When Charles D. King BA’91 Vanderbilt first arrived in Los Angeles in 1997, his friends were shocked to hear that he had taken a job in a mailroom.
After all, King held a bachelor’s degree in political science and government from Vanderbilt and a law degree from Howard University Law School. His résumé was bursting with experience at marquee companies, including AOL and MTV, and he’d built an enviable list of contacts going back to his days growing up in Atlanta. Plus, he’d turned down several other offers just to take this job.
“I remember him moving out there, and I was like, ‘Mailroom? You’ve got a law degree! What are you doing working in a mailroom?’” recalls Michael Lee, BE’92, one of King’s closest friends from Vanderbilt. Even King admits he was initially skeptical at the prospect.
But the strange path to becoming a high-powered talent agent at the famed William Morris Agency (now called William Morris Endeavor) typically starts in the mailroom.
So King willingly accepted the post and everything that came with it: 90- to 100-hour work weeks, low pay and no guarantees. “I knew it was where I was supposed to be,” King says. “The mailroom is where you really cut your teeth, and it’s a gold mine of information, relationships and exposure, which laid the foundation for so many things I’ve been able to do up to this point.”
The plan worked. By 2010, King had become the first African American partner (and before that, the first African American to be promoted from the mailroom to a film/television agent) in the firm’s 119-year history. He went on to work with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, including Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Janelle Monáe and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Exactly as he’d hoped, King’s agency experience helped him achieve his larger goal: to lead a media company focused on developing content for multicultural audiences. In 2015, King left William Morris and started MACRO, which received financial backing from a number of industry leaders, as well as from Emerson Collective, the socially focused investment group run by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
The company’s first major project was the movie Fences, directed by Denzel Washington and nominated for four Oscars last year. Viola Davis won Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film. “For that to actually be our first studio film was an amazing result,” says King, who served as one of the movie’s executive producers.
MACRO’s web comedy Gente-fied features an all-Latino cast and counts actress America Ferrera among its executive producers. MACRO financed seven episodes of the bilingual series, which follows seven characters as they deal with the effects of change in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. (Marvin Lemus created and directed the series and co-wrote it with Linda Yvette Chavez.) The company also has two more feature films coming out in November: Mudbound, the story of two men who struggle with racism after returning home to rural Mississippi following World War II, and Roman Israel, Esq., a crime drama starring Washington and Colin Farrell.
“We always had a big-picture, global vision for the company,” King says. “What we’ve been experiencing, pleasantly, is that many of the things we envisioned would happen with the company are happening sooner than we thought they would. The opportunities are coming to us more quickly than we originally contemplated.”
Those who’ve known King since his Vanderbilt days aren’t the least bit surprised by his success. “He always talked about going to Hollywood or New York and working in some form or fashion of entertainment, something behind the scenes, working with talent, controlling the story and the messaging,” recalls Brett Hayes, BS’91, a close friend and fellow Kappa Alpha Psi member who’s now an executive at Nike. “He was really, really focused in that regard.”
Even in the William Morris mailroom, King displayed an uncanny knack for building relationships across the agency. He also operated on the “act as if …” principle, acquiring an Armani suit like the ones full-fledged agents wore and immersing himself in every aspect of the industry. “I was definitely the trainee who was either going to get promoted quickly or fired—one or the other,” King says, adding that he “wore the hell out of that suit.”
It didn’t hurt that he also tapped past connections to sign new talent, including rapper Missy Elliott.
“I brought in four or five clients way before I became an agent,” says King, who had to prove himself all over again when, in 1999, there was a leadership change at William Morris. “They were firing people they didn’t think were a culture fit,” he explains.
Fortunately for King, Dave Wirtschafter, who moved from International Creative Management with Jim Wiatt to run William Morris, understood his vision. “I had an eye to sign musicians and multi-hyphenates [actor–director, for example] and was going to build a multisector business,” says King. “I explained how pop culture is driven by the multicultural marketplace, and Wirtschafter got exactly what I was talking about.” Around the same time, clients like Spike Lee and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds were asking why the agency didn’t have more diversity.
After those conversations King became the first person under the new management to receive an internal promotion, helping pave his path to further success at the firm.
When William Morris merged with Endeavor in 2009, King saw it as the wake-up call he needed to remind himself of his ultimate goal—one he had spelled out in a commemorative book produced for his law school class at Howard. “They asked everybody, ‘What are you going to be doing in 10 years?’” King says. “And in mine I said, ‘In 10 years I am going to be at the helm of a diversified entertainment and media company.’”
In 2011 he wrote his first business plan and started positioning himself to launch MACRO by expanding his network beyond media and entertainment. “I began to cultivate and build my relationships in the financial sector, the tech arena, and in the political world,” explains King. “One, just for business and being able to raise capital to actually go and do what we’re doing; and two, to have relationships in these other sectors and look at the intersection of what is happening with technology, new platforms, the whole innovation sector, and how that’s impacting the entertainment industry right now.”
The other key aspect King wanted the company to focus on was bringing more multicultural talent, particularly African American and Latino, into the entertainment mainstream. “One of my goals while I am still in the industry is to dispel this notion that movies that have people of color in them won’t work,” King said in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, citing the example of the film 12 Years a Slave bringing in more money overseas than in the U.S.
As a freshman at Vanderbilt in 1987, King was one of 64 African American students in his class, less than half of 1 percent of that fall’s first-year class. (This year the number of incoming first-year students who are African American is around 200, representing more than 12 percent of the class.) He formed a tight circle of friends, some of whom he first met at Black Student Weekend, an event hosted each year for accepted students to visit campus. He also grew close to Ray Winbush, the first director of Vanderbilt’s Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, and got to know students at historically black Fisk and Tennessee State universities.
“I definitely look back fondly on my four years at Vanderbilt,” he says, adding that the university and Nashville have “evolved significantly” since his time in school. “The segment of the population that was from diverse backgrounds was fairly small. So that really brought those students together.”
Today, King casts the racial challenges he faced at school, as well as a first job after graduation at a paper company in Connecticut, as good preparation for his current role. “By the time I got to Hollywood, it was literally a piece of cake compared to those two,” he says, laughing.
Lee, one of the friends King originally met at Black Student Weekend who’s now an executive at the videogame company Electronic Arts, says King understates what he’s accomplished. “Charles won’t say this, but I’ll say it: You take his talent and acumen and put it in a white shell, and he would have gone farther and achieved more, faster. He is very modest, very humble. If he won’t brag about himself, I will.”
He is also known for developing lasting relationships wherever he goes. When King worked for AOL during law school, he met Charlie Fink, who developed and produced Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin during his time at Disney. Fink encouraged King to move to Los Angeles and gave him the names and numbers of several people to contact when he got there. The two never crossed paths again until four years ago when King reached out to Fink through LinkedIn.
“He said something like, ‘You did me a real solid 20 years ago. I’d like to reconnect with you, and if there is anything I can ever do for you, please let me know,’” says Fink. “I am 57 years old. I have helped dozens, if not hundreds, of people over the years, and only one of them has reached out to me across the decades. That was Charles King. That tells you something.”
Materials by Elizabeth Cook Jenkins, BS’99 for Vanderbilt Magazine. Original article “Mogul in the Making: Charles D. King’s entertainment career is turning out just the way he scripted it” appeared Sept. 7, 2017. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.