Thoughts on Agents and Managers by Ben Whitehair

I wish my agents dressed like this

Agents. Managers. Also known as "representation," "the Holy Grail," and "that thing that's keeping you from being famous." This is a HUGE topic that I haven't really written much about, partially because of the vast nature of the topic. However, one of my friends across the pond, Angela Pang, asked for my thoughts on the topic to put in an upcoming piece for her wonderful blog. Please indulge me in some thoughts around representation this week, before I move on to some more practical ways to actually go about securing them next week.

LA is an Entirely Different Animal

When I lived in Colorado, I got my agent there by sending a quick email to the head agent who had spoken at my college acting class, and the next thing I knew I was on their roster. There really wasn't much hoopla, and if you had any sort of training you were pretty much guaranteed to be repped. Not so in LA. The sheer number of actors (much less GOOD actors) in this city make it much more difficult to secure good representation.

The "I-just-got-off-the-bus-and-I'm-really-excited-and-ambitious-and-I-took-an-acting-class-in-Des-Moines-and-I-know-I-really-need-an-agent-and-I-want-one-NOW" Syndrome

You want an agent. I get it. Ask 100 actors at ANY level of their career in this city, and I prognosticate that roughly 99 1/2 of them will be unhappy with their representative(s). Here's the deal. Anyone can get AN agent, the key to building a career or having any kind of sustained success is getting a GOOD agent. I promise you it's worth waiting to get a good agent than just signing with the first schmuck who says you're pretty. Similarly, if you're with a crappy agent I say (in general) leave. Even if you don't have another agent already lined up. Here's why.

About a year ago I was at a networking event and ended up meeting a commercial agent I had been following on twitter. We struck up a conversation and she asked me if I had representation. I said I did not, and she told me to contact her. I stopped by her office the next day to drop off my headshot and resume, and she ended up signing me. Now, I knew that this agent was not a powerhouse, but she was super nice and I figured I'd at least try it out there to see what happened. After 6 months, tons of communication, new headshots, new training, etc. they had only procured me 2 auditions, one of which was for a low-paying non-union gig that I wasn't really right for anyway. For a while, I thought to myself I'll start looking elsewhere and I can always take meetings with other commercial agents until I find one to switch to. While that was technically true, the problem is that the simple fact of having an agent on my resume meant that I didn't really do anything to try and find another agent. I got stuck settling for something that really wasn't doing much for me. It wasn't until I left the agency that I really began pursuing better representation (which I eventually got via a referral from a manager friend of mine, who might not have brought it up had he seen that I was already repped commercially).

The reason I bring this up is that I feel like most people will advise you to stay with your current representation until you have someone better to go to, but for me not having an agent (rather than having an ineffective one) is the kick in the pants I need to actively pursue getting representation I'm stoked about.

Commercial vs. Theatrical

If you came from a smaller market like I did, you might be surprised that there is a marked difference between commercial and so-called "theatrical" agents. In LA agents either focus on commercials, or on film/television work (theatrical work). There are also agents for print work, modeling, hosting, and for actual theatre (a "theatrical agent" normally does not help you get work in least in LA).

I would say that in general it is probably easier (relative term here) to get a commercial agent than a theatrical agent. The primary reason for me saying this is that commercials are more based on look than talent. That is not to say that it doesn't take talent to do commercials, but if you have a unique/interesting/attractive/whatever look that an agent finds appealing, they'll be more likely to sign you even if you don't have a large number of film and television credits, whereas a theatrical agent will be more likely to demand training, more credits, etc.

Either way, agents like to see that you are taking appropriate classes in an ongoing basis (improv training is all but mandatory in the commercial world), have great headshots, are professional, that you understand the business, etc. etc. All the things you would want from a business partner.

Agents vs. Managers

The line between agents and managers continues to get blurrier and blurrier. A couple of the primary differences:

  • In general, the thinking is that managers rep fewer actors and are a lot more involved with each individual actor, while agencies have more actors and spend less time with each one. Managers might help you do things like get a publicist, pick out headshots, edit your resume, etc. ... things an agent normally won't have time to do
  • In California agents have to be licensed by the state (you can check if an agency is registered on this website...if the agency is not listed that should be a HUGE red flag)
  • Managers do not have to be licensed by the state, but do have to register as a business (as any business does)
  • Any contract is negotiable, but agents typically take 10% of any money you earn in their specific field. That is your commercial agent would take 10% of whatever you earn commercially, and your theatrical agent would take 10% of whatever you earn theatrically
  • Managers typically take 10 - 15% (sometimes 20%, though I generally think that's a lot) of ALL the money you make as an actor (commercially + theatrically)
  • Agents have a much larger client roster (say somewhere between 50 - 250 actors per agent as a baseline), as they are less focused on each individual actor
  • Managers have a much smaller client roster (say 10 - 25 actors), and is in large part why they take more money than agents: they spend more time on you
  • Legally, managers are not allowed to negotiate contracts for you (agent can). However, in practice many managers do so, or hire an attorney to negotiate the actual contract if you don't have an agent

10% Plus 10%

I might do a longer blog post on this later, but do know that it is fairly standard practice for agents to take 10% plus the "+10%" that is offered in many breakdowns. That is, many breakdowns will say that they pay "scale + 10%." It is not uncommon for agent to take 10% of your scale pay, then take the additional "+ 10%" that was on the breakdown. Be sure to discuss this with your agent or potential agent so everyone is clear on how this will all be handled.

On this topic, agents will often take 20% of non-union work, even if their standard rate is 10%. Again, this is the type of thing you should discuss with any reps or potential reps.

Paying Your Rep if YOU Booked the Job

A common discussion around representation is whether or not to pay your agent if you booked the job directly. Let me emphatically state that YES, I think you should do this. However, the caveat here goes back to me saying that you should have an agent you love, who you have a great working relationship with, and who is very much a part of your team.

Here's the deal, you might submit for a project on your own, or have your own relationship with a casting director for example, and end up booking a job without ever going through your agent. But it's also pretty freakin' likely that said agent has been submitting you to that office for a long time, and all of that helped you book the job. More than that, you should be working with your representation as a team. You should WANT to pay your agent because they are out there hustling for you. If you don't feel like that, or would feel bitter giving your agent 10% of something you booked directly, then maybe it's time for different representation...

So What Exactly IS a Good Agent???

Great question smart reader you. I would say that the main thing that would make a good agent (in my opinion) is that they pick up the phone every day (or at least often) and make pitches to get you into the audition room. This economy, coupled with the overall number of actors, means that if you don't have a representative calling casting directors and other people on the other side of the table on your behalf, then you're simply not going to get audition opportunities that often.

I would also say that there are myriad other things that make a good agent (good business practices, good communication skills, strong work ethic, etc.) but picking up the phone to make pitches is #1 in my book. I should also state that reps can do pitches via email, IM, whatever, but certainly requires strong industry relationships on their end.

As a final clarification, in the commercial world pitching is pretty rare, and much more based on the reputation of the agency, your headshot, and the like.

One Size does NOT Fit All

There are literally hundreds of agencies in LA, commercial and theatrical. Not to mention managers. There are agencies out there who drop their clients if they make less than $1 million a year. You read that right. On the other end of the spectrum there are agents who charge YOU (note to readers: this is a SCAM. Agents ONLY make money when you make money. If ANY agent asks you to pay up front, or will only sign you if you take new headshots with their headshot photographer or take their classes, you're getting duped hardcore. Run away. Run away now).

So how do you figure out what agency is right for you? Read this article by Bonnie Gillespie. Basically, it comes down to asking around, doing your research on IMDb Pro and other sites, and figuring out the type of client roster the agency has. You probably don't want to be any agency's best client, nor would it serve you to be their absolute worst. Try to find an agency with a roster of actors around your same skill/experience level that can hopefully get you to the next tier (get you your first co-stars, take you from co-stars to guest stars, get you your first series, etc.).

Your "Competition"

I have a hard time listening to actors complain about not having an agent, when I don't feel like they've fully taken into consideration their "competition" (I put competition in quotes because we really are all in this together...but an agency can only take on so many clients). There are far more actors than agents, which means you need to outshine the other actors looking for a spot on any given agent's roster. While I really do believe that we're all in this together, simple supply and demand dictates that there's a bit of a competition here.

So where do you fall in regard to your peers...?†Do you have better credits than your competition? Better headshots? Better training? A far superior demo reel? A better website? More industry relationships? A more solidified marketing plan? More flexibility to get to auditions? A parent or lover who's an exec at a network? Do you read the trades every day? Do you self-produce? Do you have a solidified fan base already? Do you regularly attend The Actors' Network? Do you have a tremendous grasp on the industry as a whole? Do you have a trust fund or other situation that gives you complete freedom to focus on your acting career? Have you been here long enough to understand the city and how it all works? Are you legitimately a better actor?†Do you spend more hours on your career every day? I could go on, but the point is that like it or not, there is STIFF competition in this city to land representation. What truly qualifies you over someone else? Over everyone else...?

Figure that out and OWN it. If you don't feel you would rise to the top then change that! Most of the things I just listed are all things that are within your control. Just recognize it might take a bit of time to make yourself as competitive as can be...that's ok. :)

Final Thoughts

Anything worth having takes work. Building a great team is no exception. Because agents and managers can be so helpful to your career, it follows that it can be rather difficult to work with the best ones. More than that, your representation is a lot like relationships. There's a good chance you might fall in love, only to break up later. Indeed, if your career continues to grow there's a very good chance you'll outgrow your agent/manager, and need to move somewhere else that is at a higher level. By the same token you might get dropped by your agent. Take all of these things in stride and have the long view.

Ben Whitehair is the Los Angeles contingent of the tri-city acting blog, Playbills Vs Paying Bills. Find out more information and view his materials on†his website, or read the rest of†his blog posts.