Why do you need an agent? Why do you need someone to negotiate on your behalf, review your legal contracts and advise you in your career choices? You are smart, you understand business, you know the trajectory of your career; so why pay someone ten percent of your income to do what you can do for yourself?
Simply put, an agent is an expert, someone who deals daily in the marketplace and has a broad overview of an individual artist's place within the context of an entire industry. A good agent is a specialist, who knows the craft of the deal as well as the temperature of the marketplace. If you are buying a house you would likely use a Realtor to guide you through the negotiations and financing process. After all, you don't buy a house every week, but your Realtor metaphorically does. Similarly, a talent agent with good deal flow knows what to ask on your behalf and what hard fought deal points, pioneered by other deals, can be incorporated into your contract. If I could draw or write half as well as the talent I represent, I would be in a different profession. The thing I do better than my clients, however, is negotiate on their behalf and understand the intricacies of all their deals.
A good agency creates packaging opportunities and synergy among their clients. Being a part of an agency also enhances networking by affording you greater contact with your contemporaries. A good agency should function like a club with the agent introducing you to your peers and encouraging clients to work together. An agent who places a story editor on a show then has opportunities to influence his client to hire other agency clients to write individual scripts.
Another critical reason to have an agent is that people like dealing with people they have dealt with in the past. A good agent has a cordial relationship with the business affairs executives against whom they negotiate. A good agent will fight for your rights hard, but will not ask for things that are blatantly out of the realm of possibility. Think of the last time you played tennis with an amateur. I am sure you found it rather frustrating as you never knew how the ball would come back across the net. Similarly, business affairs executives like negotiating with experienced agents rather than talent. At least with two experienced professionals negotiating there is a rhythm and efficiency that eliminates ambiguity and hidden problems.
As the cliché goes, a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. That same adage applies to talent who represent themselves and are forced to talk business rather than creative issues. In doing this they either do not push hard enough for a fair deal or they push too hard and alienate the executives with whom they are working. Agents play the role of "bad cop," allowing talent to get what they want without damaging their professional relationships. Further, most studios will not deal with talent unless they are represented. The reasons for this are threefold. An agent serves as a pre-screener for the studio. Generally, studio executives know that, if a well respected agent sends in a client, that client has the creative endorsement of the agency. Secondly, there is the issue of copyright protection. Studios are wrongly sued for copyright infringement with great frequency. With an agent in the picture, this concern is assuaged as there is a third party that can trace the history of a project. Finally, an agent will assure that negotiations will proceed in a professional manner rather than bogging down in unimportant or irrelevant issues.
There are differences between an agent, a lawyer and a manager. Generally, lawyers work on an hourly basis or typically charge five percent of a client's income. Managers commonly charge ten to fifteen percent of a client's income and agents, who's fees are governed by the state, charge a maximum of ten percent of a client's income. If you are at the height of your career and a common name in the industry, all you may need is a lawyer to negotiate your deals. Similarly, if you have found your own work and only need someone to review paperwork, a lawyer is the economic choice. If you demand a great deal of attention and a creative sounding board, a manager can be considered. Generally, managers have fewer clients than agents, give more personal attention and occasionally produce alongside their clients.
An Ace or a Washout?
A good agent is a hybrid of a lawyer and a manager. Some agents think they are lawyers and are just interested in making the deals that a client brings them, while others spend a great deal of time acting like managers and talking with their clients about their goals and ideas. Good agents fall between these two points of view. An agent should spend time finding work, negotiating deals (often in conjunction with lawyers) and most essentially, guiding a client's career through encouragement and providing opportunities for creative growth.
So how can you tell if your agent is an ace or a washout? The key is personal attention and an understanding of your artistic vision. An agent's stock and trade is numbers and contracts, but they must never forget that their primary concern is the advancement of their client's careers and the protection of their artistic needs. A good agent should always be available to talk and be on the constant prowl for new employment opportunities for his clients, empowered by a thorough understanding of a client's dreams and overall professional goals. If your agent is not returning your calls, not presenting you with job opportunities, and most importantly, does not understand you and your unique aspirations, you probably should be looking for a new representative.
How Do I Get One?
How do you get an agent when just beginning a career? Say you are new in the business and want to get into the studios. All you hear is that you need an agent to submit your materials. You can't get anyone to return your calls after the job fairs and entertainment expos. The key is to make friends with anybody you can in the business, especially writers and artists, and have an established talent champion your cause with their agent or other professionals in the business. With this done, go out and interview agents. At my agency we only consider taking on new clients who are recommended by our current clients. We screen talent for the studios while our clients screen talent for us. A gifted individual who is recommended by one of our writers, artists or show-runners is always someone we are very interested to talk with about the possibility of representation. Seek out the agent who understands your artistic vision and career goals, not the one who promises you they can get the best monetary deal. An agent who has passion for his client always gets a better deal. It may sound self-serving, but the ten percent you pay to an agent is almost always money well spent. For example, at my shop, if we cannot improve a client's deal enough to justify our commission we are happy to take less than a standard fee.
Our ethos, and that of any good agent, is to take the long view and map out a client's career strategy. Then we provide opportunities for that client so that he can fulfill his artistic and professional aspirations over the long term.
John Goldsmith is a principle of Metropolis, an agency specializing in the representation of animation talent. Mr. Goldsmith also runs Metropolis Animation, a production company associated with Columbia/TriStar Television.