ill Ward ’93 is not feeling well. He’s fighting a bit of a head cold as he maneuvers his Model S Tesla out through the gate of his Tudor-style Beverly Hills home for a morning meeting at Amazon Studios in Culver City.
“You’re going to get a low-energy version of me today,” he says, as he motors south down Beverly Drive, which is lined by the city’s tall, thin palms made iconic by countless TV shows and movies. Right away, one of his two assistants connects him with a music label executive to discuss the possibility of signing a fairly big client. Ward is a top Hollywood manager where making use of every moment of every day is how you stay on top in a super-competitive industry. But it also suits Ward’s multitasking personality.
“One of the things I love the most about my job is having a hand in so many different pots,” he says before hopping on another call. “If I had to sit down and read through contracts all day, I wouldn’t get anything done. I’ve always had a short attention span, so bear with me today as you will get a taste of that.”
Indeed, the schedule is jam-packed with many more calls, lunch with the company’s attorney, a meeting with an Australian liquor maker, cocktails back at home in the evening with a writing partner and then dinner with his wife, Christy, at the home of entertainment lawyer Fred Goldring. Most people would have trouble keeping up with the “low-energy” Ward, let alone the regular one.
His meeting with Amazon is his first appointment with all the “streamers” around town to gauge their interest in doing a massive deal with a major client. After the half-hour meeting on the old Culver Studios lot inside the famous “mansion” where Gone With the Wind was filmed (and many other classic movies), Ward is right back on the phone as he maneuvers through Westside traffic on his way to his high-rise office in Century City – the headquarters of his company, Fourward. He also has offices in New York, Nashville and Melbourne, Australia. The four in the name refers to the different divisions of the company: talent, production, music and corporate. As the sole owner of the company, Ward manages close to 20 employees and more than 100 clients, including Chris, Liam and Luke Hemsworth; Aisha Tyler; Cobie Smulders; and Luke Bracey.
The play on words, of course, means that he’s always keeping his clients moving forward and finding new opportunities to extend their brand without overexposing them. A good example of that is the new fitness app, Centr, of his biggest client, Chris Hemsworth, the Australian star of blockbusters like the Thor and The Avengers series.
The app took two years to develop with financing from two big private equity firms.
“I don’t know any other managers doing anything like that,” says Ward, who started the firm in 2018 after parting ways with partners at his previous firm, Roar. “What makes us unique is that we’re set up to understand business, not just getting our clients jobs, but being able to leverage clients’ brands without compromising. There also aren’t really any management companies that do TV, film and music like we do.”
Music is a huge passion of the Nashville-reared Ward, so his most recent venture is the launch of a music publishing company – just one more thing he can offer clients that other management companies don’t. Ward says the new venture will save clients big commissions and have a deeper-rooted interest in seeing their songs succeed than giants like Universal, Sony/ATV and Warner Chappell.
But regardless of what quadrant a client falls into, Ward has the long game in mind, not just a quick commission. “It’s always been about building a business that superseded and transcended any one job,” says Tyler, whose 20-year relationship with Ward has taken her from stand-up comic and actress to writer and director. “Will has always been really supportive and encouraging of me embracing multiple skill sets, growing as an artist and having a multi-faceted career that can sustain and expand over time in a business that can be very fickle.”
Adds Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games): “Through his kindness, encouragement and unwavering belief in me, Will has been a huge part of my growth as an actor for the past 11 years.”
Located on the 27th floor, Fourward’s offices have sweeping views of the Santa Monica Mountains and Pacific Ocean. As Ward puts on a phone headset and gets right to work, his assistant places a seltzer water and Red Bull on the front of Ward’s desk next to a placard that reads, “Be Brief, Be Bright, Be Gone!” Chris Hemsworth graces the covers of a few magazines on his coffee table in the middle of the room. On the far wall is a big flatscreen tuned to four different news channels. Family photos intermixed with ones of Ward with clients and with potential clients, like Nick Saban, line the window sill.
Although he’s very animated and likes to talk with his hands, Ward is nothing like the high-strung agent, Ari Emanuel, he first worked for when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1997 and whom Jeremy Piven portrayed to perfection (and four Emmys) on HBO’s Entourage.
Comedy writer Chris Case (Mad About You, Spin City) likes Ward as much as a friend as he does as a business partner (they’re currently collaborating on a couple of projects, including a golf movie with Vince Vaughn and Liam Hemsworth tentatively attached, and a TV series about an aging rock band).
“A lot of people in Hollywood have transactional relationships, and he’s not that,” says Case. “He’s got a magnetic personality. I really enjoy spending time with him.”
That’s not to say Ward doesn’t have some of Emanuel’s moxie. “What Will has done is really hard,” says Case. “It’s cutthroat, it’s competitive, and you’ve got to hustle. Most people are lazy and expect it to come to them; he’s not. He’s a total stud who just goes and gets it.”
Take his discovery of Chris Hemsworth. After parting ways with Emanuel and starting his first company, Roar, in 2003, Ward knew he needed to get creative if he was going to make it. One day he was having lunch with the agent of Australian actor Eric Bana (Black Hawk Down, Munich) who told Ward he signed Bana after seeing him in the Australian film Chopper at the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival, which wasn’t surprising since that’s a prime location to scout up-and-coming talent. That’s when a lightbulb went off for Ward, who wondered about the movie’s release in Australia.
“It had been out in theaters there for six months, opening to great reviews,” he recalls. “I thought, How come no one figured out he was a star until it came to Toronto?”
He then started researching all the other big Australian actors, like Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Heath Ledger and Hugh Jackman, and it was the same thing: they only were signed after a movie put them on the international map. It wasn’t long before he was on a plane to Sydney to meet with agents and casting directors. He discovered Chris on his third scouting trip to Oz (short for “Australia,” for those in the know) after meeting about 125 hopefuls.
“I met a plethora of extremely talented and good-looking actors in Australia, but there was something different about Chris,” says Ward, who put Hemsworth up in his guesthouse for two years because of their strong personal connection. “I was insanely frustrated because I couldn’t get agents – even ones who were friends of mine – to meet with him, but he was hungry and he had a great work ethic, and I loved his demeanor. He had something so special that I somehow couldn’t explain to others until they eventually saw for themselves.”
By then, he had also signed Chris’ younger brother Liam, who just missed out on landing the title role of 2011’s Thor. When the head of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, told him that Liam was just not experienced or old enough, Ward asked him if he knew about Chris, who also auditioned for the role but never made it past the casting director. Feige did not. After a meeting with director Kenneth Branagh and doing a screen test, Chris landed the part, and Hollywood had a new leading man. He cemented his star status the following year with The Avengers, the last installment of which (Endgame)became the highest-grossing movie of all time last summer.
“When it crossed that line, I called Chris and we had a chuckle,” says Ward. “But it wasn’t the feeling I would have imagined it to be because one of the things about this job – the fun part – is the ride up. When you start getting toward the top, it’s like, ‘Okay, how do we keep the plates spinning?’ The right choices are almost easier when you’re making the climb than when you’re already up there.”
Plate spinning aside, Ward has always been good at keeping a lot of balls in the air.
“I don’t know how he juggles it all,” says wife Christy. “He’s on the phone all day long solving problems. New York and the UK early in morning, Australia at night, so it’s constant, but he would be lost without it. That’s where he gets his energy from – keeping all that going. The more stuff he has to do, the better he is.”
Christy and Will first met as middle schoolers in Nashville, where they used to hang out in the parking lot at the McDonald’s in the Green Hills section. They reconnected in 2015 after mutual divorces (Ward has three teenage children from his previous marriage to Louise Spinner, a talent agent with whom he remains great friends), and Christy found him to be the same fun-loving and mischievous person he was back when they were young.
“He was just always full of ideas and energy, so it was nice to not see him for a while and find that things really had not changed a lot,” she says. “He’s never met a stranger, and he’s funny, too.”
The oldest of two children (sister Maury Ward Woolwine ’95 is also an alum) of a father in finance and a mother in real estate, Ward graduated from a boys’ boarding school, Baylor, in Chattanooga and was all set to go to the University of Virginia when another classmate talked him and three others into visiting a friend attending the College of Charleston.
“It’s six-to-one girls to guys,” the friend said, dangling a couple of carrots. “And it’s at the beach.”
“Everything that could have gone wrong did,” recalls Ward. “We got kicked out of a fraternity party, pulled over by the cops, and we had the absolute best time ever. We fell in love with the city, as you do. Four of the five of us changed our schools.”
Hurricane Hugo arrived not long after he did at the College. Despite the stormy start, Ward loved his time at CofC, where he majored in business administration and minored in Japanese, and developed social skills crucial to his career. He was just about to graduate in 1993 with plans of working on Wall Street when his roommate, Reg Heinitsh ’94, brought home a copy of Businessweek with Michael Ovitz on the cover. Ward became fascinated by Ovitz, the co-founder and longtime former head of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) who was the most powerful man in Hollywood at the time.
“I spent the last two weeks of school in the library looking through microfiche for anything on CAA and Michael Ovitz,” recalls Ward. “I was completely enamored, and said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’”
After graduating in 1993, Ward returned home to Nashville and started interning at a few of the music labels in town, eventually winding up in the mailroom of the CAA branch there and moving up to become the first agent-trainee outside of the L.A. office. Ward moved to L.A. in 1997 but instead of staying with CAA, he went to work at Endeavor, the talent agency Emanuel had started two years earlier with no money and no clients.
“I just thought, Man, these guys are going to build something great,” recalls Ward, who became Emanuel’s assistant. “I knew I wanted my own company one day, so I might as well watch these guys build something because you just felt Ari’s energy, but the learning curve I had to adapt to was crazy.”
Clients included Dustin Hoffman, Bette Midler, Adam Sandler, Ashton Kutcher and Mark Wahlberg. Piven’s portrayal of Emanuel in Entourage was tame compared to the real thing, says Ward, who learned how to be fearless from his former mentor.
“The big agencies wanted to put them out of business, but they just gave them the finger,” he says, noting all the new clients Endeavor was signing despite the headwind. “We were on the up, and there was such an energy. Ari was never scared of anything or anyone. It was just go-go-go, and that served me very well when I went out on my own.”
That was Roar in 2003. “I woke up one day and all of a sudden, I had no clients and no business, and I’m like, ‘What have I just done?’” he recalls.
It was courageous, to be sure, but the plus was that he and his partners were starting a management firm, not an agency, which is much more competitive and restrictive. “But it was really about the freedom to be able to do anything — TV, film, music,” he says, expounding on the difference between an agent and manager. “The manager is like the CEO who connects all the dots between the agent, publicist, lawyer and business manager.”
One of Roar’s biggest clients was the Zac Brown Band, whom they signed in 2007, but the unraveling of the partnership in 2018 meant Zac had to find a new manager. “We’re still really close,” says Ward, who brought the band to Daniel Island’s tennis stadium from 2011 to 2013 for the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival he helped organize. “I have a deep, deep love for Charleston.”
Ward also represented the John Mayer–led iteration of the Grateful Dead, which was a heady experience for someone who attended 55 Dead concerts while at CofC. One of his most prized possessions is a D’Angelico electric guitar signed by band co-founder Bob Weir, which hangs on the wall over the bar in his home.
Other surreal experiences, of which there are many, include watching Monday Night Football with Dustin Hoffman at the Oscar winner’s three-acre home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles and sharing a dance floor with Hugh Hefner at one of his “pajama parties” at the Playboy Mansion.
He also had the pleasure of hearing Opie’s life story when he was producing 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea, which starred Chris Hemsworth. Opie, of course, is Ron Howard, who came to fame on The Andy Griffith Show before going to star in Happy Days and having a very successful directing career. One day over a three-hour lunch with Ward and one of his two sons while they were on location in the Canary Islands, Howard opened up.
“Ron and I had spent the past year killing ourselves on this movie but had not spent any real personal time together,” says Ward. “We finally got the chance during an off day when we were moving the production. We had a few drinks, and he started telling me his whole story from beginning to end, going through his whole career. I turned to my son and said, ‘I don’t think you understand. This is kind of a big deal what you’re hearing.’”
In the entertainment industry, there are no lines between a private life and a business one, and that’s particularly true for Ward. Friends often stop by randomly for a drink in the evening at “Bar Ward,” which is spelled out in neon above the liquor alcove in the den. With an acoustic guitar on a stand in the corner of the living room, along with a baby grand piano, musically inclined guests will often provide impromptu entertainment. Ward’s a pretty good cook, too, and his Sunday-night barbecues around the pool are famous. Then, there’s their home in Palm Springs with two guest casitas. He and Christy often invite a few other couples and/or families to join them at the midcentury modern residence (the former Buddy Rich Estate) where they are apt to watch movies while floating in the mosaic-tiled pool or hit balls on the sunken tennis court.
It’s not a life he could have imagined for himself when he was hanging out in the McDonald’s parking lot in Nashville.
“I was convinced I wanted to work in investment banking when I was younger,” says Ward. “Then I read the article on Michael Ovitz at CofC, and my life changed forever. The actor Michael Douglas once said, ‘If you want money, you go to Wall Street. If you want power, you go to D.C., and if you want a cocktail of both, you go to Hollywood.’ Here, you could have money and power and do something that was way more interesting in terms of what you’re selling and putting together, because I love entertainment. I just never knew it was a job.”
Access has replaced power in Ward’s vernacular these days, since the former is really how you make deals happen. “The access that I have is kind of incredible to all the different worlds,” he says. “Between the Chris Hemsworths and the Zac Browns, I can get to anybody. If they’re not a fan, their wife, husband, daughter or son is. It just creates a lot of opportunities, but it’s how you mine those opportunities either for clients or for Fourward that really is sort of the ultimate question, but I like connecting those dots.”
Which he’s really good at, low energy or not.