Charles King: Hollywood's Next Mogul?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is the guy trying to make your next binge-watch.
By Sanjena Sathian
At a Hollywood premiere after-party, nostalgic hip-hop bumps, slinkily dressed women and casually blazered men take to the dance floor, and stars are aplenty: comedian Hannibal Buress, Harold & Kumar’s John Cho, Victoria’s Secret angel Chanel Iman, Orange Is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco. New hip-hop prince ASAP Rocky and the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy are wandering around somewhere, and Pharrell has just hopped in a black SUV for a quick getaway.
On the fringes of the fête, The Wire’s Michael B. Jordan is chatting with a slight-framed man in glasses and a chic goatee. Jordan and Charles King — don’t worry, you’re not supposed to recognize that name — are busy plotting the future of entertainment. Their plans, in sum: more digital, more color.
And more eyeballs. It may just be starting to get noticed, but there’s an emerging market for entertainment by, about and for people of color. Actually, it’s more than emerging, whether we’re talking Shonda Rhimes or Issa Rae, or the Sundance darling Dear White People. And smack dead center in this movement is 45-year-old King, who’s trying to leverage his longtime top-agent status (he’s represented Oprah, Janet Jackson and Tyler Perry) into a whole new bid to finally make Hollywood look and feel as multicultural as tonight’s crowd. He’s less than a year into his new project, Los Angeles-based media startup Macro Ventures, but he’s already got the backing of top executives from places like Netflix and Citibank. For King, it’s a chance to move out from behind the entertainment curtain and into the business world’s spotlight.
Blacks, it turns out, watch significantly more television than any other group, according to a 2015 Nielsen report. And digital media, according to 2014 eMarketer predictions, was projected to hit $574 billion in ad spending this year, an increase of 5.3 percent over the previous year. People of color who might not have gotten studio backing before have taken to social media platforms, and the big money is following. As Jamarlin Martin, CEO of the booming Black digital media company Moguldom, puts it, a venture like King’s is “a billion-dollar opportunity.” And with an unspecified eight figures of seed funding and a very fat black book of everyone who’s anyone — especially everyone who’s Black and anyone — off King goes. He just “knows everyone,” says Justin Simien, writer and director of the aforementioned Dear White People. “I see Charles and I just scream, ‘Black Excellence.’”
That’s a lot of gushing, but you could argue that his resumé induces such cries. Educated at Vanderbilt and Howard University Law School, he traded his JD for a mail-room gig at “old and stodgy” William Morris Entertainment, where he became the company’s first Black partner in its century-long history.
It was, he reflects immodestly, “a historical moment.”
Those 90-hour workweeks saw him assisting on various agency desks all day, then reading slush-pile scripts at night. The vibe was “like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange,” he recalls. Rotating on those desks meant a chance to network within the company, as King saw it: He found and introduced himself to every agent, imitated them, sat in on calls. Dressed, as they say, for the job he wanted. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop him from getting fired from his first desk during a pilot season for simply being a “terrible assistant,” he says. He still got to stay at WME, but his career stalled, and he had to ingratiate himself to a whole new set of bosses.
Yet before he was officially promoted, King found himself coming in handy. He had a trump card — thanks to law school internships at MTV and AOL, he knew and pulled in Missy Elliot. And when Spike Lee visited and the top dogs realized they needed some agents of, um, a “certain” (read: POC) “background,” in came young King in a kind of “we found one!” moment, he says. That’s how it went through the early years. He didn’t always shine, like the time he landed at a party at Prince’s as the one guy not exactly decked out in the stuff he should have been. “The worst-dressed guy there.”
When King reminisces, he sometimes literally shakes his chair in delight, a habit that breaks his otherwise creamy composure. The guy “isn’t a used car salesman,” Simien says. His buddies at WME call him “the Duke” — seems a shame to trade his actual last name for lesser royalty, but for them, he’s Duke Ellington: suave, elegant. Indeed, watching him work the party, which is celebrating the LA premiere of a zany indie comedy — Sundance- and Cannes-blessed — called Dope, isn’t unlike watching a jazz musician kiss piano keys. He and his inimitably confident wife Stacey don’t so much work the room (they don’t need to) as glide it. He represented Dope’s writer-director Rick Famuyiwa and model Chanel Iman in the film, among others. Everyone knows him, everyone congratulates him, everyone would love to grab dinner.
It makes for a nice tale, this arc, from mail room to agent star to the ultimate title today: entrepreneur. King grew up in Decatur, Georgia, son of a private-practice pediatrician father and a writer mother (who had her fair share of rejections, making him, he says, deeply sympathetic to entertainment-world rejections). This was Atlanta in the 1970s: white flight, integration. King’s high school, once heavily white, grew to be majority Black by the time he graduated. But he felt the real impact of race in the city after he went to college, when, at age 19, he found himself harassed by a cop in a mall. King, a future lawyer, did as you might expect: He filed a lawsuit, which ended in a nice settlement. It was enough to power him through the first few years of slogging it in LA.
Today finds King reigning over a small empire, in a market that wouldn’t have existed had he not helped draw attention to it in the first place. Not so different a tale from other Black leaders in their respective fields: Take Toni Morrison’s years in publishing, her creation of a Black literary canon. Famuyiwa, a longtime client and friend, reminds me, however, that King is a top agent period — not just a top Black agent. The thing is, though, that being a top Black agent in Hollywood kind of means being a top agent period these days.
Now King will have to manifest the next future of entertainment — the Web world. And though those of us who can’t pull ourselves away from House of Cards might think that future is already here, it’s still got a long way to go. “It’s not clear how to monetize it yet,” Simien acknowledges. We can expect legal battles over revenue, says entertainment lawyer Larry Zerner, and some artists fear the risk. And, says Moguldom’s Martin, “I don’t see a lot of money pouring in … a lot of VCs don’t see that African-American market as big enough.”
These concerns were absent as the crowds stream from the LA Live theater to the downtown after-party. People worth billions cheek-kissed and trampled the red carpet en route to the bouncer-guarded staircase. King had lost the wristband he needed to flash to get past the proverbial velvet ropes. “I’m, ah, I’m … ,” he stumbled vaguely. The gatekeeper had no idea who he was, but he let him in.
An earlier version of this story included a mischaracterization of Michael B. Jordan and of Charles King’s professional history.