Ari Emanuel Takes on the World

During the construction of Fight Island, White had complained to the press about how expensive it was. In fact, Abu Dhabi not only built the arena and provided private planes, food, housing, testing facilities, and medical staff; it also paid the UFC for each fight, at rates that compensated for the absence of ticket sales. According to people familiar with the company’s finances, the league was Endeavor’s most successful business in 2020. Amid the trials of the pandemic, Shapiro said, “UFC was our saving grace.” Emanuel told me, with evident affection, “Khaldoon has always been an incredible partner.”

On the morning of October 28th, Emanuel delivered the opening remarks at an Endeavor “retreat,” conducted virtually. Emanuel has close-cropped hair that has been going silver. He wore a black polo shirt and large, dark-rimmed reading glasses. He began by acknowledging the economic hit that many of his associates had taken. “It’s been a challenging eight months,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the sacrifices you made on behalf of this company.” During the spring, as part of a financial plan for enduring the pandemic, Endeavor had secured a high-interest loan of a quarter of a billion dollars, and it worked through the summer to cut costs aggressively. (“It’s our new business line,” one partner quipped.) But, Emanuel argued, the company had encountered difficulties before and always emerged stronger. “We’re built for this,” he insisted. “When the economy comes back, as it has in every major global crisis”—he struck the tabletop with his fist—“we’ll be ready.”

Ordinarily, when addressing colleagues, Emanuel is funny, outrageous, and supremely confident. This self-presentation, at once cocky and appealing, tends to inspire loyalty among his staffers. Mark Shapiro calls Endeavor “a cult of personality.” In public appearances, Emanuel likes to extemporize, cajole, and find a connection. He dislikes formality, and he rarely reads his speeches. He explained this aversion in 2007, when he received an award from the Lab School, in Washington, D.C., which focusses on learning differences. “I’ve never been honored by anything before,” he told the audience. He thought that Rahm had secretly arranged the award. “When it turned out to be legit, I was kind of shocked.” He explained that he had dyslexia, and felt a “dread of having to read in public.” But he wanted young people with dyslexia to understand that it could be a gift, which could provide them with “the insight to find inventive solutions to life—and in business—that others when they’re in those situations probably never find.”

Growing up in Chicago, Emanuel was impish and funny, but also ready to attack anyone who bullied him, or insulted his brothers, or even picked on a stranger who attracted his sympathy. In the third grade, still unable to read, he was diagnosed as having dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. He was teased, and he never failed to respond. Years later, reminiscing about confronting one boy, he said, “I wanted to kill that kid—I really almost did, slamming his head into that wooden grate.”

The instinct for combat did not run in the family. His father, Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, was born in Jerusalem and served in the nascent Israeli Army during the Arab-Israeli War, in 1948. An avowed pacifist, he fought for eighteen months with an unloaded gun. He went to medical school in Switzerland. When a radical Zionist group contacted him there to ask if he would send letter bombs to England, he refused.

Dr. Emanuel arrived in New York in 1953, with thirteen dollars in his pocket and a fluent command of Hebrew, French, and Italian—but not English. Eventually, he went to work at a hospital in Chicago, where he met Marsha Smulevitz, a radiology technician and a dedicated civil-rights activist. He took her to breakfast and, a week later, asked her to marry him. They lived in Israel for a couple of years before returning to Chicago, where Dr. Emanuel built a thriving pediatric practice. The three boys went to Israel nearly every summer, visiting family. In 1967, when Ari was six, the Emanuels arrived just two weeks after the end of the Six-Day War.

Their household emphasized service to the community. Zeke wrote in his memoir, “Brothers Emanuel,” that there were many times when people who were struggling asked if their children could stay with the Emanuels. “My father the pediatrician and my mother—the woman who always tried to do the right thing—said yes,” he wrote.

In 1973, a woman asked Dr. Emanuel if he knew someone who would adopt her newborn daughter. He proposed to his wife and sons that they take the baby, and after some discussion they agreed. The girl, whom they named Shoshana, had cerebral palsy; she had no intellectual impairment, but over the years she had to undergo several surgeries to gain greater mobility. As a young woman, she gave birth to two children, and Marsha Emanuel, who by then had become a psychotherapist, began caring for them. “I spend most of my time exhausted,” she told the Times in 1997. When the reporter responded that she must be very strong, she said, “If one more person tells me that, I’ll shoot them. And I’m nonviolent.”

Zeke does not mention his sister in his memoir. Her only appearance is in a photograph taken at Ari’s bar mitzvah, in which Marsha is holding a baby girl. Rahm has declined to answer questions about her. Ari does not speak about Shoshana publicly, but in 2015 he adopted one of her children. On Father’s Day in 2018, Rahm Emanuel invited his father onto his podcast, “Chicago Stories,” and asked what his proudest accomplishment was. “Having raised four kids that are honest, that are successful, that are compassionate,” he replied.

As a boy, Ari felt overshadowed by his siblings. “Zeke was always the brainy one,” he has said. “Rahm was the shrewd one. And I was just the last one.” In high school, even though he excelled in math, he was placed in a special-education class. “People made fun of me every day,” he has said. “Being an accomplished wrestler made me feel like less of an outcast, but still I got myself into a lot of fights and ended up in the principal’s office every other day.” Zeke wrote in his memoir, “It did not take much to provoke Ari because, to be blunt, he liked to fight.” He added, “The speed, danger, and risk that make other people nervous make guys like Ari serene.”

Emanuel told me, “There were some dark fucking days in my life, where they didn’t think I could graduate high school.” His mother took him to a reading teacher—three-hour sessions, which he hated. “You just have to get to the next day. I give my mom a lot of credit here, in that she just kept on encouraging me. So, when things are tough, I don’t really get that down.”

After graduating from Macalester College, in 1983, Emanuel briefly played professional racquetball, and then got a job working for Robert Lantz, a New York talent agent. But he had always told his family that he wanted to make a fortune, and he began to think about Hollywood. Emanuel told me, “I read this article about Mike Ovitz,” who was then the head of Creative Artists Agency and the dominant agent in Hollywood. “And I said, Fuck, I wanna fucking go to work for that dude.” In 1987, he left for Hollywood and became a trainee at C.A.A.

Reading was still a struggle, but at the end of each day he took home scripts to review. He became head of the mail room, and then an agent’s assistant. After two years, several former C.A.A. colleagues asked him to join a firm they’d started, called InterTalent. He went to see Ovitz to announce that he was leaving. “Mike Ovitz was God, and I was just a fucking street urchin,” Emanuel told the journalist James Andrew Miller, for “Powerhouse,” a book about C.A.A. Ovitz responded, “We’re going to kill you guys and your careers are going to be over.” Emanuel recalled, “I turned to him, got out of my Chinese chair, Japanese chair, whatever, and said, ‘Are you threatening me?’ And I grabbed the chair with my hands and picked it up and said, ‘Because if you are, I’ll fucking throw this chair right out of here right now. Don’t threaten me.’ ” (Ovitz disputes this account.) Emanuel went on, “I was a complete moron. You don’t do that stuff, but I’ve been a fighter all my life.”

In 1993, Emanuel and his best friend, Tom Strickler, began talking about starting their own agency. They’d worked together in the mail room at C.A.A. and then at InterTalent, before moving to International Creative Management. The two were an unlikely pair. Strickler—urbane, thoughtful, instinctively gracious—had grown up on Fifth Avenue and graduated from Harvard. He could have emulated his father, a prominent Wall Street banker. But, as he told Emanuel, he wanted a job that felt satisfying and fun—“otherwise, we might as well be trading bonds.” Emanuel liked the idea of creating a firm, but he had other options. The management company Brillstein-Grey Entertainment wanted him to be the head of television, at triple the salary he was making at I.C.M. To aid in the decision, Strickler recalled, they went to Emanuel’s psychiatrist and talked through his dilemma. “This was my first time to a shrink—Wasps tend not to go, although they should,” Strickler told me. “He was super nice. Ari explained the pros and cons. At the end, he agreed with me. I said, ‘O.K., I got the shrink’s vote!’ ”

The two friends spent days drawing up plans on legal pads, deciding which agents to recruit and which clients to poach. Strickler believed that their firm should work intently to improve their employees’ lives as well as their clients’. Emanuel didn’t disagree. Strickler recalled walking together as they deliberated. “I’m not Catholic, but I dragged Ari into a few churches,” he told me. “He said, ‘No, I don’t want to pray!’ I said, ‘Pray for our success.’ ”

“See, now I’m scared.”
Cartoon by Emily Flake

On March 29, 1995—Emanuel’s thirty-fourth birthday—he and Strickler started Endeavor, along with two colleagues from I.C.M. Their office, in Los Angeles, occupied a floor above an Islands restaurant on Olympic Boulevard; the smell of cheeseburgers wafted in every afternoon. Five years later, Endeavor had more than a hundred employees and a sleek office in Beverly Hills. “These guys are everywhere,” Ovitz told a reporter for Talk magazine. Emanuel was in constant motion; when the reporter asked how he and his colleagues operated, he replied, “We fight and we fuck”—and then disappeared. Strickler was more accessible and less profane. Asked what posed the biggest threat to the agency, he said, “Probably our success. Success which usually breeds hubris and arrogance in Hollywood.” Then he set out to do what he did every Friday afternoon: he made his way through the firm’s three floors and shook hands with all the employees, wishing them a good weekend.

A prominent Hollywood agent who was an Endeavor assistant in those years said that the company’s ambition emanated from Emanuel and its culture from Strickler. “I was too moralistic, Ari was too expeditious,” Strickler told me. “So we met in the middle. When we fired someone, we covered their health insurance for six months to a year. There were a thousand things like that. If you’re trying to build a business with a soul, souls are expensive.”

To strengthen Endeavor’s position in the movie business, Emanuel tried to hire Patrick Whitesell, a talented agent at C.A.A. Whitesell hesitated, and so Emanuel began calling him nearly every morning. After two years of calls, Whitesell joined Endeavor, bringing with him a client list that included Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Christian Bale. “At Endeavor, we didn’t really advocate for titles,” Whitesell told me, “but it kind of evolved over time that Ari and I were the two running the firm.” Whitesell grew up in Iowa Falls, and his soft-spoken Midwestern manner contrasted with Emanuel’s Chicago-style aggression; they were often described as “yin and yang.”

Emanuel’s ferocity appealed to clients. One of them was the producer Brian Grazer, who had started out developing television projects in the eighties, before founding Imagine Entertainment, with Ron Howard. Grazer had been successful in the movies—in 2002, his film “A Beautiful Mind” won the Academy Award for Best Picture—and he wanted to establish himself in TV. “I’d heard about this guy Ari, and he was just a fucking fearless guy, and I loved that,” Grazer said. “There’s a pervasive atmosphere of fear in Hollywood that seemed to have no effect on him.”

In 2004, Grazer produced a movie, “Friday Night Lights,” based on Buzz Bissinger’s book about a high-school football team in Odessa, Texas. “It got amazing reviews,” Grazer said. “And then Ari goes, ‘Let’s do a series with it.’ ” Grazer had reservations: he felt beholden to the true story, in which the team loses the championship game. “I go, ‘You’re fucking crazy. They lost the game—where’s the series?’ ” Grazer recalled. “He goes, ‘Guess what? Get the fuck out of my way, I’m going to get you a fucking television series.’ He calls up Jeff Zucker”—the head of the NBC Universal Television Group—“and jams him, and we get the series on the air.”

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