While the pandemic has meant separation for most people, it has been the backdrop for the professional reunion of Phillip Sun and Charles D. King. Sun (no relation to this journalist), the longtime agent to such current-generation stars as Michael B. Jordan, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Gemma Chan and Idris Elba, left WME in August to launch his own management firm, M88, a venture majority-owned by his former agency mentor King’s media company MACRO.
Any Chinese person will immediately recognize the significance of “88” as a lucky number in Chinese culture (in Chinese, “eight” is a loose homonym of the word for “wealth”), and Sun chose that explicit nod to his heritage to signal that M88, like MACRO, is a company built by and for members of what they call the “global new majority.” Joined by partners Gaby Mena and Jelani Johnson (who jointly ran MACRO’s management division, which was launched in January and has been merged into M88), Oronde Garrett, and managers Jerome Martin and Natalia Williams as well as Alexa Daniel, Gerald Lee and Maya Rodrigo. Sun presides over a clientele that in addition to the actors named above also already includes Donald Glover, Naomi Scott, Ryan Coogler, Taraji P. Henson, Kelly Marie Tran and Marsai Martin. On the lit side, their clients include Blitz Bazawule, Jayro Bustamante, Issa Lopez, Tina Mabry and Nikyatu Jusu.
M88 operates synergistically but independently of MACRO, which means there is no obligation for MACRO to produce M88 clients’ projects and vice versa — but given the “mission alignment,” a phrase both Sun and King are fond of using, such collaborations wouldn’t be surprising. The pair discussed the past, present and hoped-for future state of representation — both in the agent/manager sense and as it pertains to inclusion and diversity — in a wide-ranging conversation with DIASPORA.
Phil, what was your thought process in moving to management and setting up your own shop?
PHIL SUN: [The pandemic] changed a lot of things for me. When you and I were talking [at the beginning of this year], that’s not where my head was at. But over [this quarantine] I had a moment to pause for the first time in 15 years of being at the agency, and with the birth of my son [in December 2019] and life stuff and just watching how the mechanics of the industry were shifting, I started thinking. When this opportunity came to reteam with Charles, it felt in my gut and through analysis like the right time in terms of what the industry is craving as far as what representation looks like — literally and figuratively.
What is it craving?
Sun: Watching other agents leave the agencies (Sun’s Endeavor colleagues Theresa Kang-Lowe and Christine Gelb both departed earlier this year for non-agency pursuits), it feels like people are looking for an evolution in representation. I’m close with my clients, not just representing them but being in their lives and their business, so the shift to management was, skillset-wise, not that different for me. But it also allows me to get into the nitty-gritty of producing and architecting careers. As a client gets bigger, they want their trusted person flowing in whichever directions they need to flow. I think a lot of agents are hungry to participate more. When Gemma and Michael and Idris want to get stories onscreen, I want to make the deal but also see it all the way through.
For M88 specifically, it’s two-fold. One, I believe that the new global majority — the culture movers, if you will — are hungry for representation where they don’t have to explain much, they’re just in their own culture. They want to be signed at a company with people of like mind, like mission and similar sensibilities. Two, I think there’s also a cool generational shift where there are now many representatives of color finding each other and wanting to join forces, versus being siloed off into different representation firms. Seeing the faces in our [M88] Zoom meetings, it’s everything I was trying to get accomplished at the agency, which can only evolve so quickly because it’s got decades and decades of [systemic practices]. So it’s not only clients but also the majority of our executives who will be part of the global majority. We’re inclusive — there will be allies, of course, among our clients and execs. But this is a way for us to bring the community together in a way that hasn’t been done before.
I imagine that choice of phrase — “global new majority” — is deliberate. Why are you characterizing it that way?
KING: (laughs) I mean, we all know this.
Explain it to me like I don’t get it.
KING: As demographics shift, in a very short period of time the majority of this country is going to be people of color. Globally, too. People of color are not the minority; that’s a term that doesn’t even come out of my mouth. Our industry is global, our business is global, our thought process is global. That’s why I even called my company MACRO. There are others who thought it was small and niche — micro — but we think macro, the big picture. We think global.
Hollywood’s idea of diversity has traditionally been focused on the talent side. What difference does it make for artists to be represented by people who might share their cultural backgrounds?
KING: People of different backgrounds in the room are going to identify and understand [certain] stories and perspectives and appreciate the audience that’s there for them, and also to understand how to communicate that out to buyers and others in the industry. I can’t tell you how many times during my former life when truly understanding the story [a client] was looking to tell — having that perspective myself — enabled me to finally break through [and get buyers] to see the value in that story as well.
SUN: We know, at the end of the day, that there are specific [types of] movies the studios and streaming platforms like to make. When you’re a representative of color in a major company, your responsibility is to sell from an authentic point of view the stories that your clients see themselves in, that you see yourself in, and you have to be able to — in a predominantly white room — sell with confidence. If a white man is selling a Tyler Perry play, or the journey of Gemma Chan, it will not be, in my experience, as strongly or authentically sold to any representative room, studio or pitch room. How can you sell Crazy Rich Asians? How can you sell Black Panther? How can you sell that world-building or that point of view better than someone who has lived that point of view?
What about when it comes to helping clients navigate situations in which they’re presented with opportunities that might feel problematic in terms of portrayal?
SUN: There certainly have been, especially with my Asian clients, roles in which the director made sense and the ensemble made sense, but the character perpetuated stereotypes. Even if it was a meaty character and something that, with this director, could be [a career changer], it’s just no longer appropriate. There are famous Asian characters that may have made sense to studios even 10 years ago, but not anymore. Asian people don’t need to be doing kung fu in every movie. A few of us had conversations when Shang Chi was cast, to make sure that [Marvel would] make them full characters, because the Asian stereotype of simply doing martial arts could send us backwards. And that’s a point of view that is now available to speak of. At least the conversations are happening because representatives, consultants [and other participants] also feel that burden. And so it isn’t “Oh, that’s a great role, you should do it even though it sets us back 20 years” anymore. Now it’s, “Let’s talk about why that doesn’t work, if we can get around it creatively, and if not, we’ll find another job.” Now that the industry is opening up, you can turn down those roles that are backwards and find another one.
KING: I remember reading Sidney Poitier’s memoir The Measure of a Man [and being struck by] the integrity and strength and character that he showed [in maintaining] his standards on what roles he would take on and stand for. I advocated for numerous artists through the years whose careers were, frankly, almost more defined by what they said no to, because they were so smart about choosing the right roles that would represent them well. And now you’ve got a collective community of artists — and even representatives and producers — with that level of consciousness, speaking up in ways that had not been heard before.
SUN: This is why people from different points of view are necessary throughout the industry. Now there are enough people [to form] a community that can say, “No, you can’t do that. That doesn’t even make sense.” Instead of just one or two, there are multiple entities now: multiple representatives, multiple studio execs — and we could definitely use more — but there are enough strong people now to put a flashlight on it and call it out. To make sure that people are held accountable for the content they’re making. That’s why it’s important in representation rooms to have people from different backgrounds, and that’s probably the biggest hill we have to climb.
What needs to be done to make progress on that front — diversifying the representation landscape?
SUN: You have to hit every single one of these points: pipeline, mentorship and socioeconomic help. You have to make the journey upward sustainable. I had to really, really budget — lived with my brother and pinched pennies to make it. (laughs) I know agencies are [raising the minimum wage] now, but the pay is not sustainable for people with debt, student loans, et cetera. So you’ve already knocked out a whole group of probably super intelligent and qualified people based on socioeconomic background. Then once they’re in, who’s mentoring them? I learned from Charles how to move in this corporation as a person of color. He had to work that much harder. The deals had to be that much bigger. He had to make sacrifices and push that much harder than everyone else to get to the same place. When you see that, it’s hard to think, “Oh man, this place is for me.”
KING: Gaining access to the institutions is part of it, but the largest amount of work is once they’re actually inside the walls. All the agencies and most of the studios have gotten to a point where [people of color] are gaining entry, but getting them from entry-level to young exec to senior exec and partner is where you find a lot of attrition and lose a lot of people. That’s a big part of the mentorship: very high-level advocacy and exposure to high-level deals and relationships. You lose most people in the middle [if you don’t] populate certain types of teams with people from different backgrounds and [let them] take over more significant business as they continue to achieve. Having exposure to those larger items means no one can say later down the road that they can’t operate at that level.
SUN: You know how I got my first couple of clients? Charles. In a system where the pass-down builds the next generation, when you don’t have someone passing down [clients], it becomes very hard to compete. Why not populate an A-level white male talent’s team with young people of color? Are they being thought of? We know [there are situations where] if you work for a certain person you’re automatically promoted — how do we make sure that a person of color is not only considered but hired for that position? All anyone needs to grow as an agent or a rep is access and information and education. But with all these things systemically in your way, it becomes a challenge for a person of color coming up through the ranks to survive. What are the nuances that have to be addressed in order for people to have a path to succeed? Take me, for example. As a Chinese immigrant’s son, I’m not taught to speak in a big room. I’m not taught to sit at a dining table with my elders and just start talking. You listen, learn, respect your elders. Now how do you translate that upbringing, without extra training, to survive in a big corporation?
In an agency, of all places.
SUN: And then, are you judged by your cultural differences, or on your skillset? Those analyses need to be had, and then adjustments [to a company’s systemic practices] need to be made.
You both came up through WME, which is as powerful and major as agencies go. Why strike out on your own, rather than try to make change from within, particularly since companies that place an explicit emphasis on employing or servicing people of color or other marginalized groups are still often seen as “niche” and outside of the mainstream. Why do you believe it’s now viable for such a business to operate in and be relevant at the center of the industry?
KING: Historically, any time there have been really significant shifts in the industry were when people were willing to strike out on their own: when Mike Ovitz left William Morris and started CAA, when Ari [Emanuel] and team left ICM and started Endeavor — I remember when I was at WME and the [group of agents] left to launch Verve, and they seem to be doing great for themselves now.
SUN: We’re finally, within the representation divisions of the industry, getting to a level where we can effect change at the highest level. There are multiple people, like Jelani, Gaby, Jerome and Oronde. People of color are now experienced enough in the representation skillset so it’s not like [M88] is an alternative “just for people of color.” This is a representation firm that operates at the highest level and just happens to be populated with like-minded people of color and allies.
KING: Look at Phil’s trajectory and his track record, the artists he’s represented and the place those artists hold in the culture. And me, becoming the first African-American partner in the history of the agency space, then launching MACRO and bringing to bear the experience of building a company and raising capital. We have the deal models and the entrepreneurial thought process to build out our artists’ businesses and achieve their goals on an artistic and business level — no one can poke holes at that, because we have operated at the highest level inside of the establishment, and now we’re going to do it from the outside. People will point to M88 and say, “We want the deals and the trajectory of the artists represented by that team.” They’re at the forefront of culture.
What’s your goal or your vision for the industry, beyond MACRO and M88? As more and more executives and producers of color entrepreneurially hang their own shingles, what will be the relationship among all these various firms working with the global new majority?
SUN: There are so many white-run companies. Why not the other way? In the manager world, it’s easier because the rule of law is about community, not poaching. That’s a very Ovitz agency thing. And the bandwidth of one company is not enough to take on what needs to be done in order to truly effect change. I think that the establishment will still try to paint representation firms run by the new global majority as “niche.” That’s just a reflex. What’s not niche is when you’re locking arms with allies and members of different communities. Then you become very strong. When Lena Waithe goes to the Crazy Rich Asians premiere and posts about it, that’s strength because they can’t say it’s just an Asian moment anymore. It’s the joining of forces that is necessary, and joining forces with Charles was awesome not only because it was family but because it was a message: We don’t have to be alone. We’re very powerful together. That’s something that some very powerful white individuals don’t do because of ego, but that’s not the example we’re trying to set.
KING: When we launched MACRO in January 2015, our mission was to positively disrupt the entire ecosystem. Not just to show kids around the country and globally that they could build a media company, but frankly to show and be an example for many working in the industry. Since then, I look at the entrepreneurial push from numerous colleagues and producers and artists and hope we’re playing a small part in that. You need to have lots of [companies like ours] doing what they’re doing and then finding ways to collaborate, build each other up and move away from that mindset of, “There only needs to be one.” There’s room for hundreds of us, and for all of us to do our part.
SUN: That’s the goal. Charles gets a kick out of this whenever I say this to our company: Every single one of us here, at some point coming up, has been told we have a chip on our shoulder. You’ve probably been told you write with a chip on your shoulder —
I was once told by a colleague that I had an agenda so I know what you’re saying, yeah.
Sun: Here’s the thing: The chip on the shoulder is actually our superpower. I want our company to embrace the chip on our shoulders because it’s what drives us. It’s what makes you different. It’s your motivation. And imagine now, a world [with a plethora of business options catering to the global new majority], if everyone with a chip on their shoulder is driving in the same direction, that would be a very powerful thing.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was conducted in the Fall 2020 after the launch of M88. Updated information has been added to the interview for context and the length has been edited for clarity.