The Biggest Differences Between Agents and Managers.
Show Me The Money!
This is one of those articles that is going to get me into trouble. Why? Because there are some good managers out there that will disagree with some of the facts that I present and with the opinions I share with you about this topic. Some of you will refuse to accept my premise, in spite of—or because of—my experience and vantage point. There are also some actors who will believe me, but will refuse to admit that this information applies to them or to any manager whom they may be working with. With that said, I’m going to share this information with you anyway. Just in case. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong, even though I’m not.
What do agents and managers do? How do they become agents and managers? What are they legally allowed to do? What are they prohibited from doing? What do they charge? Who needs them? Let’s see…
What does an agent do? Agents solicit work on behalf of an artist. They are employment agents. They submit and pitch their talent to get them auditions. They negotiate the bookings. They collect the money. That’s it. Everything they do revolves around the solicitation, negotiation, and collection.
What does a manager do? Managers provide career guidance. That’s it. That includes many tasks, but in the major markets in the USA (such as California and New York), managers are NOT legally allowed to solicit work or negotiate work, although most of them will attempt to do exactly that.
How does someone become an agent? To become an agent in major markets like California or New York, you must either be hired by a licensed talent agency, or apply for their own license. Licensing involves a lengthy process of regulatory paperwork filed with the State, which involves fees, fingerprinting, background checks, affidavits of character, insurance bonding, facility permits, establishing trust accounts, and adherence to a long list of regulations. Beyond these steps, a talent agent must either become franchised with the various unions, and/or become a member of the Association of Talent Agents or the National Association of Talent Representatives. It’s an arduous process that is meant to weed out the unqualified opportunists.
How does someone become a manager? They look into a mirror and say out loud, “I am a now a manager.” It’s like magic.
What is an agent prohibited from doing? It’s a long list. A licensed and bonded agency is highly regulated, with laws in place to prevent actors from being taken advantage of. Rules prevent agencies from producing films, television, or theatre. Agents cannot charge commission beyond a certain percentage. They cannot hold onto client funds for longer than a certain period of time before processing the payment for the talent. The form and terms of representation contracts must be approved by the State, and no other contracts are valid. There are too many rules to list in an article of this size.
What is a manager prohibited from doing? They cannot solicit work or negotiate the work (unless at the request of and in conjunction with a licensed agency). Otherwise (unless they violate any general business or criminal laws), they can do whatever the heck they want. They can produce, hire their actors, take huge commissions, take kickbacks from vendors (photographers, coaches), own a school, charge random fees to their talent, or whatever. There are practically no rules. They are unregulated.
What do agents charge? With few exceptions, agencies charge ten (10%) percent of gross fees earned by the talent for jobs booked by the agency, with many exclusions dependent upon union rules. This does not apply to modeling or most non-union jobs.
What do managers charge? Managers usually charge fifteen (15%) percent of gross fees earned by the talent for jobs booked by any source, either during or prior to the time the actor signs with the manager. Some managers charge much more. There are no restrictions on what fees can be commissioned.
Who needs an agent? Every actor who wants to work needs an agent. This is not just my opinion. It is a well-known fact.
Who needs a manager? Kids and stars need managers. Almost anyone else who hires a manager is probably making a mistake. In contrast to the above statement about agents, this is purely my own OPINION. Keep in mind that I developed this opinion while I was an agency owner for the better part of two decades, so take it or leave it. But I will attempt to justify my opinion.
The fact that anyone can become a manager has led many unqualified people to become managers. One might assume that any person who runs a talent management company must automatically be qualified to give great advice to actors, and to promote an actors career effectively. Sadly, there are way too many bad apples in this basket. Many managers are failed actors, or former agency assistants who have been fired but are too lazy to go through the licensing process. Others are opportunists who have had minor success in some area of our business and are trying to gather as many talented people as they can, and sign them to contracts so that they can collect a piece of any success they may achieve. These players attempt to justify their existence through showmanship, and they go out of their way to take credit for things that others do on behalf of the talent. They may take credit for getting auditions, or for negotiating a higher rate of payment. They may try to help coach their clients for big auditions, so that their talent will feel as if they couldn’t have booked the job on their own. The bottom line is that most of those people are just being tricky. These guys are playing a numbers game, and hoping to hit. They are gambling on the future of developmental actors.
Some managers are highly experienced, and come with an impressive pedigree. Some are or were attorneys, and others were successful agents or producers. These people can either be very productive for almost any actor, or very counter-productive. It all depends on their motivation, how much they value you as a client, and what they actually try to do. There have been some high profile legal cases (Marathon v Blasi) in which some great managers have found themselves in a tough spot with their star clients because they apparently overstepped their authority and behaved as unlicensed talent agents. The courts didn’t approve of the behavior, and it cost everyone a ton of money.
Beyond the lessons that can be learned from the bad managers, and the over-zealous top managers, ask yourself as an actor (who is not a child or a star) what you think you could gain from adding a manager to your team. Most of you won’t be able to find a good reason. Be honest, and let’s think this through.
If you are really, REALLY green, and either don’t have an agent or don’t have an open line of communication with your agent, then you MIGHT be able to benefit from the help of a good manager. If you have several different agencies representing you for different areas (voiceover, print, commercials, theatrical), then a good manager may help you with scheduling and following up on payments. If you are brand new to Los Angeles and need help navigating the territory and choosing the right classes, photographer, showcases and other services, then a good manager might be able to help you.
But what if you are in a reputable acting class, have great pictures and a good agent, and you’ve been auditioning regularly for a few seasons? What would you gain by adding a manager to your team? That’s the bigger question. Some great managers will have the right answer for you, and will convince you that they can help. But unfortunately, most managers are not great, and they may also have an answer that will sound good, which can mislead actors into believing that they truly need their help.
The point of this information is to teach you to be careful when it comes to interacting with a manager. Use your due diligence when a manager approaches you for representation. Ask tons of questions. Be skeptical. Find out whom they have represented in the past, and how they have helped build their careers. Ask them why they want to represent you. How do they intend to assist you? You may just get lucky. You may have found a good one. Given the odds, it’s not likely, but it’s possible. Someone has to win the lottery, right?
Nobody ever thanks me for this information when they first hear it, but some students have told me they wish they took my advice years earlier. And that’s the deal.
Adam Lieblein is a graduate of the UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television, and spent eight years as a producer of films, commercials and television projects until 1993 when he opened a talent agency. Adam was the president of Acme Talent & Literary for sixteen years, and together with his eighteen agents represented actors for film, television, commercials, print modeling and voiceover work, and writers for film and novels. At the end of 2008, Acme’s several divisions were sold to other agencies, and Adam returned to the business of producing and teaching at UCLA. In 2011 Adam was recruited by Casting Networks to work in Business and Product Development.