Thoughts on Agents

Agent: a person who manages business, financial or contractual matters for an actor, performer or writer.

Well almost.

There are “above the line” agents that represent actors, directors, writers and producers and have been around for over 100 years.  The granddaddy of them all, The William Morris Agency started as agents for vaudevillians 109 years ago.  In the last 20 years, the era of  “below the line”* representation has emerged and flourished. And why not, 10% is 10%. If you are lucky to have a hand full of hot editors, cinematographers, production designers, etc. – you can do very well for yourself. But remember this: talent sells itself. Agents do very little selling – either the studio wants you or they don’t; and they will indicate an interest first by offering you a script to read. For this to happen though, the agent has referred to a list of upcoming films in development or preproduction, called a studio executive and runs down their roster of talent for consideration. It’s kind of like ordering sushi. The studio guy says, “We need an Editor, a Costume Designer and a Production Mixer. Oh, and a Visual FX Producer too and maybe a First Assistant Director. Our Director is bringing everyone else from his last picture…” Or something like that, and it’s the last part of the exchange that’s key, “Our Director is bringing every one else from his last picture.” Relationships are key in this industry and this is what all agents hope for. If an agent represents a key crewmember that is attached to an “A” list, Producer, Director or Actor, that’s money in the bank because the gig is automatic and the commission is secured with relatively little effort. In my case, I have been working from the same deal memo for over 5 years. So there isn’t even any negotiating!

But I digress. So, you have been invited to read the script and that means you’ll get a meeting with the Director. If the meeting, is set up quickly that’s usually a good sign. If they cancel once that’s bad, if they cancel twice, it’s curtains. If it’s Friday afternoon at the end of the day, that’s bad and it feels like they have already chosen someone else. Monday morning is good; everyone is fresh and ready for business. Skype is becoming an option for “out of towners” like myself, but if possible I’ll try to show up in person.

Up to this point, the Agency has done its job – you have a meeting!

My favorite meetings are when the director and I talk about everything other than his movie. He wants to get a sense of my personality, film IQ, wit and charm. Basically, he needs to be sure he would want to be working with me after 35 days on a rigorous shoot at 4 in the morning eating cold pizza with the camera crew. I always leave these meetings with a good feeling because I can hang with these guys, and I don’t have a problem being myself. By the way, I have a fairly high success rate after a meeting like this. (Most people do).
My least favorite meetings are the ones that get going late, say 40 minutes or more. They know you are waiting, and in no small way they are telling you up front that this is a big bother for them. In the extremely RARE case though, the Director is an absent minded professor type and is used to charming his way out of the delay. I sort of like those guys. Anyway, you finally go in and there is a big show of how busy they are and how crazy life is. I’m not amused, and it’s really hard to pretend to be empathetic. I’m thinking, “Do I really want to shoot for this pompous ass?” And the answer is yes because I need the money or really want to shoot at this particular location, or I liked the script or the cast, etc.
The meeting is thoroughly dysfunctional. Starts with, “Do you have any questions?” Why yes I do, “How the hell did you get this job?” Only if. And when they start asking you about specific creative or technical approaches, you know they’re pumping you for ideas and will steal them if they like them. Sometimes, in fact, most of the time I haven’t worked out the whole movie because that comes with getting to know the director, working closely with the production designer and adjusting to whoevers cast in the project. I never fake a creative answer. Generally, I will go into all of these meetings, with a sense of tone, color and a fledgling sense of the “look”. There are two things I’ll always do in preparing for a meeting. Watch every film this Director has worked on and call anyone I know who has worked with him/her. Hopefully they have at least one credit! (More on first time Directors in the future)

I have digressed again. Anyway, the meeting that starts real late has fail written all over it. I have never been hired after one of them. Makes me really wonder why they involved me in the first place. When I lived in LA, I didn’t mind the ones that didn’t work out because I didn’t want to shoot for the person anyway. But now I have to travel to get down there, it’s time consuming and expensive so I’m less sanguine about coming away empty handed.

After the meeting you call the agent and give them your thoughts on the experience, and they say they’ll follow up soon. What they won’t tell you is that another one of their clients will be meeting with the same Director tomorrow. 

I have had four agents in my career, some have worked harder than others and I have liked them all. The best reason to have an agent is for the chance that you might get hooked up with a new director or a project you were unaware of. I know that I’ll get a call from people I’ve worked with before and as mentioned earlier, the agent loves that. Generally speaking, it’s the artist that usually gets the work and the agent earns a commission through very little effort. Listen, if my agent finds me that one gig that changes the trajectory of my career for the better, it will all be worth it and thats why I still have representation. (And she works harder than the others.)

*Below the Line Agents Represent: Second Unit Directors, Production Managers, Asst Directors, Cinematographers, Editors, Production Designers, Art Directors, Hair and Makeup, Costume Designers, Visual Effects Supervisors/Producers, Storyboard Artists, Special Effects Supervisors, Steadicam Operators, Sound Mixers, Aerial DP’s, Underwater DP’s… I’m sure I’ve forgotten someone, but you get the idea.

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