Interview with a Game Agent

Richard Leibowitz

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Richard Leibowitz is the SVP of business development at Behaviour Interactive, Canada’s largest independent game developer. Formerly, he was president of Union Entertainment, a talent management and production company specializing in video games.

Game Design Workshop: How did you become a game agent and why?

Richard Leibowitz: After considering careers in law, finance, and politics, I decided to combine the three in entertainment and took a position at Paramount Pictures as an attorney in the Domestic Television department. From there, I went on to head Rysher Entertainment’s International Business and Legal Affairs department, and later returned to Paramount when Paramount acquired Rysher. During that period, I became fascinated by the video game industry and left Paramount in 1999 to apply my entertainment deal-making and legal experience to the video game business by cofounding the first Hollywood-style agency in the business.

GDW: What’s the role of an agent in the game industry today?

RL: In my opinion, there are three types of agents in the game industry today: hunting agents, packaging agents, and Hollywood agents.

Hunting agents simply make phone calls to publishers on behalf of developers, whether they are clients or not, to solicit and secure work for hire deals. For example, a hunting agent calls a publisher and learns that the publisher is requesting proposals from developers to make a game based on a recently acquired license. The hunting agent then contacts developers, tells them of the opportunity, finds or settles on one of them, and presents that developer to the publisher. If the publisher selects that developer, then the developer will typically pay the hunting agent a modest percentage of the developer’s resulting compensation.

The packaging agent is similar to the Hollywood producer in that he/she identifies and secures content, attaches the best available developer and other talent (e.g., writers and designers), and shops that content/developer package to financiers/publishers. Unlike producers, though, packaging agents do not generally engage in development activities, and instead of a producer’s fee, packaging agents will receive a percentage of the license fee from the property’s licensor and a percentage of the developer’s compensation from the developer.

Hollywood agents include those at the established Hollywood talent agencies (e.g., CAA, William Morris, UTA). Each of the agencies has at least one person dedicated to games, although the services they provide vary greatly. For the most part, Hollywood agents represent their film clients’ interests in the game world and earn a 10% fee for doing so. Often, this is what I’d describe as “passive representation.” For example, if a publisher wants to secure an actor’s name and likeness rights and/or hire the actor for voice recordings, then the publisher will contact the relevant Hollywood agent to secure such rights and/or services. However, some Hollywood agents are more proactive, actually packaging developers with film projects at the agency and then selling those packages to publishers. Typically, a publisher will pay the Hollywood agent a percentage of the package budget (i.e., license fee, actor’s rights and services fees, and development budget).

GDW: How is a typical deal structured between a developer, publisher, and your company?

RL: Union provides a wide array of specialized services and has a successful track record. As a result, there are many development companies and individual talent that utilize Union’s services. The most common deal structures between Union and its clients are: (1) straight monthly retainer, (2) a success fee equal to a percentage of the client’s compensation for the project, and (3) a combination of the first two—a lesser retainer plus a lesser success fee.

GDW: What do you look for in a client?

RL: We look for what we know publishers look for—talent. Publishers hire two types of developers: established developers with robust and proven technology or brand new developers comprised of superstar talent and capable management.

GDW: What do you think the role of a game agent will become?

RL: There will always be a place for game agents—even the biggest and best developers can take advantage of an agent’s contacts and deal-making abilities. That being said, I believe the role of a game agent in the future will favor the packaging over the hunting variety for at least two reasons:

1. Internal business development personnel: Developers often have business development personnel on staff to secure and sell projects. Typically, the associated costs for the developer to employ such personnel and hunt by itself are equal to or less than what the developer would pay a hunting agent.

2. Publisher demand for projects: Publishers are extremely risk averse. One way publishers reduce risk is by hiring the best development companies, and another is to green light projects based on preexisting and identifiable underlying content (e.g., Harry Potter). Packaging agents add value to developers and pique publishers’ interest when they attach developers to desirable content. By so doing, the packaging agent will most likely either (1) secure a deal for a developer that the developer wouldn’t have otherwise secured, or (2) make it possible for the developer to demand a premium (e.g., higher development budget, better royalty rates) for its services.

GDW: Will agents be as established in the game industry in the future as they are in the film and television industry today?

RL: In the near future, I believe publishers will follow the movie studios’ paradigm and rely upon game agents, and independent game producers, to present compelling game project packages. The present game industry parallels the film industry in its early days. However, the pull of Hollywood is evident in many areas of the game business, and as talent emerges as a power in the game business like it did in Hollywood, the game business will want the same kind of services and structure—including knowledgeable intermediaries such as agents—that have served Hollywood so well for so long.

Further, just as in Hollywood, content is king in the game industry. However, much more in the game than in the film business, “content” can mean both the underlying property (e.g., Spider-Man) and technology. Special effects extravaganzas aside, technology is not generally what distinguishes filmmakers. Consumers will pay the same $10 to see a low budget romantic comedy as they will to see a $100 million epic. By contrast, at up to $60 per next-gen game (not including console and add-on costs), applying the right tech to the right property can make a huge difference in creating a rewarding game experience worth the consumer’s time and financial outlay. Therefore, good packaging agents—those who know how to identify and to combine developer (i.e., technology) and property to create a compelling package and who can bring packages to publishers beyond what the publishers might identify on their own—are most likely to add value for developers and publishers and prove most successful as the game business evolves.