A Symbiotic Symphony
What The Agent Does
Talent agencies help find acting work for talent. Sounds simple, but it’s not. There are talent agencies who are “franchised” by the actors unions (Screen Actors Guild [SAG], American Federation of Television and Radio Artists [AFTRA] and Actors Equity Association [Equity], and those who are not. The Screen Actors Guild and The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have merged and are now called SAG-AFTRA (One Union).
For an agency to be eligible for such a franchise, they must meet the requirements of the respective union. These requirements are very specific, written in the form of contracts and code books, and designed by the unions to help protect the talent from abuse by unethical talent agencies. Copies of these agreements are available to members by the unions. They are very complicated, chock full of legal terminology. The agency can lose its franchise if it violates the conditions of the agreement.
For simplification, I’ll describe the important details of what you should expect an agent to do for you:
1) Guide you in your career development, making sure your headshots and resumes are current, advising you about your appearance (if there is an obvious obstacle holding you back), suggesting ways you might help them help you obtain work.
2) Make every effort to get work for you by sending out your pictures and resumes to those looking for actors “your type” or with your abilities and talent.
3) Negotiate contracts for you when you land a job.
4) Help settle disputes between you and a producer.
5) Treat you like A) A respected client, and B) A friend.
What the agent should expect from you:
1) Commitment and professionalism, which includes maintaining current headshots and resumes, availability, reachability (answering machine, pager, etc.), flawless punctuality, courtesy, and cooperation.
2) 10% commission on gross earnings from jobs the agent helps you get. [NOTE: I have gotten jobs on my own before, and have paid my agent the commission anyway. It’s the friendly thing to do.]
Types Of Agents
1) Theatrical: A theatrical agent usually concentrates on helping talent get acting jobs in film, television and theatre (movies, sitcoms, episodic, soaps, Equity plays).
2) Commercial: A commercial agent concentrates on arranging auditions for television and radio commercials.
3) Print: This agent will try to get the actor in “print” ads, such as a J.C. Penny catalogue, or anything else in print.
These are the basic agent types. Sometimes, depending on where you are, one agent will handle all of these categories. When I lived in Los Angeles, I had to have separate agents for commercial and theatrical work, and the commercial agent also submitted me for print jobs.
Nonunion Agencies: If you are planning on making acting a full time career, don’t even think about signing up with a non-franchised agent. They will usually end up soaking you for lots of your money, and giving little, if anything, in return. Plus, they will never be used by union producers looking for talent. So forget them, period.
How To Get An Agent
If you are working in a play, make sure you notify the agents in your city when and where you can be seen.
In some cities (St. Louis is one of them), you can find classes that are given by agents or casting directors. These might be acting classes, or classes on the business of acting. It doesn’t hurt to take one or more of them. You can learn something and be seen at the same time. [A word of caution: If you are taking an acting class from an agent or casting director, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to learn anything valuable about the art of acting. For that you need someone who is a respected actor who teaches, or someone who has dedicated his/her life primarily to teaching acting.] But you can always learn something from just about anybody, and at least you can show what you can do.
If you are in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Detroit or other large cities with multiple agencies, you will want to send your headshot and resume to the agencies there. You can find them by calling SAG or AFTRA and requesting a list of franchised agents (See link to SAG/AFTRA offices at the end of this article). This list will usually inform you what type the agency is (commercials, theatrical, etc.). Before you mail anything to them, you might call them, and ask the simple question: “Are you accepting new clients at this time?” If they are, send your information in a 9 x 12 envelope, reinforced with some kind of cardboard backing to prevent the bending of your photo, and mark the envelope “Photos: Do Not Bend”, so your information gets to its destination looking nice and neat.
You will find hundreds of agencies in some of these cities. Use your list to eliminate those who obviously aren’t what you’re looking for (kids only, print only, models, etc.). Then call every single one left on the list. You might spend all day, or even all week doing this. Keep a record of what each agency tells you, so you can eliminate more if you have to do another mailing in the future.
If you are in a smaller city, with just a few agencies, you might as well mail your information to all of them.
Give the agencies two weeks to respond to your mailing. Some will respond, and others won’t — often because they are too backlogged with mailings, and your package is sitting unopened with dozens of others. If you haven’t succeeded in getting the desired response after two weeks, follow up with a phone call to make sure your information was received at the agency. Be polite and brief. Don’t get discouraged. Send another package if you need to. I used to mail mine in expensive, preprinted envelopes with a logo on them, so they would stand out from the rest.
In some areas of the country, you can find organized showcases. They work differently, depending on where you are, and who sponsors them. As an example, there are companies in Los Angeles who offer showcases for actors. They have organized several casting directors and agents into (for lack of a better word) a “co-op”. Here’s how it works: You call the sponsoring company (e.g. “Talent Connection”) and ask for a brochure. When you receive one, it will usually list all the agents and casting directors involved, and the dates you can showcase for them.
You send the company the requested fee (usually something like $25) along with your headshot and resume. When you show up at the scheduled showcase, you will be matched up with another actor/actress, given “sides” (part of a script) which you will read “cold”, meaning you will have anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours to look over the script before your turn to perform it.
I know several actors in Los Angeles who have not only gotten good agents this way, but met casting directors who have helped them get very nice roles in the projects they cast.
The Bottom Line
You are an actor. You are good. You will be acting for the rest of your life. Your agent is commissioned by you. The relationship should be “symbiotic”: you need each other to survive. The agent is not doing you a favor by representing you, nor are you doing the agent a favor by selecting him/her to sell your genius. It’s a profession. Business. If you treat it as such, you won’t have any problem finding an agent.
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