UTA Agent Mary Pender: ‘Focus on the Original Story’

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UTA agent Mary Pender speaks in the first NYU Advanced Publishing Institute in January on developing book content for the screens.

Mary Pender. Image: Courtesy UTA

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

NYU Advanced Publishing Institute registration ends December 22.

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David Steinberger’s Narrative: US National Book Awards
NYU’s New Advanced Publishing Institute: 2024 Speakers

‘Patience, Belief, and Passion’
The kind of assurance that everybody in book publishing needs sometimes is what registrants in the inaugural five-day NYU Advanced Publishing Institute will hear during the program’s first afternoon on January 8.

“When we’re focused on the original story,” Mary Pender says, “the rest of it follows suit. I say this to all my clients and I say this to a lot of younger people: Good material always rises to the top and good material always eventually finds the right creative partner.”

Pender, an agent in media rights with United Talent Agency, UTA, is one of four speakers in the closing panel on the first day of the agenda. That panel at 3:45 p.m. is titled Beyond the Page and has an important subtitle: Yes, publishers big and small can sell their content to studios and streamers. Joining Pender in that discussion will be:

  • Lauren O’Connor, Amazon MGM Studios’ head of IP acquisitions
  • Ryan Doherty, executive editor at Macmillan’s Celadon Books
  • Sophie Kaplan, senior director in creative acquisitions and IP management with Universal Studios

The program is the successor to the Yale Publishing Course and has been reformulated by Tina C. Weiner, the founding director of the Yale Publishing Course and the former publishing director of Yale University Press, with the support of Andrea Chambers, the associate dean of the Center for Publishing and Applied Liberal Arts in the School of Professional Studies.

Related article: ‘NYU’s New Advanced Publishing Institute: 2024 Speakers.’ Images: NYU School of Professional Studies

What the mid- to senior-level publishing professionals attending the Beyond the Page discussion will get from Pender is the kind of outlook that has made her the agent who set up Amazon MGM Studios’ and Berlanti-Schechter Films’ recent hit film Red, White & Royal Blue, the streaming debut of which on August 11 reportedly triggered a “huge new surge” of Prime subscribers who had looked in on Matthew López’s film based on Casey McQuiston’s 2019 book (Macmillan/St. Martin’s, 2019).

Other projects have included The Hate U Give; On the Come Up; Unpregnant; Our Chemical Hearts; and People We Meet on Vacation. Pender began her career as a journalist prior to moving to Maria B. Campbell Associates as a scout for Warner Brothers, New Line, WBTV, and Horizon, and several international publishers. Some of her author clients are McQuiston; Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give and her middle grade series Nic Blake And The Remarkables); Emily Henry (Happy Place); and Dhonielle Clayton and her packaging company Cake Literary (Blackout).

If UTA is ringing a bell for some of our  international readership, this is the States-based agency led by David Kramer and Jeremy Zimmer that in the summer of 2022 made its acquisition of London’s Curtis Brown Group led by . The move was made, as Kramer put it then, as a means to “vanishing the borders of the global entertainment business and our united determination to ensure artists and creators remain at the heart of the opportunities ahead.”

Related article: ‘UTA Buys London’s Curtis Brown: “A Culture of Collaboration.”‘ Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

And as heady and perilous as such goals and power-moves among major companies may be, “patience, belief, and passion,” Pender says, has become her personal mantra as she sits at the heart of a business in which so many things can impact a project’s progress.

For example, the May-to-November Hollywood strikes involving the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA have had an impact that can’t yet even be adequately assessed, she says.

“We don’t quite know yet,” she says. “For me, this back half” of the year “has been quite vibrant and robust, but a lot of it was because there were deals that had pins in them. Now they’re coming back to life, but I don’t think we really know what the effect is ultimately.”

Entertainment Tested: Impact as Yet Unclear

Those strikes, which paralyzed most production in the United States and some associated markets for months, clearly had deep and serious effects on many foot soldiers in the various industries that feed the American entertainment machine.

Related article: ‘Writers Stand in International Solidarity on Strikes and AI.’ Image: WGGB, Em Fitzgerald

Jennifer Maas at Variety writes that, as Pender has said, “It’s hard to measure the full impact of the Hollywood strikes—mainly because the TV and film industry will be facing the ripple effects for years to come.”

There is, however, Maas writes, “one significant hit: 17 percent of Los Angeles-based showbiz workers lost their jobs during the work stoppages.” Adding up to as many as 24,799 specific entertainment industry employees in the Los Angeles hub, Maas writes, the Otis College of Art and Design study signals that more than 1.5 of every 10 workers saw their employment evaporate.

At the Los Angeles Times, Christi Carras looks at the Otis College data, which was analyzed in conjunction with Westwood Economics and Planning Associates, and writes, “In the third quarter of 2023, production on TV dramas, comedies, and pilots was down nearly 100 percent compared with the previous year, while feature film shoots plummeted by about 55 percent,” per the study’s findings.

Dominic Patten at Deadline looks at some of the study’s financial evaluations, writing, “Greater Los Angeles entertainment industry workers lost roughly US$1.4 billion in wages between April and September 2023, or roughly 0.5 percent of the industry’s annual economic activity.” During the strikes, he reports, “the California economy overall took a $6.5 billion hit.”

‘People Will Want To Be Entertained’

For her part, Pender, while she’s hardly a Pollyanna on the point, maintains that the demand side of the industry remains solid, although it’s just seen the supply side so sorely tested by labor unrest and threats to creative workers from artificial intelligence.

Related Article: ‘David Steinberger’s Narrative‘:  On Speaking at NYU’s New Advanced Publishing Institute. Image: Open Road Integrated Media

“The one thing that I’m confident about and the one thing that I do know,” she says, “is that people will want to be entertained. People will want to watch things and read things and discuss different shows and stories that that made them feel something. And so regardless ultimately of the delivery mechanism of what that is—whether it’s streaming or theatrical or half-an-hour episodes or 12-minute episodes or whatever it is—people will need to be and want to be entertained.

“They want to have that cultural conversation about interesting things they’ve seen or they’ve read. And so I don’t think it’s particularly a bad thing that things are changing. It’s just the audience changing how they choose to consume their media” as the streamers have overtaken Hollywood business models that came under fire. “We just have to have to figure out that piece of it.”

She’s backed up by the Otis study, which suggests that the inevitable cool-off to the “peak TV” period of high-caliber production in the early part of this century was already fueling a context of “a broader restructuring of the industry: employment was contracting in the industry before the strikes.”

And she’s not wrong that the appetite on the consumer side is there. While it’s anecdotal to a degree, part of the newly released information from Netflix this week shows what hits can do.

Netflix has just released the first of what will become a semi-annual accounting of its subscribers’ viewing habits. “Its first report, released on Tuesday,” writes Christopher Grimes on Tuesday (December 12) for the Financial Times, “provided viewer data on more than 18,000 titles, representing a total of nearly 100 billion hours viewed, Netflix said. The Night Agent, a political thriller, was the most watched show on Netflix globally in the first half of 2023, with 812 million hours.”

“I don’t know what the next page is going to bring. And I have thousands of pages to get through.”Mary Pender, United Talent Agency

With its rotation of five directors including Adam Arkin and Seth Gordon across the series’ 10 hours, The Night Agent in worldwide release pumped profound boosts into the careers of stars Gabriel Basso and Luciane Buchanan and ended with a surefire tease to a second season.

And Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said on a conference call with reporters that many entertainment workers in the strike actions had become mistrustful of the streamers on just how successful these companies’ shows are. The new reporting plan is a response to that, he said, and the What We Watched report series (it includes a link to a spreadsheet of data) will be something that many in the publishing world will want to follow, as well, as professionals in the book business look to leverage potential development with the help of “the right creative partners” like Pender and others in her field.

While Pender sidesteps the inevitable question about which of her projects so far has been her favorite—”It’s like asking someone to pick their favorite child”—she does concede that her work keeps her up at night reading, because “Who knows what in my reading pile might be the next thing I’m super excited about?

“That’s the best part of my job,” Pender says. “I don’t know what the next page is going to bring. And I have thousands of pages to get through.”

So to that mantra of “patience, belief, and passion,” you might add one more thing to Mary Pender’s perspective she’ll be sharing at the NYU Advanced Publishing Institute: “You never know.”

Full information on the new NYU Advanced Publishing Institute is here, and the latest look at the program’s agenda is here, and registration is available hereMore on events in New York University’s programming relative to book publishing is here, and more on publishing education is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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