CAA’s Rob Kenneally on How Hollywood’s Come to Embrace Foreign Talent

If the world of film and TV has grown more global in recent years, driven in large part by the rise of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, the past year has only sped that process up. That’s opening more doors than ever for foreign talent.

“There’s a huge world out there. And there’s talent in every market,” said CAA agent Rob Kenneally. “The idea that it all starts and ends in Hollywood is such a forgotten memory.”

Kenneally appeared in conversation this week with Roskino head Evgenia Markova during the Key Buyers Event, which is taking place online June 8-10. The veteran agent spoke about how changes in the global film and TV biz have rewritten the playbook for discovering and developing foreign talent.

In years past, Kenneally explained, an agent might have bought the format rights of a successful foreign show in order to adapt it for U.S. audiences, or packaged a promising international project with a mix of foreign and Hollywood stars.

Today the job entails “identifying creators wherever they come from, whose voices tell stories that we can all connect with, and then involving them from the get-go,” he said. “Doing shows now that are with creatives from all over the world is becoming a much more prevalent business.”

That search has led him in the past few years to Russia and Eastern Europe, driven by the knowledge that “there’s a big and robust film business and TV business in [that] part of the world,” but “nobody in my end here knew how to navigate it.”

He spent several years “doing my homework, watching films, trying to see if there was a filmmaker that had told a story that I thought would connect to a U.S. audience,” he said. At the same time, companies such as Apple, Amazon and Netflix increasingly began to hunt for new talent from the region, as they upped their stakes in localized content strategies to grow their global subscriber base. “I’m the first guy in the door, so it’s been fun,” Kenneally added.

The veteran agent’s clients include Yorgos Lanthimos, Taika Waititi and Patty Jenkins, as well as notable Russian filmmakers Kantemir Balagov (“Beanpole”), Fedor Bondarchuk (“Invasion”), Kirill Serebrennikov (“Leto”) and Michael Idov (“The Humorist”).

Speaking during the Key Buyers Event, the world’s premier showcase of Russian content, Kenneally said that the current crop of emerging Russian talents “do want to work in a larger playing field than just in their region,” and noted that the industry was well on its way to proving that “the quality of [Russian] programming is every bit as good as anywhere else in the world.”

Through streaming hits such as the Netflix original sci-fi series “Better Than Us,” and the drama series “Russian Affairs,” which has sold to Amazon Prime and the U.K. specialty streamer Walter Presents, Russian creators “are going to get more and more people open and interested to want to watch more content,” he said.

The past year has spurred that process even more. “It’s crazy that it took the global streamers. It took a pandemic, where people were home more, watching everything,” said Kenneally. “It just accelerated it.”

In the same way that VOD subscribers have grown accustomed to a streaming diet that spans the globe, agents like Kenneally are increasingly looking beyond borders. “I’m not going to be distinguishing Russia from Germany,” he said. “We’re in one giant pot now.”

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