In a few short years, Charles D. King has become a major force in the dominant American film industry known worldwide as Hollywood. As one of the business’ most powerful African-American agents, as a partner at the esteemed William Morris/Eveavor agency, King handled some of the top talents in film, television and music, including Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey, TD Jakes, Halle Berry, Michael Ealy, Tika Sumpter, Amandla Stenberg, Michael B. Jordan, David Oyelowo, Alicia Keys, Drake, John Legend, Ryan Coogler, Rick Famuyiwa, Tim Story, Justin Simien, and Dee Rees, among many others.
But last year King left the agency to start an exciting new media entity called MACRO Ventures which will focus on developing and distributing feature films, TV series and digital content targeting African-American, Latino and multicultural markets.
With that bold stoke, King has become one of the most influential and game-changing executives working in the business today. But how did he get there? How did the idea for MACRO evolve? What are his plans for the company, and how does he intend to shake up the industry?
I recently talked to King, who will be participating in an Industry Days panel at the Chicago International Film Festival this Friday Oct. 21 (more information below); during our conversation, he discussed how MACRO was conceived, why now was the right time to form the company, and what his plans the company are.
Sergio: A lot of people say that they want to be filmmakers or artists, but not many say that they want to be talent agents. What got you interested in the field?
King: It was a collection of life experiences that stuck together, but it became clear that it was the path for me, at one stage of my career. I was an undergrad getting a taste of the industry – more on the creative side; and then quickly realizing that I was better suited to be behind the scenes, being an advocate for others. Then it was getting exposure to the world of entertainment law at the suggestion of someone from the artistic side of the business. So I went to law school, and there I focused on entertainment law, and it was where I got wider exposure to our business, and the various options and opportunities it provides. And from there, I learned about the importance of agents – being the epicenter of content, of information on what’s happening, and packaging properties.
And add to that the legacy and the richness of many before me, who started out as agents, who then went on to run studios and became producers and media titans; like David Geffen and Barry Diller. And so, from all those collective experiences, and understanding my strengths as a marketer, but also as someone with a vision and an eye for talent, as well as a genuine interest as an entrepreneur, it seemed like it would be a good fit with my skill set. So after I graduated from Howard University Law school, I moved to LA, took 60 informational meetings in a two week period, got offered jobs at 4 agencies, and started out with the oldest one in the business, William Morris, in the mail room, like everyone else.
Sergio: Didn’t Michael Orvitz also start out in the mail room at William Morris?
King: Yeah; and he went on to create one of the biggest agencies in the business, Creative Artists Agency.
Sergio: How did you know that being an agent was the right fit for you? Many people go through life in the wrong job until they realize too late that it was a mistake.
King: I knew it would be a great fit for my skill set. I had an artistic, creative lean. I knew I could identify talent. I always had that strength. I knew as a kid that I could see a movie and I could pick a promising star in it. I could pick out the next big supermodel when I looked through my mother’s catalogs. I would watch “Siskel and Ebert” all the time on TV, and I would critique movies. I just knew I had strengths there. And I always had a way of encouraging and supporting others, to help them carry out their vision. Also I worked in the corporate world in sales, and then I went to law school where I learned about deals and how to become a good negotiator.
So if I could combine all those things together, I thought it would be a great mix of my skills and abilities, which it turned out to be. And then I had a vision of what I wanted to do long term, which was to have my own entertainment and media company. I planned to do it ten years out of law school, and that experience of being an agent was a great path to get the experiences, the relationships, the exposure, and the know-how, to send me into the direction to actually bring that into reality. So yeah, I knew when I drove the U-Haul truck to L.A. that ultimately I was going to start as an agent, but move on to do something much bigger.
Sergio: So then being an agent was a sort of means to an end towards having your own production company? I mean you, at one time, were handling some of the top talents in the business, but you gave it up.
King: It wasn’t just a means to an end. I mean, I loved doing it while I was an agent and I loved the artists I was so blessed to work with. I enjoyed it and I always was so passionate about identifying new talent, breaking in new artists, and taking people who had a big brand, helping them build it to a new level. And a big part of it too was blazing a new trail, opening up doors for people in our community, for those in front of the camera, as well as behind it. And the uniqueness of the position that I was in during all those years I was at Morris. and then William Morris/Endeavor. I was able to do that. And so it wasn’t like I did it just to go do what I’m doing now. I did enjoy it while I was doing it. But ultimately I knew that I would have much more significance and power by going over to the other side, with capital, raising money to actually advocate for artists in an even more impactful and powerful way . But, yes, you have to take these things in steps.
Sergio: And needless to say, you were unique in that you were one of very few black agents in the business…
King: How could I not be? I was the only one there! (laughs) There were one or two who were coming up the ranks, but at a partner level, no. There were a few others at other agencies like ICM, but there aren’t that many black agents at that level of prominence, unfortunately. But I’ve worked really hard to build up the new generation coming up.
Sergio: So now you have your company MACRO. How did you know that this was the right time to strike, so to speak?
King: Well, like I said, it was a long term plan. I stayed longer than I had originally intended to because, one, I was enjoying it, and two, I was being groomed for future leadership when Morris went through the merger with Endeavor. And around that time, I was reminded of my long term vision, and the disruption from the merger was a good wake-up call, seeing half of former colleagues and friends getting fired. So for me, I had to take a real hard assessment of where I was and how I was positioned in terms of my future growth, and frankly realized some things that I needed to do, to be able to be in the position I’m in now; that I needed to round out my experiences, my skill set, as well as my relationships.
So I methodically continued to do my job as an agent, a partner, representing my clients, while expanding my Rolodex and relationships into other sectors that would be complementary to what I’m doing now. Those in the tech arena, those on Wall St and private equity, as well as in the political arena, as well as people in the philanthropic world, who are a big part of the mission I have for the company. But you always want to be growing and evolving and stepping outside your confront zone.
Sergio: As they say, timing is everything.
King: The opportunity cost not to make the leap was too great. So I couldn’t have planned for the timing of it. As it happened, by the time I jumped and publicly announced what we were setting out to build, with shows like “Empire” becoming the biggest television hit in ten years, with two of my former clients Terrence Howard and Lee Daniels, and the whole #Oscarsowhite campaign, those were just timing things that I never could have planned. So it wasn’t like I just jumped out and said, “Hey here I am!”. I was only out in front of it all. When I made my first business plan “Scandal” wasn’t even on the air.
Sergio: And I’m sure you would say this happened to be the right time to start your own media company, since the business has changed so radically over the last ten years, with developments on the internet, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, VOD and other content formats and providers.
King: For me, where’s there’s disruption, there’s opportunity; and right now, with all of these new companies that have been coming into the space, as you said, like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, as well as the digital content creators and distributors, and crowd funding, and all other independent sources of capital, frankly I feel it’s the most exciting time in out business. So yes, it is a great time. It is a great time to be an entrepreneur, and someone who is nimble and has a vision, can succeed. It is probably a more challenging time for those who are set in their ways, and aren’t able to adapt. But for those who can, this is a blue sky opportunity.
Sergio: That’s so true. For example, just ten years ago or so, when you talked to black filmmakers about their plans for their films, they would immediately discuss getting theatrical or DVD distribution. No one says that anymore. Instead it’s VOD or creating a web series for instance.
King: It’s an exciting new world!it’s even more exciting when you think about the next generation of artists that are reading Shadow and Act, that those old school barriers that limited access are not there anymore. You can now go around them. You create a brilliant piece of content that you shoot with your digital camera with a group of friends, and you put it on YouTube, or a small clip on Vine, or you can shoot a whole film on your iPhone. With creative storytelling and a visionary eye, they will be seen by people; and those older entities will be chasing after them. Before, you had to knock on many doors. Today, people are just going around them. It’s an exciting time for new voices to be entering that space. There are so many outlets today that are just thirsty for content.
Sergio: I want to get into “Fences” which is coming out this December, and in which your company MACRO was involved. How did that come about? Talk about content. When that trailer for the film came out a few weeks ago, the internet just lit up. Everyone was talking about it. That’s what it’s all about, getting awareness.
King: Well it’s been in development for a couple of years…
Sergio: More like the last 50 years; I remember back when Eddie Murphy at one time was attached to it.
King: Yeah (laughs). Well I knew the feature film was beginning to heat up again, and it was one of a small number of movies that we were heavily tracking, and we have a great relationship with the producer, and we have a great relationship with Denzel [Washington] – a really great relationship now with him for sure; as well as the executives who have been spearheading it at Paramount. So we expressed interest very early on in the process that, should the studio be in a place where they are looking to find a partner, with the caliber and the excellence and universality of that story and the brilliant talent of Denzel and Viola Davis, that it would be a perfect fit for us; the kind of film we would like to produce and finance.
And so we came on board to be one of the executive producers, and financing partners with Paramount, before they went into production. And it’s been such a rewarding experience to get to know and to work with one of the great icons of our industry in Denzel Washington, and to see this cinematic brilliance that he’s birthed. And we already had a great relationship with Viola. We have another project that we’ve been quietly working on together with her producing partner and husband Julius Tennon, and so it was a win-win for us.
Sergio: So no doubt a lot of people are going to read this and say, “Hey! I think I’ve got something that MACRO would like.” So what is it that you look for in a property?
King: We look for incredible character-based material. We look for material that will challenge, that will inspire conversation and that will entertain. We’re also looking for projects that are fun. We’re definitely focused on a premium level of excellence in terms of storytelling and production values. So, it’s a young brilliant artist like Ryan Coogler; or Dee Rees coming off incredible independent films; or it’s an icon like Denzel who is now embarking on bringing August Wilson’s characters to life on the big screen in a way that’s going to be cinematic, unique and refreshing.
Another through-line of the stories that we really respond to are projects that have universal themes, that the core audience of people of color will respond to, but stories that all communities both domestically and globally, will relate to. An artist with a vision and a real point of view of something that they really want to say with their content, is a big part for us.
Sergio: And of course you are going to be speaking at a panel this weekend – Industry Days at the Chicago International Film Festival this Friday. What do you hope to impart to the audience?
King: I enjoy sharing my story, the journey, providing insight. I’ve been blessed to have been “sitting in the room”, to work and been exposed to only the most brilliant business people and producers in the industry; but also to have worked with forward-thinking, game-changing artists. And one of the things which I feel is a true responsibility, is to share as much insight and wisdom and “pay it forward” whenever I can. And if I can amplify and share as much information and insight to as many people as possible, then I feel as if I have done my part. So whether it’s someone in the audience considering making their first movie, whether it’s an industry veteran looking at a unique path towards the next phase of their career, or a business person thinking about entering the industry, I can give them a different point of view.
Sergio: One last question, which is my favorite – what do you now know, that you wished you had known, when you first started out in the industry?
King: (long pause) I definitely knew that the internet was going to play a huge part in content before I moved to L.A. I worked at AOL, and they were beginning to start to do that; but I wish I had more insight at the time to dive into that tech and innovation sector. I’ve gotten into it pretty extensively in the last five years, but I wish I had gotten into it sooner.
Sergio: So you’re kind of playing catch up?
King: I’m kind of playing catch up, but I think, compared to many in our industry I might be ahead (laughs).
To find out more about the Charles King panel at the CIFF this Friday go here.