, he can be a real killer shark," said Zaslav. "But unlike a shark, where you feel the teeth, you hang up the phone feeling good, before a week or two later, when you realize you've spent a lot more than you thought you were going to spend. But somehow, you don't feel bad about it, and you feel he'll make it up to you on the next one."
Or, as Lionsgate Vice Chairman Michael Burns said: "He'll tell you to go to Hell so nicely that you'll ask for directions."
Lourd's hands are on nearly every part of the business of entertainment. That's part of why Zaslav considered him to lead the Warner Bros. studio.
A standard agent has a list of clients and works to get those people as much money as possible. But Lourd's clients are such bankable stars that it's equally important for Hollywood executives to be friendly with him as it is beneficial for Lourd and CAA. Of all the people CNBC spoke with for this story, not one had a single critical thing to say about Lourd, other than blaming him for ballooning talent costs. It's a testament to his natural personality – several executives weren't as kind about Emanuel – but it may also speak to Lourd's power.
While it seems random to outsiders how or why certain films or TV series end up on particular streaming services, it begins to make more sense when viewed through the lens of Lourd.
- Step 1: CEOs ask him for advice on whom to hire because of his combination of trustworthiness and knowledge of the industry.
- Step 2: Those executives, many of whom can at least partially thank Lourd for their jobs and high salaries, come to him to staff projects.
- Step 3: Lourd gets top dollar for his clients through deals signed by those same executives.
- Step 4: Those projects deliver billions in revenue for executives.*
Step 4 comes with an asterisk, because only some of Lourd's projects deliver. Not every movie is a hit, even with Lourd's roster of stars. But his influence is only growing as the number of surefire stars dwindle.
This year, Lourd convinced Apple TV+ to pay more than $200 million for a Formula 1-themed movie starring Brad Pitt that didn't have a script. Lourd's asking price was so outrageous to Warner Bros. Discovery that some executives scoffed at the pitch, privately calling it frothy and "bells and whistles" with no certainty it could be a tentpole franchise, according to people familiar with the matter.
Apple TV+'s Van Amburg and co-head Jamie Erlicht were also unsure of Lourd's pitch, but they knew the movie would be written and made by the team that did "Top Gun: Maverick" — director Joseph Kosinski, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and screenwriter Ehren Kruger. The only problem was "Top Gun: Maverick" had yet to hit theaters at the time of the talks.
So the Apple team got permission to screen the film early. After watching it, they walked away confident. "Top Gun: Maverick" became one of the highest grossing box office movies of all time, surpassing $1 billion globally. The Apple deal also includes unprecedented revenue sharing for key talent, according to a person familiar with the matter. Lourd crafted a contract allowing Pitt, Bruckheimer and other CAA clients to participate in a variety of future revenue streams that may set a new standard for how major talent is paid for streaming movies, the person said.
Apple TV+ will be relying on Lourd and his clients to deliver on several other big-budget projects, including a yet-to-be-titled thriller starring Pitt and Clooney, and "Project Artemis," a period romantic comedy starring CAA clients Channing Tatum and Johansson, which cost Apple a reported $100 million.
The industry's changing dynamics, and how to pay movie stars as more viewing shifts away from the box office and toward streaming, can make negotiating with Lourd challenging even as it feels like a partnership, Van Amburg said.
"Bryan enjoys the role of being the ultimate diplomat," Van Amburg said. "But I don't think we have underpaid for anything we've ever done with him."
Lourd flexed his muscles last year in a move that caught industry executives off guard because it put him in a rare public adversarial role to a major Hollywood executive.
Johansson sued Disney for simultaneously releasing "Black Widow" on Disney+ at the same time it was released in theaters. She claimed her salary was based on an exclusive theatrical release for the film.
Disney shot back at the lawsuit with a public statement, outing how much Johansson had already made on the movie ($20 million) and blaming her for being callous to industry changes around Covid-19.
Lourd felt Disney's statement was both misogynistic and offensive not only to Johansson but to all of his clients, according to people familiar with the matter. That prompted him to fire back a stern response at Disney and its relatively new CEO, Bob Chapek, who had taken over for Iger the previous year.
"Disney's direct attack on her character and all else they implied is beneath the company that many of us in the creative community have worked with successfully for decades," Lourd said in a statement at the time. "They have shamelessly and falsely accused Ms. Johansson of being insensitive to the global COVID pandemic, in an attempt to make her appear to be someone they and I know she isn't."
Disney eventually settled the Johansson suit, giving Johansson more than $40 million, according to Deadline. Chapek said he and Lourd have put the incident behind them and continue to have a "running dialogue" that goes well beyond specific deals.
"[We talk] about the industry at large and how it's all evolving," said Chapek. "It's a relationship I value. Our industry is lucky to have him."
Navigating changing industry dynamics has pushed Lourd to get creative with several deals to meet the needs of both companies and clients.
When Disney signed a deal with director Jon Favreau in 2018 to executive produce and write Star Wars series "The Mandalorian," Lourd worked with Disney's then-head of streaming, Kevin Mayer, to get Favreau a unique deal of cash and Disney stock. The thinking behind the contract was "The Mandalorian" would lead to a boom in Disney+ subscribers, and Favreau wanted to be able to participate in the potential upside. Mayer and Lourd decided the best proxy for Disney+ performance was Disney stock, understanding the company's shares would largely trade on the performance of the flagship streaming service.
That turned out to be accurate. Disney shares boomed during the pandemic, even with theme parks closed, because Disney+ subscribers grew by leaps and bounds each quarter. Favreau signed his deal with Disney shares around $90. By February 2021, they had doubled to more than $180 per share. They've since come back down amid broader market declines, with Disney at just below $100 per share as of Friday's close.
Disney+ ended its fiscal third quarter with more than 152 million global subscribers.
"He helps people with company-level strategic decisions," Mayer, who has since founded the media investment firm Candle Media, said about Lourd. "He's a great agent, but he transcends that."
Shell, of NBCUniversal, and film producer Jason Blum also have Lourd to thank on a highly unusual so-called first-look deal struck in 2014 that's turned out to be "wildly lucrative" for both parties, Blum said.
Instead of NBCUniversal paying Blum fees for his films, which have included 2017's "Get Out" and 2018's "Halloween," both of which grossed over $250 million worldwide on budgets of $10 million or less, Blum wanted to build equity in his own production company, Blumhouse. Lourd architected a deal with then-Universal Pictures Chairman Donna Langley in which NBCUniversal took a non-controlling equity stake in Blumhouse, with Blum's fees going back into the company rather than into his bank account.
At first, Shell, who at the time ran Universal, was skeptical of the idea. But Lourd crafted a complicated 10-year contract, giving the company a variety of network and cable television shows, digital properties, and, of course, low-budget horror movies.
Shell echoed sentiments from Sarandos, Van Amburg, Starz's Hirsch and Zaslav that conversations with Lourd frequently go well beyond talent deals, spanning subjects from potential hires to the metaverse to how live sports should be integrated in streaming video.
"Bryan is a problem solver," Shell said. "He's the closest thing in the industry to the age-old superagent of yesteryear."
Blum summed it up more succinctly.
"I don't see him as an agent," Blum said. "He's a Hollywood executive."
WATCH: Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel breaks down the media and entertainment landscape.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.