Hi, It’s Ari @#$%ing Emanuel, and I plan to shake up Hollywood

May 23, 2013, 11:15 AM UTC
Illustration: Eddie Guy

Sean Parker, the billionaire technology investor and onetime president of Facebook, will never forget being on the receiving end of an Ari Emanuel onslaught. It was 2009. Emanuel, the famous Hollywood agent, had been e-mailing Parker because a friend had suggested they connect. “I knew who he was,” says Parker, who, like so many others, conflated Emanuel with Ari Gold, his alter ego on the HBO series Entourage.

“He needed to meet me,” is how Parker describes Emanuel’s persistent entreaties. “But I was preoccupied with other things, so I didn’t respond. Then one day I was sitting at a meeting at the SpaceX factory with Elon Musk and Larry Page, and somebody comes up from behind, puts his hands on my shoulders, and starts shaking me violently. I was startled. ‘It’s Ari Fucking Emanuel!’ the person shouted. ‘Read your e-mail!’ ” Parker was shaken — literally and figuratively — and he apologized for having ignored Emanuel. “Well, I want to have a meeting,” responded Emanuel. “Let’s do it as soon as this is over.”

The encounter was memorable for Parker — who has since become best of professional buds with his erstwhile stalker — but routine for Emanuel. As co-CEO of talent agency William Morris Endeavor Entertainment and the youngest sibling of the three overachieving Emanuel brothers — physician Zeke, Chicago mayor Rahm, and superagent Ari have been called the “Jewish Kennedys” — Emanuel is the famous guy you think you know from Entourage, which ended in 2011 after an eight-season run. The real-life Ari is as frenetic, restless, and passionate as you’d expect, an idea-a-minute fixer and connector who thrives on power, money, and the thrill of the deal. The list of successful movie or TV projects for which Emanuel claims credit — real or exaggerated — is endless.

But actor Jeremy Piven’s version is far from the whole story. “Ari Gold is a caricature with a limited sense of irony,” says Richard Plepler, HBO’s chief executive. “Ari Emanuel is a layered, sophisticated guy with an enormous sense of irony.” Indeed, Emanuel’s intricate web of personal and business relationships defies easy characterization. By orchestrating the takeover of the famed William Morris Agency in 2009 — no one in Hollywood refers to it as a merger with his upstart Endeavor firm anymore — Emanuel already has made himself into one of the biggest guns in the consolidating entertainment business.

Yet his ambition is much broader. In a series of moves reminiscent of what Hollywood icons Lew Wasserman and Michael Ovitz executed in earlier eras, Emanuel is trying to transform his firm, which had roughly $400 million in revenues in 2012, into a significant corporation. Talent agencies like WME make their money by representing everyone from actors, writers, and directors to sports leagues and celebrity chefs. (The standard cut is 10%, but everything’s negotiable.) It’s a highly profitable business but potentially a fleeting one: Agencies pay most of the earnings to their agents, who can set up shop elsewhere if they’re not satisfied. So Emanuel has set about building WME into a media, marketing, and investment company. To help achieve that, he orchestrated an investment in the neighborhood of $250 million last year by Silver Lake Partners, the Silicon Valley buyout shop, in exchange for 31% of WME.

For all his seeming ubiquity, however, Emanuel is surprisingly tough to pin down. A dyslexic for whom reading is slow and painful, he consumes scripts for clients and ponderous articles that he then circulates among his employees and professional network. Business associates call him brilliant, but he readily calls himself the least intelligent of his brothers. A fiercely partisan Democrat, he rang up Mitt Romney post-election just to get acquainted.

The contradictions extend to Emanuel’s business aspirations. Is he just an agent who dabbles superficially with top tech investors? Or is he far ahead of his commission-earning brethren in bridging the gaps between Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street? Not much given to introspection, Emanuel isn’t saying. He refused to be interviewed for an article focused specifically on him, on the premise that agents shouldn’t outshine their clients. He may not outshine them, but Emanuel is already a more potent force in the entertainment business than any single celebrity he reps. To understand Emanuel and what drives him is to better understand the future of Hollywood.

“I have Ari Emanuel for you”

In a town where the phrase “right out of central casting” has a literal meaning, Emanuel, 52, is a natural in the role of brash agent. The histrionics, equal parts genuine passion and over-the-top theatrics, are critical elements of the Emanuel method. In an age of texts and tweets, the old-fashioned phone call is his primary tool. It is a task made easier by Emanuel’s use of a small army of anonymous assistants to queue his calls, from sunup to sundown, no matter his location. (Unlike Entourage’s Lloyd, the true Hollywood assistants are nameless: Their e-mails contain their bosses’ names, not theirs.) Emanuel is constantly on the phone, and his targets, from the powerful to the obscure, eagerly anticipate hearing the words, “I have Ari Emanuel for you.” Says Les Moonves, chief executive of CBS and an Emanuel golfing buddy: “It’s a call you want to take. It may not be what you want to hear, but it’s always interesting.”

Direct almost to a fault, Emanuel culls his call list and isn’t shy about explaining why. Consider the prominent executive who was a regular recipient of calls from Emanuel — until he found himself out of work and the phone stopped ringing. The temporarily sidelined industry insider bumped into Emanuel and asked why he’d fallen off the agent’s radar. “He said, ‘There’s nothing you can do for me right now,’ ” says the exec. The story has a happy ending. Now employed again in an influential Hollywood position, the executive says Emanuel’s calls have resumed.

A fitness buff and golfer, Emanuel is a fixture at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, where his playing partners include Larry David, a client and close friend. Emanuel and his wife, Sarah Addington, to whom he’s been married for 17 years, have three school-age sons, and by many accounts he is a committed family man — between phone calls, that is.

Emanuel embodies another Tinseltown cliché: He may literally be the hardest-working man in show business. He sleeps about 4 1/2 hours a night (plus a 15-minute nap after lunch), a byproduct of the attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that have afflicted him since childhood. Big brother Zeke writes in his new memoir, Brothers Emanuel, that Ari was among the first children in America to be treated with Ritalin. A renowned medical researcher, Zeke Emanuel suggests that the “ants in the pants” syndrome that afflicts all three brothers partly explains their drive, especially Ari’s.

Whatever the reason, Emanuel makes the most of his extra hours. “Mika and I will be on the show on the East Coast at 6 a.m., and our phone will ring at 6:03, and it’ll say, ‘Ari cell,’ ” says MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, speaking of his Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski, who, like Scarborough himself, is repped by Emanuel. “And I’ll turn to Mika and say, ‘Are you kidding me? It is 3:03 a.m. on the West Coast.’ We’ll check our messages at the first break at 6:15, and it will be Ari screaming into the phone while he’s on the treadmill, asking how in the world I could be as tough on the President as I am.”

Sometimes — maybe a lot of the time — Emanuel gets carried away with the screaming. In those instances, he is the master of the apologetic gesture. Emanuel once blew up on the phone with Doug Ellin, the creator of Entourage. The next day a North Face jacket appeared at Ellin’s office with a note from Emanuel that read, “I hope we’re not in a chill.”

Near-death experience changes the narrative arc

In 1995, while walking back to his office from lunch at the restaurant Kate Mantilini, Emanuel got hit by a car on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Thrown into the air, he suffered broken ribs and a torn ACL in his knee that required multiple surgeries and 18 months of physical therapy. Emanuel tells the story publicly as one of those What am I doing with my life? moments. Shortly after that, he and a handful of other agents left International Creative Management to start their own agency, Endeavor.

Overcoming adversity to achieve greatness is a classic story line for a movie, and it resonates with Emanuel’s own life. When he was a child in Chicago, that potent mix of dyslexia, ADD, and ADHD was so severe that his reading skills were two years behind his age group. This was a brutal blow in a family of whip-smart children and demanding parents. His Israeli-born father, Benjamin, was a pediatrician known for treating children whose parents couldn’t afford their care. His civil-rights-activist mother, Marsha, dragged her young sons to sometimes violent protests.

While his older brothers followed their parents into medicine and political action, Ari developed a career goal that was unusual in his family. “I want to make a lot of money,” he boldly told a beloved high school teacher, according to an account in Brothers Emanuel. He realized early that his acute verbal skills could help serve his entrepreneurial impulses. “Ari recognized that there were many ways to work [the] system without having to rely on reading or writing,” his brother recounts. “He was charming, energetic, creative, persistent, and indefatigable.” An early moneymaking scheme involved selling knockoff T-shirts outside concerts.

After graduating from Minnesota’s Macalester College in 1983, Emanuel traveled in France, then got a job working for an older theatrical talent agent in New York. His mentor told him the action was in Hollywood, so in 1987 Emanuel moved to Los Angeles, where he landed a job in the storied mailroom at Creative Artists Agency. He quickly earned an outsize reputation for a “baby” agent. “Even when he was a desk assistant at CAA, he was sort of bigger than life,” says CBS’s Moonves. “His job then was basically delivering scripts. Ari, because of the force of his personality, got to know everybody. He knew the assistants, he knew the executives. This was a guy to be reckoned with.”

Emanuel hopped around the agencies in town, putting in time at CAA, Intertalent, and ICM. He specialized in television, which was low on glamour but high on volume. When he decided to start Endeavor, among his key partners was Rick Rosen, still one of the top TV agents in Hollywood. They were later joined by a genuine movie-star agent from CAA, Patrick Whitesell, today WME’s co-CEO.

Endeavor was well established by the time Doug Ellin hatched the idea for Entourage. In 2003, the screenwriter pitched the show to Emanuel, who represented Ellin’s college friend Stephen Levinson and his business partner and Entourage co-producer, Mark Wahlberg. Ellin originally had envisioned the agent character as conservative and subdued. Laying eyes on Emanuel changed all that. “It was the first time I understood what an agent could do with charm,” says Ellin.

Ari Emanuel not only was present at the creation of Ari Gold, but thoroughly embraced him. He has bragged that the popularity of the character facilitates his own ability to meet influential people, and life imitates art more than occasionally. “I saw him scream at someone on the phone, dropping f-bombs and the like, and then he winked at me while still on the phone,” says a former WME business partner. “He can turn on Ari Gold when he needs to.”

Giving the boss a to-do list

The private equity investor Egon Durban has made his bones by betting on big companies selling complicated technology. For example, his firm, Silver Lake Partners, earned a profit of about $2 billion on its investment in Skype after Microsoft bought the web-calling business in 2011 for $8.5 billion. Currently Durban is leading the contentious $24 billion buyout of computer maker Dell. In 2012 he decided to invest in a company that has seemingly little to do with technology: William Morris Endeavor. He says he sees WME as a “media-platform company” that is well positioned to benefit from the explosion of digital distribution mechanisms. Durban says he is unconcerned that talent agencies are essentially collections of well-paid free agents. He believes TV package deals, which guarantee so-called back-end payments to agencies for years into the future, act as downside protection for Silver Lake.

Durban is used to calling the shots once he’s made an investment. He changed the management team at Skype, for instance, shortly after taking control. With Emanuel the calculus appears to be different. He says Emanuel calls him weekly with to-do lists for how Durban can help him — for instance, evaluating potential acquisitions and investments for WME. “I didn’t realize I was going to work for Ari Emanuel,” says Durban.

Talking comes easily to Emanuel, but he works hard on his business skills. Shortly after the merger with William Morris — and after cleaning out much of the firm’s old management team — Emanuel and his co-CEO, Whitesell, started a training program for agents called the “Farmhouse” to boost their rainmaking skills. He also started an annual retreat that brings in famous thinkers from outside the entertainment industry to help broaden the minds of his employees. Speakers at the most recent retreat, held at the La Costa resort near San Diego in January, included entrepreneur Elon Musk and economist Nouriel Roubini.

In Whitesell, Emanuel has joined with his near opposite. The lean, soft-spoken Iowan is the one who makes sure the business of agenting gets done inside WME. Emanuel’s client roster is diverse, including the writer Aaron Sorkin, the Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed-martial-arts league, and Family Guy creator and Oscar host Seth MacFarlane. Whitesell represents movie stars like Denzel Washington, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ben Affleck.

The public face of WME, however, as well as its cultural leader, is unquestionably Emanuel. His employees know it. “I’ll be on the phone with people at William Morris, and the phone will go dead,” says Courtney Holt, chief operating officer of startup media company Maker Studios. “Not ‘I’ll call you right back’ or ‘Hang on a second.’ Just dead. They’ll call back five minutes later and say, ‘Sorry, it was Ari.’ ”

The sense of urgency for Emanuel is fueled by his intention to diversify WME, moving it away from a consolidating entertainment industry. Publicly he quibbles with the conventional wisdom of Hollywood’s decline. “This is the best time in a long time,” he told an exclusive audience of entertainment executives recently. “It’s a nerve-racking time, yes, but there is going to be more demand than ever. Also, it’s a great time for movies internationally.”

And yet he is pushing WME in new directions. In 2009, Emanuel was a driving force in the founding of Raine, a merchant bank specializing in the media and entertainment business in which WME holds a stake. He also has put money — WME’s and his own — into a variety of startups that focus on social media and cutting-edge technology. They include the Audience, an agency helping celebrities promote themselves in social media; Grab, a social-gaming developer; Red Interactive, a digital ad agency; and Chaotic Moon, an app maker.

It is widely believed that WME will bid for the remnants of IMG, the sports agency that was controlled by investor Teddy Forstmann at the time of his death in 2011. It also appears Emanuel wants to go deeper into the advertising business and that WME is eyeing a major acquisition there.

In his heart, though, Emanuel is an agent, and his true skill is putting together clients and potential clients — and taking his cut. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says Emanuel is a big reason she wrote her bestselling book, Lean In, after Emanuel invited her to speak at WME, encouraged her to take on the book project, and then introduced her to Jennifer Walsh, the head of WME’s literary division. The relationship landed WME a bestseller as well as a closer bond with Facebook, which works to the benefit of WME clients seeking to promote themselves on its platform. Says Sandberg: “It is basically impossible to say no to Ari.” It’s even more difficult to ignore him.

This story is from the June 10, 2013 issue of Fortune.