Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Who Does What? #1: The Agent

Today marks a tremendous event in the history of this blog, if not the world.  It's the day I premiere a brand new feature.  This new new feature is called "Who Does What?" and like it says, it's purpose is to offer an explanation of what different people do in Hollywood, and who they do it to.

Today we look at THE AGENT!

Now some of you are furrowing your brow in a feeble attempt to understand what I'm talking about, but don't worry, that's the point of this blog.

Short answer:  An agent is sort of like a pimp.

Okay I'm being a tad glib, it's highly unlikely you'll ever see an agent wearing a hat like this...

Photo Courtesy of the Dolemite Collection of Cambridge Massachusetts.
Mostly because it messes with their elegantly coiffed hair.

Legendary Agent & Eyewear Enthusiast Irving "Swifty" Lazar

A key difference is that where a traditional street pimp will just slap their "ho" and yell: "Get your junky ass out on that street and earn me some ducats woman!" it's the agent who has to hit the streets, the phones, and the e-mails to find work for their clients.

The key similarity between an agent and a pimp is that both take a percentage of what their clients earn.  

The pimp usually takes about 90+%, while the agent, as a legally licensed representative, capable of negotiating contracts on behalf of their clients can only take 10%, and not a penny more.

It's not unusual for someone in show business to have more than one agent.  This is because talent representation has become a highly specialized practice.  Some agents specialize in feature films, others handle all television related business, while some others handle music, commercial endorsements & modeling gigs, public speaking, literary & publishing business, and merchandising deals. 

Now not all agents are created equal.  There are several different subspecies of the Hollywood Agent.  Here's an incomplete list....

PASSIVE:  This variety of agent is found in the top 2-3 mega-agencies and are really only useful to you if you're already a major movie star or a filmmaker who drops blockbuster hits on a consistent basis.  Because when you're at the top of the heap professionally, you need someone capable of sorting out the offers that come flooding in for you, and figuring out what works out best for you, your career, and your bank account.

However this method is not perfect.  Since they are not actively going out to seek new projects, preferring to only look at what's coming in, opportunities that might have been artistically and financially fulfilling are missed. They can also develop an air of snobbery over the size of the project/paychecks involved and can also miss opportunities.

And let's not forget what happens when you're not a big name movie star or hit dropping filmmaker and your a client of this kind of agent.  You can often wind up unemployed, or getting the sort of offers that their bigger clients rejected.

When you're a little lower on the Hollywood food chain you might prefer having an...

ACTIVE:  This kind of agent goes beyond just the offers coming and goes out looking for jobs for their clients.  They beat the bushes, looking for work, and trying to get the best money they can for their clients.

However, even this method isn't perfect.  Some agents aren't all that choosy when it comes to the jobs they pitch their clients, and their clients don't have the taste, experience, or financial resources to say "no."  So you run the risk of being everywhere, but at the top where you want.  

But this risk can be easily avoided as long as the client puts some thought in when it comes to their career and the lifestyle it supports.

PACKAGING:  Now this sub-species was mega-huge in the 90s, and while they're not as omnipresent as they once were, they still exist.  These agents look to sell not only their client, but a complete "package" of clients.  To explain this, imagine that you're a movie producer trying to get their film off their ground.  You want a certain big-name-movie-star to be the lead in your movie, but their agent has some demands that go beyond a simple payday.

If you want to hire "Big-Name-Movie-Star A" then you must hire the agent's other clients, like "Actor B" to play the villain, "Actor C" to be the love interest, "Director D" to direct the film, if possible, and/or "Screenwriters E and F" to at least do the rewrites if the studio doesn't already have their own preferred people on it.

Now the trap that ultimately sank packaging as the dominant practice in Hollywood is that it often does more harm than good.  Casting was based not on ability or interpersonal chemistry, but on the influence of the star's agent.  Writers and directors ended up working on projects they weren't right for, etc., etc... and the films, the box office, the careers of the clients, and with all that, the earnings of the agents suffered.  And while it's still done by some of the biggest players, it's not the "my way or no way at all" phenomenon it was back in the day.

And that's a very glib, surface only look, at what an agent is, and what they do.


  1. film agents can only take 10%? Because I know for a fact that book agents can and sometimes do get more.

    Orson Scott Card in his book on writing talks about it. He concludes that agents that cost 15% are not, in fact, any better than agents who charge 10% and he spends some time analyzing them.

  2. There are California laws dictating what Hollywood agents can and can't do. They are also forbidden to be both producers and agents at the same time, because it's considered a conflict of interest.

    Book agents is a more amorphous field, because they're mostly based outside of California, and are subject to their own state's laws.