Acting agents, agencies and managers

What is an Acting Agent

You may have heard or read that you need an “acting agent”. So, what is an acting agent? Well, there is really no such thing as an “acting agent” -- the correct term for an agent who handles actors is “talent agent.” Talent agents are professionals who have an inside edge on the theater, film and television industry. They act as the go-betweens for casting directors and you, the actor. Good agents are well-versed in what projects are in production and for which auditions you, their client, will be best suited.

There is also no such thing as a “casting agent” – the right term is “casting director”. Many people confuse talent agents and casting directors. Producers and directors hire casting directors to find actors for their projects. With so many actors looking to get that career in acting going, casting directors need a little help weeding through potential performers. So, casting directors send notices to talent agents describing what kind of actor they’re looking for in each role. Your talent agent reads those notices and if he feels you’re right for a part, he will send your picture, resume and the link to your demo reel to the casting director. If you are new to the business, he will probably pitch you by email or on the phone, telling the casting director why you are a perfect fit for the role in question (another nice advantage to having an agent!). If the casting director agrees that you’re right for the part, he’ll call your agent with an audition appointment. Then it’s up to you to go get the job!

In addition to responding to casting director’s notices, talent agents seek out upcoming auditions, follow up on your meetings with casting directors, act as the your professional contact person and negotiate your contracts. A good talent agent will promote you one-on-one with casting directors when the agent feels you need a little push to get noticed.

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Finding an Agent

Not only do you need an agent, you need a franchised, licensed agent. Searching for agents online is a waste of time, or worse – there are many unscrupulous people claiming to be agents, and you may wind up getting cheated out of your money as well as your time. Genuine talent agents are licensed and regulated by the state: as a rule, they get 10% of what actors make – franchised, licensed agents are not permitted to ask for any fees or payment other than their commission on your work.

So where do you find the real agents? A great source for agent listings is the Call Sheet, (which used to be called the Ross Report.) You can get the Call Sheet online, or at any drama bookshop as well as at some commercial newsstands – there’s a new issue each month. The Call Sheet website lists franchised, licensed talent agencies by by region, medium (television, film, theater), and genre (commercials, musicals, etc.).  SAG and AFTRA websites also have lists of franchised agents.  

You need a good idea of what your regions of interest are before you begin. Start with your location (New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Philadelphia, etc.), and begin researching talent agencies that represent actors of your type (commercial, comedic, musical, etc.). Make a list of possible candidates, and then do your research on each potential agent. Ask your contacts if anyone they know who has worked with the agencies on your list. Search the Internet for any information about each agent.

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Contacting an Agent

It used to be that young actors did “mailings”  -- sending headshots, resumes and cover letters to agencies “cold”; that is, with no contacts. Today that’s like throwing your headshots directly into the trash.

One of the best ways to meet agents is to go to an agent or casting director workshop – some of the best known workshops in New York are “One on One” and “Actors Access.” Actors pay to attend these workshops, where they get to audition for a number of agents or casting directors, as the name says, one on one. It’s sort of like speed-dating for actors.

If you’re doing a project like a showcase, some of your fellow actors may be inviting their agents. Network with your cast-mates to see if they’d be willing to pass on your headshot and resume to their agents. Then be sure to follow up after the showcase.  Networking (or “schmoozing”) is one of the most valuable skills an actor can have!

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Meeting an Agent

So you’ve been lucky enough to make contact with an agent and get an appointment for an interview. Even if this agent has seen you in a showcase, he will still need to meet you and get to know you as a person. Working with an agent is a real relationship; almost like a marriage! So both you and your agent will want to know if you’re compatible as people.
You might need to audition in the agent’s office – make sure you’re always prepared with at least two monologues.

Once you sit down to talk with the agent, remember to be respectful and polite. Think of it as a first date; don’t bore him! He already has your resume sitting in front of him, so reciting a list of your credits won’t show him much. Agents want to be able to imagine you in all sorts of roles. Let your personality shine and light up the room.

Agents may tell you things you don’t necessarily want to hear; about your type, your look, your pictures, etc. They’re trying to help you, even if sometimes your feelings get hurt. But remember, your feelings aren’t nearly as important as your goals. So don’t act on your feelings; act on your goals!

And even if it doesn’t work out, be cheerful and polite. You may run into that agent again someday when you are a better fit for each other. Don’t burn bridges; life is long.

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Choosing an Agent

If you’re really lucky, you may have more than one agent interested in representing you. When you look for potential talent agents, consider where you are in your career. If you're just starting out, a smaller agency will probably suit you better. This doesn't mean you have to skimp on professionalism. Any good agency -- large or small -- will be well-versed in the industry or industries it represents.

Find out how many clients your potential agent represents. This will give you some idea of how much work he will have time to do while representing you. If an acting agency handles many actors, then you may add up to only a small part of their business. With large and reputable agencies, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as top names in the industry often have high status attached to them. But be sure the agent who is representing you is not so booked with clients that you become just another headshot and resume on his desk.

A small agency may give you more attention and push harder for you. However, small agencies may not be powerful; the question to ask is how connected is the agent? How well-known and well-respected is your agent among casting directors, actors, and even other agents? In order to get you seen by directors, agents need to be seen themselves.

Casting directors deal with many agents competing to get audition slots for their clients. The better-known your agent is, the more likely you are to get that audition.

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You and Your Agent - Start Out Right

To start on the right foot, your talent agent should have a clear idea of what roles you are looking for. Both you and your agent should be acutely aware of your "type”. We can't all be leading men and women - some of us are, and some of us are character actors who thrive on the diversity of the business.

In order to develop a rapport with your agent, you need to help him get a better understanding of who you are. Ask the agent how he sees your career right now and where it could be in a year, 5 years, 10 years...  (And be ready to answer the same question yourself!) You may not agree with your agent, but do listen to what he has to say. Objective feedback is a huge asset for any artist.

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Care and Feeding of Your Agent

It may seem like a no-brainer, but always be kind and respectful to agents, whether or not you agree with the way they handle their business. It may seem as though everyone wants to be a famous actor, but the industry isn't that big, and most agents are well-connected.

Leaving a bad impression with one talent agent can destroy your reputation with others. Remember that many talent agents are creative people as well; they work in the same industry that you do. The more you respect your agent and work hard to grow your acting career, the more they will work for you. Not to mention that being respectful and professional in all you do establishes you as someone people would want to work with.

Remember, your agent gets 10% of what you make, you get 90%. So you have to do 90% of the work (or more!). While your agent is dealing with upcoming audition notices, you can make sure he has the best tools to work with in representing you.  Find student films to get more work to add to your demo reel; look in Backstage for casting notices, make sure you have headshots your agent likes and can use to promote you.  Do all the acting work you can; fringe festivals, stand-up comedy, etc. – more lines on your resume will help your agent sell you.

If you always have a project, the industry will take you more seriously. Agents like knowing you’re invested in your career. Always be working and/or in class, and let your agent know about it!

And lastly, your agent is busy working; you don’t need to call him every day. When you do talk to him, be sure to ask what you can do to help him help you. Then take his suggestions!  Be cooperative, be professional. And when he calls you, return his calls immediately. This is a fast-moving business; you need to get back to him right away so he can get you that audition.

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Agent or Manager

Managers also work with actors; they specialize in guiding your career, working with casting directors and advising you on all aspects of the business.  What they share in common with agents is that they work to get you jobs, they work on commission (that is, they take a percentage of what you earn as an actor) and they represent you to other industry professionals.

Where they differ is that agents are licensed by the state. In most states, they get no more than 10% of your earnings Agents have access to casting notices and casting directors. They can make auditions happen. Managers are not regulated. They can charge whatever percentage they wish … 25%, 30%, etc. Different managers offer different services. Managers generally have fewer clients than agents, and can offer more individual attention.

While working with an agent is generally the best idea for new actors, managers can be very helpful. (You probably don’t want both; otherwise you may be doling out 35% to 40% of your acting income to your representation!) If you do decide to work with a manager, be sure to get everything in writing so that you both know what to expect from each other.

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