Dealing with Agents and Managers

The reality in today’s entertainment industry is the high-visibility role played by agents and managers. Many studio executives and high-profile producers got their industry start working with talent as an agent, or more recently as a manager. They were able to leverage the relationships they built with their clients into increasingly powerful positions, first as producers of their clients’ films (which only managers can do), and then ultimately as the entity hiring their former clients.

The first advice most screenwriters get on selling or optioning their first screenplay is to immediately get an agent or a manager. Literary, talent, and performance/concert agents are licensed by the State of California or New York, and in many other states as well. They are limited, depending on state law, to usually taking no more than 10% of the client’s fee as a commission on obtaining employment for their clients, and have various other legal obligations.

Managers have far more flexibility, and can also exact higher commission fees, sometimes as much as 20-25% of their client’s overall compensation. Many managers also insist on staying involved in their client’s work, either as a producer themselves or having someone from their production company installed on the production. Managers have increasingly become packagers of material for their clients, seeking out material, production financing and distribution deals and overlapping the roles of both agent and attorney.

Agents package material, clients and financing, too, and the rise of much of the independent film world has been the result of key agents at powerhouse agencies such as the Big Five: CAA, ICM, William Morris, UTA and Paradigm pulling together talent, material and money to get smaller films made.

Producers are represented by agents, too, although most producers are reluctant to have agents commission what can be sizeable revenues on successful pictures. This situation differs in television, where the producer is often also the creator of the series and the head writer, or the “show runner” — the supervising producer/writer of the individual series who is not also the creator. These TV packages can be enormously lucrative for major agencies, and drive much of the TV agency business.

Multiple Agendas

If a producer intends to make studio or independent films, whether fictional or non-fictional, feature-length or short films, animated or live-action, the process will involve dealing with agents. It must always be remembered that the agent has not just the client’s best interests at heart, but the agent’s also. The agent may have many agendas the producer does not fully understand, but they certainly exist, and may dictate many of the agent or manager’s strategies.

Increasingly, these agendas focus on one kind of packaging or another. Agencies and managers are rewarded when many clients can participate in the same project, and the agency is collecting commissions on multiple creative participants. This economic incentive often leads to disastrous results in casting and directing choices, but also reflects the economic reality of a packaging-dominated system.

For the producer, the agent has to function as an effective intermediary with the creative client. It’s always much better to have a nasty argument over compensation or deadlines with someone who is not actually writing the screenplay. Agents, and especially managers, will sometimes insert themselves into the creative process, and demand that their clients send their drafts to them first, prior to showing them to the producer or studio/network.

The producer must bear all these trials with a patient smile, or at least a silent snarl. The writer has hired the agent or manager specifically to protect him or herself from the likes of the producers and the world of high movie economics they embody, so the adversarial relationship is inevitable, and the primary work to be done is to smooth over the accompanying sharp edges.

The end goal of the agent and manager is identical to that of the producer: to have a critically and financially successful film that benefits everyone’s interests. Getting to that goal is the setting for much potential conflict, and often that conflict will come between the agent and the manager, leaving the producer stuck in between two Type A personalities.

During production, many other individuals who serve as accessories to key creative players (from personal publicists to hair stylists to private assistants) will have to be accommodated and tolerated, too. The healthier the underlying relationship is among the producer, the agent and the manager, the easier these other issues will be to deal with.

The Bottom Line

Agents and managers are a reality in a business where representation can mean the difference between fame and anonymity. Anyone working in the industry of any stature these days will be represented by an agent or manager, and often both. Producers must accept these representatives for who they are, and the influence and power they hold over their clients.

Agents and managers can be extremely useful to the producer in helping to maintain a client’s professional focus and work habits, in keeping other distractions to a minimum, and in making business and compensation discussions separate and distinct from the client’s creative contributions.

All these issues can be reversed, too, with the agent doing the exact opposite in all of the above examples, to the great detriment of the production and the client’s reputation. This cycle of success and failure, and the enormous repertoire of agent and manager jokes, are inextricably linked as one of the chief burdens the originators of films have always faced: how to get a movie made in spite of the agent or manager.