Agent Stacey Abrams and Malala Yousafzai call for a breakthrough in Hollywood – The Hollywood Reporter
In 2004, Darnell Strom sat backstage in a Boston arena for the Democratic National Convention, watching an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama deliver the evening’s opening address. Strom, then 23 years old and out of college, was the “lackey”, as he put it, of DNC committee chairperson Alice Huffman, so he found himself sitting next to the future first lady Michelle, along with young Sasha and Malia, thinking, “Wow, this guy will be president someday.” “
Throughout a career spanning politics, philanthropy and Hollywood, Strom, 40, regularly finds himself identifying the potential for talent ready to take off. Now at the head of UTA’s new culture and leadership division, he acts as a bridge between the entertainment industry and those not easily defined as talent (at least, in traditional Hollywood terms) at a time when studios, streamers and networks easily go into business with political activists and cultural influencers.
One of the agent’s first UTA signings was Stacey Abrams, the first black woman to win a major party nomination in the Georgia gubernatorial race that would go on to establish Fair Fight Action, which monitors the elections. in the Battlefield States and is credited with helping transform Georgia Blue by pushing voters out of marginalized communities. After producing the documentary on the repression of voters All In: The struggle for democracy – who landed at Amazon ahead of the 2020 presidential election and was placed in front of the streamer’s pay wall – she’s taking on a distinctly different project. In May, it was announced that a narrative series adaptation of his legal detective novel While justice sleeps was premiered at Working Title Television. “Darnell instinctively understands how important my political advocacy work and creative endeavors are to me,” says Abrams, who says Strom’s perspective has allowed him to “navigate between worlds.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from Florida A&M, Strom planned to continue his education at Berkeley Law, but deferred in favor of a political career. After his stint at the DNC and a stint in John Kerry’s ill-fated presidential campaign, he joined former President Bill Clinton’s office in 2005 as deputy director of programming while the 42nd president established his Clinton Foundation and built a career after the White House. . âBasically anyone who wanted to do something with the foundation or [Bill Clinton] must have interacted with me, âStrom notes. It included everyone from NFL coaches to heads of state, and involved traveling the world – her favorite destination was an annual trip to Johannesburg to meet Nelson Mandela. It was around this time that Strom began to make connections with Hollywood.
âSo many of the connections the foundation had in Los Angeles were with people related to the entertainment industry,â Strom said of helping expand the donor network, a list that included Casey Wasserman and Jeffrey Katzenberg as well as Richard Lovett of CAA. After three years in this role, several CAA connections, including Michael Kives, a Clinton alumnus, approached Strom about a career change. âMaybe they were tired of me shaking them for fundraising dollars,â he laughs.
Strom joined the Century City team as an executive for his CAA Foundation, using his status as an extreme networker to help agency clients like then NBA star Dwyane Wade to establish their personal philanthropic efforts. By the early 2010s, talents had started to focus on social impact and wanted politics to be a forward-thinking part of their brands and, by extension, their careers. With Obama in the Oval Office, clients hoped to get in touch with an administration that itself sought to “harness the power of storytellers,” says Strom, who acted as the agency’s de facto liaison in Washington and has served on the Obama White House entertainment board.
âIf you are an agent, you are serving your customers,â says Strom. âIf you are a political staff member, you are in the service of your boss. If you are a true politician, you are of service to your constituents. There are a lot of transferable skills between being an agent and being in politics. Both are very relationship oriented.
When Strom left politics for Hollywood, the plan was still to become an agent, but after his stint with the CAA Foundation, it was not so clear the way forward. âThe way the agency system works is you choose the path,â says Strom, who was unsure of his place. After considering sports, marketing, and referrals, he decided to join CAA’s Speakers Division, knowing that the kind of talent he was looking for – primarily politicians, journalists and other thought leaders – would have the greatest impact there.
He signed YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley and former first daughter and NBC presenter Jenna Bush Hager and made a habit of recruiting promising politicians when they left office, including the then Vice President Joe Biden in 2017. Strom started working with Malala Yousafzai, then 16, six months before his Nobel Peace Prize nomination. He traveled with her to Oslo for the ceremony and, many speeches later, the winner made the trip to UTA with him. (Eventually, Bush Hager did too.)
In 2019, after being courted by UTA CEO and co-founder Jeremy Zimmer, Strom jumped on the rival agency, drawn to the prospect of starting his own division. He sat down with Yousafzai, soon to be graduating from Oxford, to talk about the big picture and what to follow beyond the speaking engagements. Inspired by the Obamas’ Hollywood imprint, Higher Ground, hosted at Netflix and also benefiting from a Spotify deal, they developed their production company Extracurricular. Under this banner, she signed a contract with Apple TV + which will allow her to develop and schedule projects encompassing scripted and unscripted scenarios, as well as children’s entertainment and series.
âPeople might think she would probably do a bunch of documentaries,â says Strom of the phenomenon. But it turns out her tastes aren’t that predictable. One of Yousafzai’s favorite shows is disgusting adult sci-fi animation Rick and morty, what the representative says that people are often surprised to hear. “He never tried to fit me into a pre-existing mold,” Yousafzai says of his agent. “He took what’s special and unique about my story and helped me expand my audience beyond what others imagined it could be.”
The representative is aware of the unique perceptual challenges faced by people primarily known for their public works. âThere’s this idea that because someone is an activist, they should be linked to a life of sacrifice,â Strom says. A recent high profile example, although not a Strom customer, is Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, who has a global deal with Warner Bros. TV. Several conservative media have singled out her real estate holdings and questioned the means by which she bought the houses. Strom adds, “I don’t think there is anything wrong with doing right and doing well.” Entertainment Pacts are meant to be new platforms that support existing brands and missions. He adds that the market is clearly interested: âIf we offered things that nobody wanted, these deals wouldn’t exist.
Strom, who spent 2020 working from home with his wife, Emily Verellen Strom, co-founder of Freebird Films, and their 4-year-old son, Sterling, was recently named a partner at UTA and joined the board of directors of Wynn Resorts.
Having been in Hollywood for over a decade, Strom has witnessed a shift in those portrayed, extending far beyond film, television, music and sports. And that’s a trend that has only accelerated over the past year. The pandemic and mass protests against police violence and systemic racism have shifted the priorities of the public and industry.
Strom is far from the only representative to notice this change, with activists now housed in all majors, including CAA, WME and ICM. But running his own division has allowed him to sign anyone who can “spark global conversations around culture,” explains the client and British Vogue editor Edward Enninful.
Since joining UTA, Strom has helped sign clients ranging from Kara Swisher and Tyler Mitchell (the first black photographer to shoot the cover of American Vogue) at the Apollo Theater, as well as civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump and model Karlie Kloss, who notes that Strom “understands how to work with people from all walks of life.”
âTheir claim to fame is known for one thing in particular,â Strom explains of his clients, âbut they have the interest and the ability to grow.â While other agencies provide multiple opportunities for representation for non-traditional talent – with divisions handling speeches, books, brands, and public engagements – Strom says UTA’s vertical culture and leadership is different in that it is a central hub “not necessarily tied to a specific transactional area of ââbusiness.” As such, he is able to adopt the â30,000-foot viewâ of the performance. As Strom has done for himself, the goal is to create new avenues for his talent, no matter when and how they have become household names.
“All of these cultural buckets are mixing together now,” Strom presumes. âThere is so much more connectivity between these things than ever before. “
This story first appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.