The aftershocks of Donald Trump winning the presidency have been rippling through Hollywood in waves. While some very visible shows of opposition to the new administration came from Meryl Streep’s impassioned Golden Globes speech and constant jabs from SAG Award winners, a major behind-the-scenes player has since come out in a big way against Trump — or more specifically, Trump’s sweeping, hotly contested immigration ban.
The United Talent Agency — better known as UTA — announced on February 8 that it’s canceling the company’s traditional Oscars party. Instead, UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer said in a letter to his employees, the agency will throw a rally for refugees the Friday before the ceremony, donating $250,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union and International Rescue Committee, and setting up a fundraiser for anyone else who wants to contribute.
UTA is home to stars such as Chris Pratt, Angelina Jolie, Will Ferrell, James Franco, and Al Pacino. But this particular show of support is tied to a UTA client who’s been prominent in the past month: Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who’s nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language category for his film The Salesman, and who confirmed in late January that he couldn’t attend the Oscars under Trump’s immigration ban. What’s more, Farhadi continued, the executive order contains such “unjust conditions” that he wouldn’t go to the Oscars even if he could.
In Zimmer’s full letter to UTA employees — which, in a perfectly fitting agency move, you can read in full at Zimmer’s LinkedIn profile if you also have a LinkedIn profile — he said that Farhadi’s situation is what prompted him to shut down the party, but that the issue at hand goes far beyond one person who affects the company’s bottom line:
Staring at our invite list, I shook my head at Asghar’s situation. Then I realized: It's not ‘his’ situation; it’s our situation. UTA has always been a family — our artists, our buyers, our colleagues. This is essential to who we are as a company. And, now is a time to be true to our DNA and stand up for our family and the issues we face across our society.
Zimmer went on to say that the rally is open to anyone who wants to “express their concern with growing anti-immigrant sentiment in our country and its potential chilling effect on artistic freedom around the world.”
It might be easy to write off this move as a bid for good publicity; in fact, it’d be naive to believe UTA didn’t combine this idealistic inspiration with some carefully considered cost-benefit analysis.
But make no mistake: This is a big move for an agency to make, especially one of UTA’s size and stature. Agents are Hollywood’s gatekeepers; they mediate between talent and studios, negotiate salaries, launch careers. If you’ve ever sat through an awards show, it’s safe to assume that many if not most of the names actors rattle off in their thank-you speeches belong to an agency in some way or another.
Also, to paraphrase Liz Lemon: There ain’t no party like an agency party, because an agency party is stacked.
It’s hard to articulate exactly how much agencies love and prize parties such as the ones they throw for the holidays or the Oscars, entertainment’s most prestigious annual event. They’re open-bar fantasy nights, sure, but they’re also shows of force, gathering all the agency’s brightest stars under one roof to celebrate their year in being awesome. They’re ideal networking opportunities, or at the very least, ideal situations in which to pick up bragging rights. (For instance: I once spent a night at the Christmas party for UTA rival CAA watching Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels hold court in a plush red booth while Jimmy Fallon laughed so loudly I could barely hear Katherine Heigl complaining about her high heels on the balcony just outside. Aren’t I 30 percent more impressive now?)
The point is, UTA canceling what could have been the highlight of its 2017 social calendar does, in fact, send a huge message to its clients, its competitors, and Hollywood at large. It forces everyone involved in Oscars pageantry to think about how they’re handling a weekend of unparalleled glitz at a time when many in their industry are staring down the barrel of some very real threats to how they work and live. So even if canceling this party is a PR move, it’s also a move that counts.