An Agents Life

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My first job in the industry was at a local television station, and it was that experience that convinced me I wanted to be in this busi ness. At the time, all I knew is that I wanted to stay in television or work on films. About a year into my job, I was laid-off because of a slow-down in work at the station. I temped for a while but basically had trouble finding the type of job I wanted. Then someone I had met at one of the employment agencies said he thought he could get me a job at one of the major talent agencies, which at the time was the farthest thing from my mind. He said that an agency was the best place to learn about the business and it was where all the deals are made. He said if I worked at a studio, I'd know what was going on at that studio; but if I worked at an agency, I'd learn what was going on throughout the entire industry. There was an opening as an assistant to a talent agent, and he suggested I go in for the interview. He said if I got the job, I should stay at least a year; and by then, if I decided it wasn't for me, I at least would have learned something and made some terrific contacts. So I went on the interview, got the job, stayed exactly a year and discovered just how right he was.

There are agents who handle actors and some who, more specifically, represent actors for certain types of work, such as television and cable, feature films, commercials or voice-overs. There are agents who just represent writers, and they're called "literary" agents. There are agents who represent musical talent, those who handle producers and directors and those who represent "below-the-line" crew such as cinematographers, editors, production sound mixers, costume designers, makeup artists, etc. And then there are agents who specialize in "packaging." In fact, the larger agencies (such as William Morris, CAA and ICM) have entire packaging departments that can draw from pools of highly talented clients. Whether it's developing a film or TV concept in-house or getting behind a client's screenplay, they have the ability to package an agency-represented writer with other agency clients, such as a producer, director and cast. A project that's packaged with two or more of these elements is a valuable commodity to a studio, and it generates substantial commissions and fees for the agency.

As in any other aspect of the industry, there are pros and cons to being an agent; and it's something that has to be right for you. If nothing else, working at an agency for a while can provide a tremendous learning experience and become a stepping stone, taking you one step closer to your ultimate objective (as it was for me).

It can be quite thrilling to discover and nurture new talent and to help shape successful careers. If you get a thrill out of working in a super-fast-paced environment and enjoy making deals, this is for you. If you see yourself as a mover and a shaker, again, this is for you. Top industry agents are quite powerful, because they represent (and control) the talent that makes the big bucks for the studios, production companies and distributors. Salaries at the larger agencies can be substantial, and many an agent has gone on to become a top studio executive or producer.

Through the trade papers, breakdown services and word-of-mouth, agents are constantly on the alert for potential work for their clients and are continuously putting them up for various projects. They have to keep up with the latest industry news and trends and spend much of their day talking to (and following up with) studio executives, casting directors, producers, directors and production personnel—submitting head shots, resumes, scripts, demo reels—whatever's applicable. They set up meetings (attending some of them with their clients) and put a great deal of effort into prepping their clients for interviews, meetings and readings. And in the case of some clients, a great deal of hand-holding and pampering is required.

Agents negotiate all client deals and act as liaison between their clients and a studio or production when day-to-day issues arise during the development, pre-production or principal photography phase of a project. They often visit the sets where their clients are working, and some even travel with their clients.

An agent must vigilantly keep up contacts with studio executives and top producers and directors. And after a long day at the office, agents routinely go to screenings, attend performances in support of clients or to discover new talent, attend dinner meetings, attend social functions and network with both current and potential new clients. Having worked in physical production for most of my career, I'm used to working my butt off on a film; but once the filming process has been completed, I have a chance to catch my breath and take some time to myself, away from all the hustle and bustle. When you're an agent, you never get that respite. But for those whose job is their life, this kind of total immersion and continual rush is what drives them.

Marc Hernandez is a literary manager. Since the jobs of agents and managers are quite similar, I asked him to explain the difference between what he would do versus what an agent would do for the same client. He said a manager is more hands-on and more involved with a client's overall career. He explained that agents could represent up to 50 clients at any one time, their prime objective being to secure employment for their client-base. Furthermore, an agent would take a client's completed screenplay and attempt to get it out on the market. A manager, on the other hand, may only have 20 clients and would conceivably take a more active role in developing and/or working with the client to make sure his script is ready to go out. As a manager, he can also attach himself to a client's project and function as a producer. A "franchised" agent is licensed and regulated by the Labor Board and customarily earns 10% of a client's earnings, whereas a manager isn't licensed but also earns 10%. (And just so you know, a performer's attorney typically will earn 5%.)

Marc does quite a bit of lecturing, and he tells anyone considering getting into this end of the business that once they get in, they better enjoy it. He goes on to say that the qualities needed to become a successful literary manager would include strong social and business skills; a talent for negotiating and sales; a passion for reading and developing material; the satisfaction that comes from representing the best interest of your clients (which he says isn't always easy); good networking, political and problem-solving skills; a love of the industry and a good working knowledge of movies—old movies, new movies, who's hot, who's doing what. And he says you have to like being on the phone, because you'll be generating and taking a lot of calls. Marc goes on to say that you need to understand the vocabulary of the industry and movies, have a passion for the business, a high degree of professionalism and enjoy getting out there and hustling. For him, it's a 24/7 way of life. He's always reading, developing new material, working with clients, looking for new clients, answering calls and e-mails, guest speaking, attending pitch fests, watching movies, negotiating and selling, attending parties, going to meetings and pitches, keeping up on the business and networking. Just listening to him tell me all he does tires me out, but he absolutely loves it all.

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