TOOLS OF THE TRADE: You and Your Agent

Article #6 in “The Business of Acting” series.

Agent cartoon
You and your agent

During my time as a drama tutor, I used to hear the following comment a lot. And I mean A LOT. What was the comment?

“I have an agent, but I’m not getting any auditions. I don’t think they’re working hard enough for me.”

Now, I’m sure there are many actors out there nodding their heads in agreement. But before you get on your self-righteous high-horse, I’m going to tell you what I used to tell my students when they made this kind of remark.

“Your agent is only one half of the equation.”

Are you staring at the screen blankly about now? Well, let me enlighten you.

You and your agent are in business … TOGETHER. This means that you are BOTH equally responsible for YOUR career. In other words, you have to help your agent GET you those auditions as much as they are expected to keep submitting you FOR those auditions.

It’s the simple law of partnership, people – and you are, whether you understand this or not, in partnership with your agent.

WHAT DOES AN AGENT DO?

Let me take a moment to clarify what an agent does. A Theatrical Agent (as they’re called in Australia and the UK – they’re also referred to as a Talent Agent in the USA) receives briefs from Casting Directors, Producers and Directors looking for actors for television, theatre and/or film projects they’re needing to cast. The Theatrical Agent then looks through their books and matches the talent (ie. the actors) they represent with the briefs they receive according to look, age and experience required by the Casting Directors, Producers and Directors for the job.

Make sense so far?

The Theatrical Agent then puts together a submission of all the actors they represent that match the brief and sends it off to the Casting Director, etc for their consideration. Once the Casting Director has chosen the actors they wish to audition, they contact the Theatrical Agent to let them know who they’re interested in seeing.

The Theatrical Agent then contacts the actors concerned and gives them all the information. Should the actor be successful at the audition and land the part, the Theatrical Agent is then responsible for negotiating pay, going through the contracts with a fine tooth comb and getting any clauses queried or changed as required and ensures that the actor is best taken care of. Then, once the job is done, the Theatrical Agent is responsible for getting the payment from the Production Company that employed the actor and then passing the monies onto the actor (less the Theatrical Agent’s commission).

Now, this is a very basic idea of what a Theatrical Agent does and is the minimum an agent is expected to do. Some go the extra mile and have all their actors on their website with CV and headshots, continually establish and maintain good relationships with those in the business of casting actors, keep their ear to the ground regarding upcoming projects and lobby for their talent to be seen, etc, and those agents are worth their weight in gold, because they are taking their business (and, therefore, yours) seriously and are showing themselves to be a true professional.

WHAT AN AGENT DOESN’T DO

What an agent doesn’t normally do is go out and find or create you work. That is the job of a Manager. In Australia, very few Theatrical Agents are also Managers, and you usually only have an Agent/Manager when you’ve hit a certain level of profile in the industry. Managers are the ones who go out and actively find you the work by networking with and lobbying Producers and Directors on your behalf, sometimes speak to writers/directors about creating a project for you, etc – continually let the world know that you exist as an actor. They also charge accordingly for their services and have a smaller “stable” of actors than a Theatrical Agent.

On the whole, you’ll find most Managers in Australia usually charge anywhere between 25% to 40% (and this is a conservative estimate) of an actor’s earnings and sometimes charge a fee as well (it really depends on the Manager). On the other hand, Theatrical Agents in Australia are supposed to charge between 10% to 15% of the money you earn as an actor in return for the work they do for you (for commercials it can be between 20% and 25%). That still might sound like a lot, but when you realise that the average Guest Role on Australian TV for one day’s work is currently about $360 (before tax), that means that your agent is only getting $36 to $54 for putting in what amounts to LOTS of hours of work on your behalf.

A guide to put this in perspective is this: on average – and this is just my estimate from my experience working as a Theatrical Agency Assistant a while back – it takes a Theatrical Agent about 5-8 hours of work per actor per successful job (depending on length of negotiations and how much legal work is involved for the job). That works out (for 5 hours work) to $7.20 per hour on a commission rate of 10% for an actor’s one day Guest engagement. Could you imagine working for $7.20 an hour??? I didn’t think so. And, if the actor ISN’T successful at the audition, then the agent has still put in a couple of hours work WITHOUT PAY. Think about that for a moment.

The one thing that is frowned upon in Australia is a Theatrical Agent charging a fee for actors to be on their books. The Theatrical Agent earns their money through commission taken from work gained by their actors. Therefore, everything they do FOR their actors is an investment IN their actors and, as a result, in their own business.

Can you see now why your agent wants you to work as much as you do?

WHAT ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES AS AN ACTOR?

So, what do you do if you don’t have a Manager, but you do have an Agent? You become your own Manager and work IN TANDEM with your Agent.

How do you do that? By making sure you have a website that you keep updated. Getting new headshots done when you require them (ie. when you change your hairstyle, lose weight, gain weight, etc). Keeping your CV updated. Sending out your headshots and CV’s to Casting Directors, Directors and Producers on a regular basis (about once every four to six months is the guide for Australia – I’ve heard US Casting Directors suggesting that you do it over there once every two months – but don’t try that in Oz, you’ll just annoy them). Going to industry functions and meeting and networking with those who are in the business of casting actors. Do short films. Do student films. Do fringe theatre – a CV with current credits is easier for your agent to sell than a CV with credits four years old.

And train, train, train! If you haven’t gained any roles in a while, showing that you’re still working on your skills through recognised drama short courses and workshops definitely helps (and it also helps with that dreaded question “So, what have you done lately?” in auditions! See previous article “The Audition Survival Guide” for audition tips including how to handle that question!).

In Australia you should also have a listing on AT2 and Showcast (and now in The Players Directory – run through AT2). In the UK you should be in The Spotlight and in the USA, The Players Directory. If you can’t be found online (and in the hard copy book versions) in one of these major directories by Casting Directors, you make your Agent’s job A LOT more difficult when responding to briefs. And if you are already in these directories – keep your listings updated and update your photo if you have a new one as well.

You should also take care of your appearance. YOU are the product and so your appearance is VERY important. Look after your teeth, hair, skin and nails. Eat healthy foods and EXERCISE. It will make you feel more energised and you’ll maintain good health – and you’ll need that for the career you’ve chosen.

And keep your agent informed as to what you’re doing. Most agents are very busy, so emailing them with updates, rather than phoning them, is the best idea. Also, if you write it down in an email, they’ll likely remember it better than if you just talk to them. Make sure you give them copies of your current headshot and CV. Make their job of submitting you for work easier by giving them the best product you can be and by seeing yourself in PARTNERSHIP with them in the business of your career.

If you’re doing all of the above and you’re still not getting anywhere, then look at your headshot first. It’s easier to change your headshot than your agent. Make sure it looks like you and is current. If that isn’t the problem and you’re still doing everything possible to help your agent get you auditions, then maybe it is time to find another agent. Sadly, not all agents are good agents. BUT – if you’re NOT doing everything I’ve suggested, then changing or harassing your agent will not change what’s happening with your career – you first have to look at your own efforts towards making your career work before placing the blame at the feet of your over-worked and sadly (in many cases) under-appreciated business partner – that is – YOUR AGENT.

FINAL WORD ON THE ACTOR/AGENT RELATIONSHIP

WARNING: In Australia you should only ever have ONE Agent representing you. It is NOT a good idea to be on more than one Agent’s books, unless, for example, you have a Theatrical Agent who doesn’t do modeling jobs, but you also model – therefore it is possible for you to have a Modeling Agent as well. But you should always check with your current agent before embarking on this road. I know of a few actors who thought they could get around this rule by having two agents representing them in the same field (ie. acting), but based in different States (ie. one in Victoria and one in NSW). THIS IS NOT DONE!! It will only cause confusion amongst Casting Directors (now with the Internet, casting briefs can come from anywhere in Australia or anywhere in the world and if you’re with two agents who both put you up for the same job and you get it – who gets the commission??), you will upset BOTH agents – and in a majority of cases this will ensure that you will be perceived by the industry generally to be untrustworthy and unprofessional. DO NOT DO THIS if you want a long-term career in this business.

The ONLY time having two Theatrical Agents is okay is when they deal with different territories for work. For example, I have an Agent in Australia and an agent in the UK. My UK agent deals with any briefs that come from the UK and are filming in the UK and my Australian agent deals with briefs that come from Australia and all other territories (ie. USA, Asia, New Zealand, etc). Both my agents know about each other and both have agreed to this situation. This means that, in my case, there are THREE business partners in my business and each one of us expects to be treated with respect and as a member of a team.

Because that’s what you and your agent are.

Article Copyright Β© S. McLean 2007

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