As Ken and Doug shrewdly point out, when fledgling writers ask how to get an agent, what they’re really asking is, “How do I get work?” Ken and Doug give a detailed, thoughtful response, starting with some basic definitions:
In California and New York (but not all states) agents are licensed, bonded, and allowed to solicit work on behalf of their clients. Managers and lawyers are not licensed to solicit work for their clients (although lawyers are licensed to practice law and regulated by the state bar associations where they practice). This is why we used quotation marks above when we described them all as representatives. While agents, managers and lawyers are all “representatives” in the colloquial sense, only agents are legally authorized to represent their clients to solicit work on their behalf.
So if they are not procuring work for their clients, what do managers and lawyers do? Managers are supposed to provide what can generally be described as career guidance for their clients. Lawyers do legal work and contracts for their clients. For their services agents charge 10% percent of their client’s income. Managers are usually paid the same percentage (actors typically pay a 15% commission), though unlike agents there is no rule as to what a manager’s commission must be. Lawyers typically charge 5% or bill hourly. If you are just starting out, you can expect to be billed an hourly rate by most entertainment attorneys. While there’s no universal rate, many charge between $350 and $500 an hour, sometimes more, and very often it is money well spent. If you are going to discuss obtaining legal services from any attorney, be sure to ask up front what their services will costs.
There are a few more differences with practical implications that we should mention. Agents are prevented from producing their clients’ work, hiring their clients, or being active owners in a business that hires their clients. This is intended to prevent a conflict of interest.
Managers, being unregulated, have no such restrictions and many managers use this freedom to work as producer on their client’s work. In fact, many management companies are also active production companies. Because they are allowed to perform this dual role, there has been a proliferation of management companies in the entertainment business over the past couple of decades. In fact, many of these new managers are former agents.
Some managers will also help clients develop their material, though this service varies from manager to manager. Most agents act primarily as salespeople and do not want to spend their time giving feedback on their clients’ work.
Now that you understand the division of services that the various representatives perform you should know that, in practice, there is considerable overlap between all three jobs. Managers often do solicit work, agents often do give career guidance, and lawyers sometimes make project submissions and help their clients get work. As a client, you’re probably best served by letting them all do these things, even if technically they’re not supposed to.
Ken and Doug go on to discuss how writers should go about getting work with or from an agent, manager, or lawyer:
The short answer is: do great work. Not just good work, great work. So problem solved, right? Okay, maybe not, but the point is this: if you want to get work as an artist in the entertainment business, no one will hire you unless you have already demonstrated substantial skills in your desired profession. For directors this means directing an impressive piece of filmmaking. For writers it means writing spec screenplays.
The truth is, most aspiring screenwriters and directors do not yet have representation because their work is not yet of high enough quality to attract representation. And it’s not just fledgling artists that are seeking representation. Many established artists are looking for agents (and work) as well, so new artists are competing with many seasoned pros. All the more reason you must make sure your work stands out from the pack.