As established members of the entertainment community, we are frequently asked to speak to aspiring filmmakers. And with the success of our book, The Hollywood Pitching Bible, the number of speaking invitations has greatly increased. We are now regularly invited to speak at numerous entertainment industry events, festivals, film schools and conferences.
No matter what the topic of the event, inevitably the dialogue with the audience veers onto our views about the industry in general and life in the biz. Overwhelmingly, there’s one question we get asked more than any other: “How do I get an agent?”
Often the question is asked with such intense interest that we sometimes wonder if the rest of our lecture has been “filler” for the audience who are just waiting to get to this topic. Because of the overwhelming concern with this question, we are presenting this in-depth, three-part article on the topic for the benefit of LA Screenwriter readers.
Part One – What Your Representatives Do
There is a common belief among aspiring filmmakers that getting an agent is the key to launching a successful career. And it’s not hard to see why — the primary role that agents play in Hollywood is the intermediary between artists (writer, directors, actors, etc.) and the people who can hire them (studios, networks, production companies, etc.). And because few aspiring filmmakers have deep contacts in showbiz, they want an agent to be their conduit to the people who can jump-start their careers and get them work.
So, when we get asked the question, “How do I get an agent,” we know that what the audience really wants to know is, “How do I get work or sell something in the biz?” Because it’s really one question masquerading as another, our answer is both more complicated and probably less satisfying than the asker hoped.
How do aspiring filmmakers get that first job in their chosen field? We will get to that. But the short answer is, you may not need an agent to work, nor does having an agent guarantee you will get work.
Who Are These Representatives?
Before we discuss getting representation, let’s regroup and make sure everyone knows the differences between the familiar Hollywood “representatives” — agents, managers, and lawyers — what they do, and how they earn a living. Notice that we put the word representatives in quotes. There’s a good reason for this that has nothing to do with us being smarmy.
What do agents, managers, and lawyers do in Hollywood? There is a lot of confusion on this topic, often due to the overlap in what these representatives actually do in the real world.
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 provide legal advice, and negotiate and draft contracts for their clients.
What Do Representatives Charge?
For their services, agents charge 10% of their client’s income as their commission. This number is a maximum dictated by the state license. Managers for writers and directors are usually paid the same percentage (actors sometimes pay a 15% commission to their managers), 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 $700 an hour, 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 cost. Their rates are sometimes negotiable.
Other Important Distinctions
Entertainment attorneys are specialists and you should never hire a non-entertainment attorney to represent you in showbiz matters. Beginners are often tempted to do so to save money. Doing so can leave you woefully unarmed in a negotiation and end up costing you much more in the long run.
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. Their only job should be finding their clients work, and they are supposed to have the client’s best interests at heart.
Managers, being unregulated, have no such restrictions and many managers use this freedom to work as producers on their client’s work or can even produce projects without their client’s involvement. 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 few decades. Many of these new managers are former agents.
Some managers will also help their 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. But again, this depends on the individual agent’s preferences.
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. Clients never complain about this overlap because, well, why would they? Clients just want to work. As a client, you’re probably best served by letting your representatives do these things, even if technically they’re not supposed to.
In part two of this series, we will discuss how you actually go about acquiring these representatives.