Maya Rodrigo vividly recalls her initial M88 staff Zoom meeting in April, where a diverse range of faces greeted her. The manager, formerly a creative executive at QC Entertainment, was overcome with emotion. She expressed that the burden of being the catalysts for change and advocates of representation and inclusion often falls on the POC community, who are usually the only ones pushing for progress.
M88 stands out not only for its star-studded roster of New Hollywood celebrities such as Michael B. Jordan, Gemma Chan, and Donald Glover, but also for its diverse team of 17 individuals, all of whom are people of color and/or women. President and managing partner Phillip Sun highlights the significance of having a critical mass of diverse talent pushing the agenda for change, acknowledging that at their previous workplaces, these individuals may have felt marginalized. M88, majority-owned by MACRO, Charles King’s media company, aims to create an inclusive environment where diversity thrives and breaks barriers.
That agenda, as Sun defines it, is “to push forward and amplify voices from diverse backgrounds and communities.” In other words, “making sure people who are not of the perceived majority get their chance to be great.”
Sun says he’s been disappointed over the industry’s tendency to write off a company with such a stated mission (and demographic composition) as niche. But “the global majority can’t be niche,” he says. “In this business, it all comes down to showing that you can compete on that level. And with this crew, we’re showing you day in and day out.”
What’s more, he argues the presence of that shared vision was key to launching a successful startup during a pandemic, when co-workers didn’t meet face-to-face for the first half of the company’s existence. “How do you build that culture? That’s the power of mission alignment,” Sun says. “When you find a group that believes in what you believe in, there’s not much work you have to put in. We didn’t find that as challenging as it probably would have been without the mission.”
The mission helps with recruitment, too. Shortly after Idris Elba signed with M88 (Sun had been his agent at WME), the British star’s longtime manager Oronde Garrett himself joined as a partner, bringing clients including Black-ish star Marsai Martin, media personality Van Lathan and author-filmmaker Chad Sanders. “As soon as M88 became realized, I instantly responded to the call with, ‘When do I start?’ ” Garrett says. “I knew it was going to be a team that was built to protect the community, with trust.”
A workforce that reflects the diverse backgrounds of its clients also creates greater business efficiency, multiple members of M88 say. “In a like-minded environment, you don’t have to explain yourself,” says partner Gaby Mena, who was an agent at Paradigm.
“To be at a company that understands the value in coming together as the ‘global new majority’ both behind the scenes and in front of the camera takes so much pressure off the individual and leaves us feeling motivated and inspired to continue disrupting,” adds Rodrigo of the vibe at M88, which Sun describes as “fun and focused — even on Zoom.”
Notes Sun of the conversations often required in traditional workplaces to persuade colleagues and bosses to get on board with an idea: “How many hours a day do we spend explaining why [the mission] is important? Now imagine saving those hours and just doing the work.”
Another fundamental component to the company’s success was partnering with an existing entity that is mission-aligned. “The reason I joined with Charles instead of going somewhere as an individual is because we’re stronger together; we can inspire the community by coming together,” says Sun of the man who mentored him at WME back when agents of color were exceptionally (as opposed to moderately) rare. MACRO, which since its 2015 founding has been making good on its commitment to co-finance or produce multicultural content (including Judas and the Black Messiah, Oscar-nominated this year for best picture), in turn benefits from strategically adding a representation arm to its business. “Our work at MACRO is about lifting the culture and amplifying the voices and authentic narratives of Black people and people of color,” says King. “Representing artists is a natural extension of that vision and enhances our ability to find opportunities to collaborate with all of our various business verticals.” For example, M88 client Ryan Coogler is partnering with Charles King, Shaka King and Lil Rel Howery on an original movie about an American political insurrection, while client Yahya Abdul-Mateen II will executive produce and star in MACRO’s limited series adaptation of client Blitz Bazawule’s upcoming novel The Scent of Burnt Flowers, which Bazawule will also write and direct.
As M88 moves into its second year, Sun wants to make clear that allies are welcome on the company’s staff and roster. “It was intentional and purposeful for us to make sure we served our community first,” he says, “and we’ll expand wherever the culture needs us to expand.”
Beyond that, he’s focused on a metric of success that isn’t just about strategizing clients’ careers but ensuring that their representatives thrive professionally as well. M88 has an executive coach working with every employee, and Sun is particularly attuned to cultural nuances in workplace behavior. “I think speaking [up], something very inherent to majority culture, is one of those things that challenges [some] minority representatives the most,” he offers as one example. “So we practice that, and I encourage everyone to speak at our staff meetings.”
While developing and investing in underrepresented reps certainly helps them compete for clients against the traditional and less diverse “big guys,” the dream — and the belief — is that the next titans of the representation world will hail from this global new majority. “It’s not like they’re the next wave of minority reps. They’re the next generation of power reps,” Sun says. “They’re the next [Michael] Ovitz, Ron [Meyer], Patrick [Whitesell], Ari [Emanuel]. They’re hip, you can tell they have an edge, and they have an edge on you because they’re different. They have a chip on their shoulder to prove that they’re capable of greatness. If they’re given the same access that everyone else has been given for decades, what will the result be?”
Although Sun praises his own managers like any proud company head would, he’d be equally content to see these future “first-name-basis badasses” spring from any other similar counterpart. “If me leaving WME inspired others to peel off and do their own thing for their cause, we’re winning,” he says. “As long as it happens, it can be [from] anywhere. Because we all know this as minorities in the industry: Once you get one person in a C-suite, they’ll start making changes for everyone. That’s the whole point.”
Underrepped Reps: More POC-Led Ventures That Are Changing the Game
While the conversation about inclusion in Hollywood remains primarily focused on talent and other creatives, there is an emerging narrative around the benefits of having representatives who reflect the varied backgrounds of their clients. And as the agent ranks (slowly) diversify, some are leaving the legacy firms to launch often mission-minded ventures. (This is an offshoot of a recent trend of top agents, caught in a pandemic and a protracted fight with the guilds, leaving for the relatively freer pastures of management.) “We compete with them with a smile,” says M88’s Phillip Sun. “If you’re fighting for what we’re fighting for, we’re rooting for you.”
Theresa Kang-Lowe, one of the first Asian American agents to make partner at WME, left the agency in June 2020 to set up her own management-production company with an A-list roster that includes Alfonso Cuarón, Lena Waithe and Gillian Flynn. A longtime power player and advocate for industry inclusion, she has a multiyear overall deal at Apple TV+, which will release Blue Marble’s first production, an adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s multigenerational Korean epic Pachinko.
When Issa Rae and her producing partner Deniese Davis decided to add a management arm to their ColorCreative banner last summer, they tapped CAA motion picture agent and multicultural business executive Talitha Watkins to lead the new division. “ColorCreative was formed on a strong foundation and with the intention to shift the paradigm for women and people-of-color creators,” Watkins said when her move was announced in July 2020. “I have spent my career operating with the same mission.”
In March, Circle of Confusion manager Jairo Alvarado teamed with Tony Gil and Max Goldfarb of The Gotham Group to form literary management-production firm Redefine Entertainment. The trio, who met at an industry event for Latinos in entertainment, already has a 60-client roster of writers and directors of color, including Lulu Wang, Dime Davis (A Black Lady Sketch Show, BET’s Boomerang) and Star Trek: Section 31 showrunners Erika Lippoldt and Bo Yeon Kim.
After leaving Endeavor Content in May 2020, Christine D’Souza Gelb resurfaced in February with 2AM, an A24-backed management-production company co-founded with Killer Films executive David Hinojosa and Elia Management founder Kevin Rowe. The trio’s high-wattage roster of literary talent includes Zola‘s Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris and The 40-Year-Old Version‘s Radha Blank. On the production side, 2AM is on board with A24 thriller Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, with Amandla Stenberg and Maria Bakalova, and the drama Past Lives, starring Greta Lee and Teo Yoo.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.