Saturday, September 19, 2009

Weekend blog: Agents and why they are needed

Someone asked about agents in Hollywood and why they were needed at all?  Is it just an ego thing?  Well, agents are both a good thing and a bad thing.  First of all they are necessary here and while they are primarily for above the line people including actors, writers and directors, they have branched out to represent DPs (Director of Photography)  line producers and even some technical people. 

First, a quick definition of "Above the Line" and "Below the Line". 

Above are the creative people, writers, directors and actors and to an extent producers although they don't usually have representation.  Below the line is basically everyone else. A joke line in a Woody Allan movie has a secretary telling a studio head that a director wants to marry a makeup person, to which she adds, "Is that legal?" 

So where do agents come in?

First of all there are around 8000 writers in the Writer's Guild (WGA), add to that around 120,000 actors in Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and around 3000 directors (or so).  And we're not even counting the actors, writers and directors who aren't in any of the above guilds (actually unions, but guild sounds so much nicer).  I am in the Writers Guild of America and Writer's Guild of Canada.  

So imagine if anyone could call a studio head, or a network head, or anyone lower in status. The phone lines would be burning up with the thousands, or tens of thousands of calls every day. This is where agents come in. They separate the wheat from the chaff, to quote an expression from my Manitoba farm days as a kid.  Agents represent people who have professional experience (getting paid for what they do), thus separating them from the amateurs, the wannabes and the crazies.  And they get 10% of whatever you make.  

Do they always get you work?

Reality? No.  Remember that one agent can represent 10 writers, or 30 actors, etc. What they do is promote you to the studio head or producer.  And if the producer doesn't want you, they immediately go to the next writer on the list, and so on.  And you can't really blame them, they have to feed their kids too.  My first agent, Barry, got me maybe 2 or 3 meetings in 2 years.  My second agent got me more meetings but few jobs. 

Finally I had Charles, who was probably the most aggressive agent I had,  he got me dozens of meetings with every studio and network in town.  But his biggest problem was closing the deal, which he seemed to always mess up.  But he got me into the big time and it served me well later.  My best agent, Frank, worked for Paradigm, one of the major agencies in L.A. and Frank was a dream to work with.  Most agents can't talk about anything else but 10%, Frank was a regular guy in that he could talk about anything. In fact we still talk to each other and have lunch once or twice a year.  Frank was considered by producers a very gentleman type person.

But getting back to why an agent is important. 

Agents update their information on the needs of studios, networks and producers every day, maybe five times every day.  Most big agencies have a daily update that circulates through the agency and is guarded like Fort Knox, they don't want other agencies knowing what they know, about which producer needs a specific type of writer, etc.  But being Hollywood, every agency's update is soon copied all over town.

Agents also have relationships with certain producers and this can lead to work as well.  It would be virtually impossible for me to have that much knowledge about possible assignments. And now, one final reason for agents.  I've said this before, but a lot of creative types don't know business dealings very well, or just don't care.  I'm somewhere in the middle. 

Agents will ask for the most they can whereas I or other writers, or actors or directors, will almost willingly do it for nothing, or almost nothing.  

Agents are our musclemen or women,  they have that car salesman mentality that just won't quit.  As Frank once said, "I would like for producers to like you less and pay you more." 

Enough said.  Back to raising money. Well, it is a week-end... and I have to make chicken wings for a charming 10-year old, her BFF and her dad.

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