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Talent agency looks to place celebrity clients on YouTube

Hollywood talent agencies pride themselves on placing their star clients into the biggest movies and TV shows.

Now, add YouTube to the list.

William Morris Agency, one of the largest talent firms, is in talks for a deal that would funnel its clients -- both actors and consumer brands -- into videos created for the Internet giant. It’s the latest example of how old-line agencies are actively cultivating new homes for talent, as traditional film and television jobs for their clients grow more scarce and less lucrative.

The pending deal would also give William Morris clients something only the biggest stars to date have been able to command in film and television: an ownership stake in the videos they create for the online video website, according to people familiar with the discussions. Under the scenario, William Morris would also lure some of the talent agency’s major consumer brands to YouTube’s programs as sponsors -- a milestone for the site, which has a massive online audience but has struggled to attract advertising.

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William Morris’ willingness to place its celebrities alongside such YouTube glitterati as lonelygirl15 and Gary Brolsma, of “Numa Numa Dance” fame, is both a bet on a digital future and an acknowledgment of the increasingly bleak outlook for Hollywood actors.

“There are fewer movies, fewer TV shows and it’s going to get worse,” said Dennis Miller, general partner at media investment firm Spark Capital in Boston. He said although the income offered by the Internet wasn’t yet close to matching what actors earn in movies or television, the deal nonetheless signaled “you’re on the cutting edge of developing [a] new platform for existing clientele.”

All the major talent agencies have been placing bets in various online ventures long before the recession took hold, backing digital studios that create Web-only video, signing up-and-coming talent and brokering sponsorship deals to underwrite the modest production budgets. The agencies consider these investments a toehold in a lucrative future -- and an opportunity to figure out the digital business models while the stakes are still relatively small.

There have been a handful of break-out hits featuring established actors, working in concert with talent agencies.

Joss Whedon, a client of Creative Artists Agency and the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” scored a financial and cultural home run with a three-part online musical, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” that stars former “Doogie Howser, M.D.” star Neil Patrick Harris. United Talent Agency, meanwhile, backed the digital studio 60Frames and represented CollegeHumor.com, a website whose popularity led to an office-comedy television show that launches Feb. 8 on MTV.

YouTube’s deal is similar to a business model tested last September with “Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy,” an animated series that appears exclusively on the Internet. The series, from the creator of animated TV comedy “Family Guy,” launched with Burger King as a sponsor and attracted millions of viewers.

YouTube’s partnership with William Morris represents another step toward introducing professionally produced content to a website best known for the quirky amateur videos created and uploaded by its users. Although the site remains the most popular place online for people to watch video (in December alone, it attracted some 99 million users in the U.S., according to comScore), YouTube still faces difficulty attracting advertisers.

“The disconnect between massive viewership and relatively little ad dollars against user-generated content has been a constant source of frustration for YouTube,” Miller said.

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Advertisers who wouldn’t think twice about buying time on VH1’s “Rock of Love,” a reality TV series featuring Poison front-man Bret Michaels and scantily clad women, remain squeamish about promoting products next to the videos YouTubers create, Miller said.

William Morris, with its stable of such notable actors as Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington and Emma Thompson, and producers such as “Lost” co-creator J.J. Abrams, would lend a professional gloss and comfort to YouTube -- especially for advertisers.

The talent agency, meanwhile, would gain an opportunity to develop a new stage for its talent at a time when Hollywood studios are greenlighting fewer films and cutting fees, and broadcast networks are replacing expensive comedies and dramas with lower-budget reality shows.

“I get why William Morris is doing this,” said JupiterResearch analyst Bobby Tulsiani. “Get your agents in front of an important audience that has some revenue potential now and even more a few years down the road.”

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dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com


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