The Film Business

A Primer on the Agent

AGENTS

“An agent’s main responsibility is to find work for the client, to generate business on behalf of the client and the agency,” says APA agent Alan Moore. Those clients may be actors, writers, directors, public figures. Usually, an agent specializes in procuring work for one specific type of client. Talent agents represent actors auditioning for roles in commercials, TV shows, plays, or movies; ICM Partners, for example, reps Sherri Shepherd, Tim Robbins, and Portia de Rossi. (FYI—the term “talent agent” is often used generically to refer to all types of agents that represent artists—musicians, directors, actors, writers, whatever. But to entertainment industry professionals, “talent agent” refers specifically to agents handling actors.) Literary (or “lit”) agents specialize in writers of literary properties such as books, scripts, or graphic novels. TV agent Scott Schwartz, for example, represents writer/producers Kari Lizer (The New Adventures of Old Christine, Will & Grace) and Gail Lerner (Happy Endings, Ugly Betty). Paradigm reps bestselling novelist Stephen King (Carrie, The Shining), and CAA handles Unbroken author Laura Hillenbrand. Public appearance agencies, such as The Stephen Barclay Agency, help celebrities, authors, comics, and other experts or performers land speaking gigs, corporate shows, and live engagements. Music agents work with bands and musicians to book concerts and tours; WME for example, reps Frank Ocean, LeAnn Rimes, Cee Lo, Ziggy Marley, Natalie Cole, Pitbull, and Kid Cudi.

Photo by Chris Gladis

In exchange for helping clients procure work and jobs, agents charge clients a commission on their income. Agents in some fields take five percent of a clients’ income, agents in others take ten or twenty.

What makes an agent an agent?

Can anyone be an agent? I mean, if having an agent is so important, why not just ask your best friend or cousin to help you get a job? I’m sure most of them would be happy to do it for a percentage of your paychecks. “Could your Uncle Harry whip up some letterhead and call himself ‘Uncle Harry the Agent?’” asks book agent Scott Hoffman of Folio Literary Management, which represents best-selling authors like Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain) and Buddy Valuator (Cake Boss). “He could, but . . . this is a relationship-driven business; editors like to buy books from agents they know and trust.”

Hollywood works the same way.

“You get a bazillion scripts/ideas a year,” says Scott Seiffert of Dreamworks Animation SKG. “It is impossible for the average exec to read all the scripts they get.” If a project comes from a trusted agent, however, “the script has gone through a filter and somebody has concluded the script/idea isn’t a heaping pile of shit. It’s like getting a contractor for your house. You can blindly pull a name off the Internet, or you can get a recommendation from your neighbor. The smart money is to look at the neighbor’s recommendation more closely.”

Still, many states have laws requiring agents to meet certain qualifications. Without first meeting these requirements, you can’t operate as an agent. In Arizona, all employment agents, including talent agents, must pass a written test and background check, apply for a license, and put up a $5,000 bond. Failure to comply results in a Class 6 Felony. In Maine, agents don’t need to put up a bond, but they do need to apply for a license. (Failure to do so results in a fine of at least—are you sitting down?— a whopping $100.)

Agent requirements are strictest in California, the home of Hollywood, where most talent agents are based. California’s Talent Agencies Act of 1978 requires all talent agents to pay $225 for a special license and deposit with the Labor Commissioner a surety bond in the penal sum of $50,000.

As part of their mission to procure employment for clients, agents also negotiate contracts, set up introductions for buyers and clients, offer constructive advice on scripts or other work, and help clients identify long-term career goals and strategies for meeting them.

Photo by hobvias sudoneighm

There’s one important thing, however, that agents cannot do: produce their clients’ work. In other words, an agent representing an actor may help that actor land jobs in movies, but he can’t produce those same movies. WME, for example, represents director Jason Reitman; WME may help Reitman sell projects, find actors, even secure financing—all things a good producer might do—but WME can not be credited or paid as an actual producer. This is to keep agents from funneling clients into movies, TV shows, or other endeavors in which they have a financial stake. This would be a huge conflict of interest, not only because agents would be motivated to steer clients toward their own productions or companies, but because producers have incentive to pay talent as little as possible, so it’s not right to let agents—who are tasked with making their clients money—be those same clients’ employers.

Ironically, there’s no official law forbidding agents from producing. Rather, the “noproducing rule” is a provision of agencies’ franchise agreements with the Guilds, unions representing Hollywood’s professional artists. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) represents TV and screenwriters; the Directors Guild of America (DGA) covers directors and assistant directors; the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) reps actors, hosts, and voice-over performers.

Each union has its own agency franchise agreement, regulating how long clients can be bound, how agent-client disputes must be handled, how much agents can charge, etc. (For example, the California Labor Commission will usually approve agency commisions up to twenty percent, but the Guilds restrict commission to only ten percent.) Most legitimate agencies are “Guild-signatory,” meaning they’ve complied with the rules of the Guild’s franchise agreements. The unions recommend no one sign with an agency that’s not Guild-signatory; Guild contracts have been put in place to protect artists from unscrupulous representatives. Guild-signatory agencies are not necessarily recommended or endorsed by the unions; they’ve simply agreed to follow a specific set of rules.

While franchise agreements prevent agents from producing, there’s one important “caveat” to this rule: agencies can own up to twenty percent of a production entity. So while agents can’t technically act as bona fide producers, recent years have seen agencies start to invest in various production companies. ICM, for example, invests in interactive producer Rides.TV, while CAA has a stake in Funny or Die and UTA owns part of Awesomeness TV.

TYPES OF AGENTS

There are two types of Hollywood agents: above-the-line and below-the-line. “The line” refers to the budget of a film or TV production, where an actual line often separates certain elements from others. “Above-the-line” elements—the writer, director, and main cast members—are considered indispensable and must be in place before production begins. “Below-the-line” elements are hired once the project has been officially green-lit: camera operators, dolly grips, make-up artists, etc.

Most agents represent either above-the-line or below-the-line clients. Montana Artists Agency, for instance, specializes in below-the-line clients, representing stunt coordinators such as Charlie Croughwell (Flight, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), costume designers such as Durinda Wood (A Mighty Wind, Brothers), and editors such as Michelle Tesoro (Newsroom, House of Cards).

This book focuses on above-the-line agents, which can themselves be divided into two categories: talent agents (which represent actors and performers) and lit agents (writers, authors, directors, producers). We’re here to talk about lit agents, which can be further divided into other categories:

  • Motion picture (“MP”) lit agents rep writers of feature-length screenplays
  • TV lit agents handle TV writers, showrunners, and producers
  • Alternative agents rep writers and producers of reality, talk, and game shows
  • Digital media agents work with writers and creators of video games, web series, and online content

Agents' Family Tree

Lit agents come in all shapes and sizes. Some work for tiny one- or two-man shops; others work for international corporations. Some work from their garage or basement; others office in plush penthouse suites. We’ll discuss various types and sizes of agen – cies later—as well as the pros and cons of each—but regardless of size and location, all lit agencies share common goals.

“[We are] the architect for a writer’s career,” says Tanya Cohen of Verve Talent and Literary Agency, which reps Star Wars VII writer Michael Arndt and Jurassic Park IV director Colin Trevorrow, “designing a plan for a writer’s career that is specific, targeted, and in line with the artist’s highest dreams and ambitions. [This means] being ahead of the client at all times, always thinking about what’s next, being in front of all opportunities in both the studio and the independent space.”

HOW LITERARY AGENTS MAKE MONEY

Literary agents have three primary revenue streams, and they each inform agents’ actions and strategies differently:

1. Commission—This is the most common and widely understood form of payment. Most literary agents—whether repping TV writers, screenwriters, playwrights, or authors—charge clients ten percent of their gross earnings.

2. TV Packaging fees—TV lit agents often sell shows as “packages,” providing a buyer not only with a writer and an idea, but with other above-the-line elements such as a director, producer, or actor. When selling packages, agencies become part owners in the series, taking a portion of each show’s weekly budget as well as a piece of its backend profits. Since TV shows can have backends worth billions of dollars (Seinfeld’s backend earned $2.7 billion in its first twelve years of syndication), TV packaging can generate serious coin for agents.

3. Producer commissions—MP lit agents not only charge clients ten percent, they also frequently take a ten percent commission from producers to whom they sell. That’s right—if an agent sets up a project with a producer, and that producer helps sell the project to a studio, the agent will charge the producer a ten percent fee for providing her with the material.

Excerpt from How to Manage Your Agent by Chad Gervich © 2013 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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