Talent agents in Hollywood and around the world began to be appreciated again in 2015 following the debut of the French TV series Dix Pour Cent, (which translates as “10 Percent,” but is called Call My Agent! in the English version), which centers around the personal and business lives of talent agents.
There is also a Turkish version of the series called Menajerimi Ara, and an Indian version titled Call My Agent Bollywood.
But the nickname “10 percenters,” which refers to the commission that agents normally receive from their clients’ earnings, is generally not appreciated by most agents.In addition to a number of books about agents, the agents themselves started becoming more visible at trade shows in recent years, also due to the sheer amount of content required by streaming platforms.
At the recent MIP Cancun TV market, three major talent agents were seen roaming poolside at the convention’s hotel in search of talent, producers, and content commissioners. Other TV-film markets, such as MIPCOM and the American Film Market, were not immune from this talent agent invasion, either.
The industry’s focus on agents was rekindled earlier, first with an article in the July 16, 2021 issue of The Los Angeles Times entitled “How to Find a Talent Agent Who’s Right for You,” and more recently, in an interview with THR about the upcoming pilot season. In the latter piece, New York City-based Erin Junkin, co-head of the TV Literary division at William Morris Endeavor, explained that writers aren’t interested in selling to broadcast anymore because broadcast still operates on specific timelines and writers want to choose the best time to sell their ideas.
In Hollywood there are two basic maxims: “It’ll take 15 years to become an overnight success” and “In order to make a million dollars in show business, you have to start with 10.” In between these two pills of wisdom, there is the “talent agent,” who reminds everyone that everything takes time and money.
Nothing moves in Hollywood without an agent. Without the intervention of an agent, a talent manager or an entertainment lawyer, no one will take newcomers’ calls. And writers who lack agents, quickly have their mailed submissions returned — unopened. The agents often (but not always) do all the legwork — especially for established talents.
Between the talents and the agents are the talent managers, who, in a Backstage article are so described: “Agents and managers are a lot like the Israelis and Palestinians. [Their] views are different, there’s a lack of trust between [them], and [they] uncomfortably share the same piece of real estate.”
And in their midst looms another figure — the entertainment lawyer — whose job seems to be to delay everything in sight. This is why, when there is a contract dispute on the set, field producers try to resolve the matter on the ground, rather than go back to corporate (where contracts are negotiated) and get the lawyers involved.
Usually, while talent is represented by agents, who are legally permitted to negotiate contracts (something that talent managers are not allowed to do), entertainment lawyers represent the production companies. But that’s not always the case, which makes this topic a very complex, complicated, and convoluted subject. This is why, if, after a few years a project passes from a conference room at a TV trade show to the exhibition floor as a finished product, it can be considered a miracle of creation.
Indeed, a talent might have a manager who finds a job for the client (at 15 percent or more commission), an agent who negotiates the major “deal points” at 10 percent commission, and an entertainment lawyer who goes over the fine print at seven percent commission, minimum.
Under this broad narrative there are many subplots, like the so-called 3-3-10 package fee, which frees talent from paying the 10 percent commission to talent agencies that provide several talented individuals for a production, but the practice is not favored by the WGA, the writers’ union.
In 22 U.S. states, agents have to be licensed by the state (as they procure employment), and they are sometimes members of the Santa Monica, California-based Association of Talent Agents.
When the industry attends trade shows such as NATPE Miami, the focus is on finished product. However, at the same market, new content is born in some hidden conference rooms, where talent agents “marry” writers with producers. The same producers who, without prodding by the agents, would be perfectly happy to pick one of the many finished scripts floating around. But not all scripts are created equally, since there are scripts for cinema, called screenplays, and those for TV, called teleplays. This is in addition to their original three stages — the outline, the treatment, and the script itself.
So, while buyers at markets are concerned with finished content, the creative community that roams trade shows is interested in the development of that content.
In addition, a talk with prolific indie film producer Chevonne O’Shaughnessy, president of American Cinema International (ACI), revealed that the production process for indie films is more streamlined, with outlines developed in-house, scripts assigned to familiar writers, and the engagement of familiar film directors. For the casting of a given film’s three key characters they rely on talent agents that rep actors familiar to them, and try to avoid casting agents who tend to push their own picks. The talent agents negotiate the actors’ fees and main points, while ACI relies on entertainment lawyers. Other peripheral actors are hired at union scale fees. ACI has never experienced contract disputes while on set, and their indie filming typically lasts 16 days.
In the U.S. there are 21 major talent agencies, of which eight are the largest, soon to be reduced to seven with the acquisition of International Creative Management Partners by Creative Artists Agency. This follows the stunning 2009 Endeavor acquisition of its larger competitor, the William Morris Agency (now William Morris Endeavor).
To conclude, VideoAge asked veteran talent agent Roy Ashton, a partner at The Gersh Agency, whether one of his jobs is to operate as a development executive for his clients: “Yes, absolutely,” he answered. “The job of an agent overlaps with the job of a producer.”
Ashton, who is based in Gersh’s Beverly Hills, California office (the other office is in New York City), handles up to 50 clients, “as agents tend to work in teams,” he said, adding that he represents writers, directors, producers, actors, and IP that includes formats, books, and documentaries. He also deals with international distributors who pre-buy content at script levels: “It’s a good market,” he explained.
Ashton, who’s a member of the Association of Talent Agents, also agreed to answer a few questions sent to VideoAge by various talents like actor Michael Nouri (known for Flashdance and 40 other films, as well as 75 TV shows), who asked the usual question addressed to agents: “What’s next?” “In any business,” answered Ashton, “there are dry spots no matter what your job description. If the agent or manager isn’t open to fixing things, they aren’t the right representative for you.”
Indie producer Chris Philip (Crusoe and seven other TV series) asked: “With the shift from traditional U.S. studio models to a more global or local production model, how are you addressing your U.S.-based clients’ needs and exposing them to these new local productions?” Ashton answered: “We are reaching out to buyers, producers, and talent in other countries and developing relationships at all levels. Clients are pitching regularly to industry folks in other countries.”
Ashton couldn’t answer the question posed by writer Ben Pastor (author of 20 novels published in 15 countries), which asked his record in the sale of foreign and film rights, because, as he said, “I’m a TV agent.” He also couldn’t exactly respond to a question from director Frank Di Bugnara (A.W.O.L. and five other movies), on how the general dynamics with agents may be different now compared to five years ago. “It’s a long and involved question,” he said. “Not sure I can answer that in a few lines.”
(By Dom Serafini)
Audio Version (a DV Works service)