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Monday, October 3, 2011

Agents - Do You Really Need One?

I love my agents.  All of them.  I work with three Talent Agencies in Los Angeles who represent me for film, television, theatre, commercials, hosting, voice-over, internet  and print.  I also have an agent in San Diego, Colorado and on the East coast.  Do I think they’re all necessary?  Yes, and here’s why.

Agents Get You Work
First of all, agents only make money when you make money, so it’s in their best interest to get you, and all their other clients, work.  Agents have access to casting directors and will be able to get you auditions that you can’t get on your own.  

Agents Negotiate Bookings
When it comes to negotiating, I’ve found that it’s good to let the agent handle the client, and not get involved in the negotiations.  If I receive a direct call from the casting director or client and they start talking about money, I refer them to my agent, stating that my agent handles the financial stuff.  That way, my agent can be the ‘bad guy’ asking for more money, while I remain the ‘good guy’ who shows up to work with a big smile.  However, I enjoy the phone calls from my agent telling me where they’re at in the negotiation process.  In the beginning it was difficult to know a booking could potentially be lost, but I’ve always allowed my agents to do their job, deferring to their expertise in the art of negotiating.  After all, that’s why they’re there, to do the very best that they can for you.

The amount of money you’ll make when you book a television job will depend on whether the role is a co-star, guest star, or series regular, your last quote, and how much money is in the budget.  If it’s a feature film, your rate will depend on whether the feature is an independent or studio film, your last quote (if you have one), and the money available.  Webisodes (short episodes for internet) fluctuate wildly, commanding larger fees for name talent.  Commercials sometimes vary in pay as well, although most SAG and AFTRA session fees are standard.  Non-union commercials usually pay less, but not always.  Hosting jobs are all over the map.  If residuals are negotiated for infomercials, it’s at a much higher rate than commercials, and if back end is negotiated, you could be an extremely wealthy individual, if the product does well.  Notice there are a lot of ‘if’s’ in that sentence. 

Agent Commissions – They Only Get Paid When You Get Paid
The Agent almost always gets their commission on top of whatever they’re able to negotiate for the job you booked, and normally that’s 10%.  Print is different.  Agents take 20% out of your paycheck, whether they negotiate an extra 20% on top of your salary, or not.

Whether the agent’s commission comes out of your paycheck or not, they’re not making money if you’re not making money.  Consider the fact that they have access to casting directors you don’t, and can get you the auditions you need to book jobs; it’s the best 10-20% you’ll ever spend.


How To Get An Agent 

Personal Contacts
Think about who you know.  You may have contacts who are able to open doors for you.  Maybe you have a family member in the business, or friends in the industry who can assist you in getting appointments.  I got my recent theatrical agent because a casting director, who had cast me in two different projects, opened a door for me.  She made a phone call to the agent and recommended me.  Prior to that, most agents I’ve worked with were acquired by writing cold letters, or by sending a headshot and resume to an agent recommended by a friend.   

An Approach That Worked For Me
Here’s how I got one of my first theatrical agents in Los Angeles.  I went to SAG and sat in a small room filled with stacks of big directories.  I knew the agents I wanted to target because I had read about them in the Ross Reports (which has been renamed Call Sheet) and in guides at the Samuel French Bookstore.  I looked up the agent client lists in the directories.  If I didn’t recognize an actor’s name, I wrote it down, and then looked up the actor in the Player’s Directory.  With all that information gathered in my notebook, I went home and wrote letters to the agents that didn’t have actresses similar to me.  I made sure that they weren’t representing five of my type already, and preferably only one of me, or even better, none.  In my letter, I told the agent a little about myself.  I wrote about how I was from Ottumwa, Iowa and the oldest of five kids.  I mentioned that I had been onstage since I was four years old, the names of acting teachers I’d studied with, and recent plays I’d been in.  I said I would be calling them to set up an appointment, and that I would bring in my demo reel when we met. 

That approach worked well for me.  I have fond memories of receiving a response from the Gersh Agency, who have always been kind and encouraging to actors over the years, even in the face of rejection.  I haven’t worked with them, but they actually took the time to pick up the phone, call me, and say, “Thank you for your submission, but we’re not taking on any new talent at this time.  Stay in touch and let us know what you’re doing.”  It was so classy, and such a nice thing to do. 

Cold Calls
Some agents may not respond or even take your call, but do call them.  The worst thing they can say is “no, we’re not interested” or “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”  At least you’ll know where you stand.  If you hand-deliver your headshots, you may run into one of the agents in the elevator, or build a relationship with the receptionist which could be very helpful. 

Social Media
There are a lot of other ways to connect.  Social Media, like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, are good ways to get the word out about what you’re doing, and that you’re seeking representation.  Make requests.  Ask friends and teachers if they know someone they could recommend.  If you’re not doing theatre, maybe you’d enjoy doing stand-up, improvisation, or making YouTube videos to get your work seen. 

Networking
A website is essential.  It should include your headshots, resume, bio, demo reel, and appear at the top of the Google list when your name is searched.  

You’ll need a business card to hand out everywhere you go.  It should include your photo, website, email address, and phone number.  For every card you hand out, be sure to collect a card.  You never know who you’re going to run into, or where you’ll meet.  I met a representative of Survivor waiting in a movie theatre line in Marina del Rey.  She gave me her professional business card which directed me to their website.  At the time, I wasn’t thrilled about reality shows, but they’re here to stay, and they’ve made many unknowns famous.  Look at what’s happened for some of those who have appeared on The Apprentice, The Bachelor, Survivor, Dancing With The Stars, Jersey Shores, and other reality shows.  Make sure you get out to events and mingle.  And, when you do, make the effort to look great.    

Here’s a good question from Garrett Goldenberg, Los Angeles, CA.
“What’s the difference between a manager and agent?”

Agents vs Managers
Is it possible to have a successful acting career without an agent?  It’s not impossible, but it is much more challenging.  I know actors who have a personal manager, but no agent, and they get auditions.  I know actors who have agents and personal managers, and they seem to do better.  Since managers receive 15-20% commission on the gross of everything you make, you could be giving away 25-30% of the gross of your earnings if you have both an agent and manager.  Still, if they’re getting you work, it’s worth it.  After all, commissions are a write-off, and work leads to more work.

What Managers Do
A manager usually has fewer clients than an agent and will give you more personal attention.  They may assist you in selecting headshots, updating your resume, getting you feedback, giving you advice, helping you with what to wear, and scheduling conflicts that may arise.  Managers will take 15-20% out of your gross earnings.  They’re not legally allowed to negotiate, though some do.  If they have great contacts and can open doors for you that your agent can’t seem to open, it will be worth it to have a manager as well as an agent.  If you just have a manager, they’ll be able to get you auditions and guide your career, although they may not be able to get you in as many doors as an agent would, depending on who they know and how influential they are. 

What Agents Do
Agents will service an entire roster of clients at their agency.  They will submit and pitch you to casting directors, set up auditions, and make sure you get the script and sides.  They’ll notify you when you get a callback, and negotiate for you when you book the job.  They won’t have time to coddle you or give you much advice, unless they get negative feedback about you from a casting director.  You may not have much interaction with your agent because they’re so busy, but they’re busy trying to get their clients work which is what you want.  My theatrical agent is wonderful about responding to short emails, but many agents don’t want to be bothered.  It will depend on your relationship with your agent. 

Getting Your Own Work
Actors also get paid work on their own, from time to time.  It’s always a good idea to make your agent aware that you’re working and offer them their 10% commission.  If you’ve signed contracts, they’re legally entitled to a commission on all your acting earnings within a 50-mile radius.   

Hiring Both An Agent and A Manager
I’ve found that, if you have a manager, they will deal with your agent, which means you’ll receive appointments and bookings from your manager rather than your agent.  I enjoy developing a relationship with my agent and acting as my own manager.  I pay myself 15% of the gross of every check I receive and invest it.  That way, I get to keep the money I earn.

Remember that as much as 30% could be taken out of your gross paycheck when you have both an agent and a manager.  If the manager is able to bring some awesome connections to the table, it could be well worth it, and when you get busy and have trouble juggling appointments, your manager can help you out with scheduling.  Propose working with a new manager on a trial basis, or sign a short term agreement, but it’s best not to commit to a longer term until you know what they’re capable of doing for you.  

In the past, I’ve had a manager and an agent, and that was great.  Part of the reason it worked well was that my manager also had a background as an entertainment attorney and publicist.  He had a lot of contacts, which really helped me when I was on the soap opera, Another World, in New York City for two years.  Even though I was locked into a contract and paying him 15% out of every check, he was able to continue working for me from Los Angeles.  When I received my first paycheck from Another World, I was in shock.  I wasn’t incorporated at the time, so state & federal taxes were approximately 30-40% of my gross earnings.  With my agent taking 10% and my manager taking 15%, I saw less than 50% of my paycheck.  That was a real eye-opener.  When I talked to my manager about my meager paycheck, he offered to take 10% instead of the 15% he was entitled to, which helped a bit.  I don’t have a manager now, though I’ve recently been considering it.  However, I’ve always had an agent.  I wouldn’t have been able to get the work I’ve obtained without being represented by my agents.  I am forever grateful to each and every one of them.

Hiring An Entertainment Attorney
I also have an entertainment attorney who has been extremely helpful, going over spokesperson contracts and assisting me with my corporation.  I pay him whenever I need his services.  Even though I’m incorporated, I handle the business myself, without the assistance of a business manager, who normally takes 5% of your gross income.  My accountant helped me figure out how to do payroll, pay corporate taxes, file paperwork with the government, etc.  Incorporating is a whole different topic which I’ll cover in a future blog entry.  For me, it has been essential.


Garret also asked another good question.  “Should you leave your agent if you’re not happy, or stay with them and wait until you find a new one?”

Should You Leave Your Current Agent?
From past experience, I’ve found that it’s best to stay put until you have somewhere else to go.  You can utilize your current agent by using them as leverage to get into casting offices.  If you have an agent listed as your contact, vs a personal phone number, you’ll be more likely to acquire a meeting.  It’s more professional.  If you’re unhappy with your current representation, ask your agent to set aside some time to talk with you, and let them know you‘d like to get out more.  Ask what you can do to help.  Tell them you want to be proactive and assist them in getting work for you.  They may have some ideas.  Treat them with the respect that you’d like to be treated with in return.  Enlist them to work together as a team.  You are essentially hiring them, and they know that.   

Marketing Is A Must
You may find that you’re self-disciplined, motivated, and a good marketer.  However, most actors require assistance when it comes to the ‘business of acting’.  The creative part, where you actually get to act, comes easy and is fun.  The key is to combine business with creativity so that you enjoy doing it.  Otherwise you’ll need to hire someone to help you, or make a trade with a friend.  It won’t help you to send your material to agents if you’re resentful that you have to do it.  An optimistic attitude will make a huge difference and bring you better results.

A Job To Support Your Career
If you don’t have the funds, then you’ll need to get a job so you’ll have the ability to pay for top quality headshots, reproductions, resumes, a website, business cards, mailing supplies, and the casting services you’ll need to register with, such as Actors Access, LA Casting, The Casting Frontier, and NOW Casting.  If you’re a voice-over actor, you’ll need to create a professional one-minute demo reel and upload it to voicebank.net, voices.com, voice123.com, and other VO casting services.   It’s a financial investment in your future.  When I first started out, I worked at Maxwell’s Plum in New York City, waiting on tables.  The tips were good, and every bit of money I made that didn’t go to my living expenses, went to investing in my career.  I didn’t love that job, but I did love that it enabled me to pay for the tools necessary to get the acting work I truly wanted.  I waited on tables for two years, until I got a good agent, started auditioning a lot, and booked a few commercials.  When I was able to quit my waitress job and dedicate myself to acting full time, I was thrilled!

Don’t Sit Back And Do Nothing
Actors who get agents and think they don’t have to do anything more because they’re being taken care of, will be in for a big surprise.  Once you have an agent, you’ll need to market yourself.  That will never end.  Even major celebrities promote themselves.  They hire publicists to keep their faces in the magazines and on talk-shows.  Marketing is key, as well as keeping up with all your online acting resources.  You’ll need to keep all your materials up-to-date.

Agents Are An Asset
Good luck with your hunt for an agent.  In the thirty years I’ve been in this business, I’ve only met one agent I didn’t like.  He worked at a well-established, high-powered agency and was arrogant and condescending, kind of like Ari Gold on Entourage, but long before the HBO series was created and became popular. 

I’ve met a lot of agents over the years, and they have all been hard-working, passionate people who are trying to help you book jobs and get paid well for your work.  They’ve created many opportunities for me, and negotiated much better deals than I could have ever negotiated for myself. 

So, do you really need an agent?  Yes, I would say that you really need one.  Or more!



If you come up with a new approach that lands you a good agent, let me know.  I love to post success stories as well as answer your questions.

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