Thursday, 30 October 2008

Allow Me To Explain: What's An Agent?

I've decided to create a new feature for this little blog, where I try to explain exactly who does what, and to whom in show business for folks who are not familiar with the terminology and often wonders what all those titles mean.

Today, I'm going to talk about that Hollywood institution called

The Agent is like a pimp.

The Agent finds jobs for their clients and negotiates their contracts, but unlike a pimp the Agent only gets 10% of what that contract earns for their clients. So it's in the agent's best interest that they have many clients, and that as many of those clients as possible be working for as much money as the market will bear, and in the case of many "A-List" stars, way beyond what the market will bear.

Producers like to hire people who have agents, because having an agent tells the producer that they are worth paying attention to. Anyone who tries to do business without the imprimatur of having an agent on their side usually gets lots of attention from studio security before getting the attention of a producer.

Now how does one get an agent?

Well, that can be tricky, especially in Hollywood.

The major agencies do very little work looking for new talent, preferring to poach from the smaller agencies once their clients become successful with promises of bigger pay-offs and perks. Now to find someone with a smaller agency to represent you, especially if you're a writer, starts with something called a "query letter." (Actors can also include head-shots, and audition tapes.)

A query letter is basically a sales pitch, where you try to convince the agent that you are worthy of their time and that they could successfully pitch you to the people who get movies made. If you are successful, and the agent finds you work, and you become successful, then you can be poached by one of the major agencies.

Some agents are more powerful than others, and this is responsible for a phenomenon that dominated the movie business in the 90s, and still goes on to a lesser extent today. I'm talking about something called "packaging."

Packaging was pioneered and perfected by Michael Ovitz when he ran the Creative Artists Agency (CAA). It basically went like this: If you wanted Big Star A to star in your movie, then you had to hire Co-Star B, Director C, and have the script rewritten by Writer D.

A, B, C, D all being clients of Agent E.

Agent E. then gets a shit-load of money in commissions, and a hell of a lot of clout when negotiating with producers and studios. But the problem with clout, is that it can be more intoxicating than any mind-altering substance, and like those mind altering substances, can lead to addiction, abuse, and eventually self-destruction. While Ovitz accrued a massive amount of power through packaging, he also gained a lot of enemies. These enemies struck when he left CAA for a disastrous turn as President of the Disney, and then struck again when he tried to start a new management firm. He made even more enemies by blaming the collapse of his new venture on an amorphous "gay mafia" conspiring against him.

Now Hollywood talent agents in general have a bad reputation for either being shady fly-by-night operators looking to screw their clients, either financially or on the casting couch, or hyperactive Type-A sharks, who are hot tempered, ruthless, and fanatical with their jobs.

Well, to an extent there is some truth to that. However, the crooked agents never really last very long, and thanks to the internet, and the growth of reporting on the business side of show biz. And there are times, especially when dealing with major studios that you need a hyperactive, fanatical, Type-A bastard.

Some things you should know if you are looking for an agent.

Hollywood Talent Agents cannot legally take more than 10% of your fees. That's the law.

Also be suspicious of agencies that demand up front fees just to look at you. It's in the best interest of the smaller legitimate agencies to get as many clients as they can, and legitimate agencies don't charge fees. They make their money selling you, not selling to you.

It also never hurts to do a little research. Most agencies have websites, or websites that discuss and review them, making sorting the wheat from the weasely so much easier.

And that's all.

Next time, I'm not sure when that is, I will explain what a "producer" does.

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