The Real Poop
Talent Agents represent "talent" (the word is in quotes because a lot of crap you see on television and in theaters doesn't deserve the term). But agents are about the money side of the business, so they define "talent" as anything (anyone) you can sell to a studio / producer of entertainment product. And agents are salesmen, plain and simple.
Talent agents work for agencies that seek out and sign talent, then act as a liaison between actors and producers or casting directors to get them in the door for auditions. Then, once a part is booked, they negotiate rates and terms. It's one of the only career paths where "schmoozing" is absolutely in your job description. You schmooze the good talent to let you represent them, you schmooze the casting directors to convince them to see a client of yours for a role, you schmooze the producers when you’re negotiating pay (you get a percentage of what your clients make, so you’re negotiating your own pay here as well). In the agenting business, you don't schmooze, you lose.
With their lives, they could have chosen to sell real estate, used cars, or used companies (investment bankers). But instead they sell used…people.
Why would anyone even need an agent? Like, why can’t an actor just call the head of production/casting at Disney and say, "Hey, I need a job. I was oh so convincing as Tevye in my high school’s production of Fiddler. I'd be great in Rainbows: Believe in the Children, your new sitcom."
Well…you can probably guess that the folks at Disney would likely not be impressed. And there are thick walls between the public and the execs who actually make the real decisions in the lands of movies and television. There are walls because, well, there are just a tonne (metric) of lunatics out there who are so desperate that they will do just about anything to be noticed. (Yes, rather than just get therapy and confront why they feel that daddy didn't really love them, they spend their lives trying to be someone else, but that's a different story.)
So the studios/producers have thick walls. They are hard to reach.
And then there are the actors, writers and directors themselves—most of them are…artists. They know (and care) little about the money part of the business (as long as they get paid). They need someone else to bridge that gap. And think about the dynamics of an individual getting into a difficult, highly confrontational negotiation about their compensation for a project—usually after a fight, there are bad feelings. The actors can't have bad feelings against the producers for whom they are working—let the producer be pissed at the agent. If you look closely at most agents' foreheads, you'll see in small, 8 font Times New Roman the word, "Kohler."
So talent needs agents—and agents need something to sell.
The process is twisted because the buyers come and go so quickly (a producer who is hot this year is gone the next; a studio exec who used to be at Paramount has been fired and is now a producer for Fox, etc…). So agents are as good as their relationships with the people to whom they are selling.
We don't tout television shows that often at Shmoop, but if you care about this gig you MUST see Entourage. Go buy the whole DVD set or Netflix it if you can. It'll be more than worth your time. Spectacularly good yarn.
So agents are kind of "filters" for the studios/producers who hire them. They identify real talent. If an agent is presenting an actor who ends up flaking on a very expensive production or shows up drunk to an audition, it's likely that the studio/producer will "lose the number" of that agent. The agent's ability to sell is crushed and they are more or less out of a career.
So the filtration system of an agent had better be better than Brita (say that three times fast). And good agents get a reputation… if a top agent calls with "new talent," it is highly likely that the studio/producer will find room in their busy schedule to meet with them. And pay up for them when/if they do find a project in which they want to work together.
Okay, one more frame—talent. Agents generally specialize. Few agents are great in more than one category. Some categories:
• Talent (actors and actresses across all media)
• MoPicLit (motion picture literature—refers to writers and directors of films, not television)
• TV writer/producers (in television, the producers generally ARE the writers so they are a hyphenated term)
• Packaging (puts together stars, along with director and writer, and sells a whole package to the studio…for a small fee, although the fee is not that small if the agent did their job well)
• Music (yeah, Adele has an agent)
• Legit (fancy term for Broadway/stage actors)
• Live Talent (i.e., stand up comedians and other stage actors or others who give live event hosting or other performances—think: The Microsoft Annual Employee Shindig)
• Commercials ("Here, buy this Taurus. See how shiny she is….")
• Children/Young Adult (for ruining children's lives early with polluted values systems)
…and there are sub-categories all over the place, of course. Need a juggling dwarf? How about a 7-foot-tall blonde? Or an albino contortionist? Yeah, there are agents who specialize in the world of random as well.
The big takeaway here is that Hollywood is a very "people business"—that is, many deals are done just on a handshake and the promise of the seller and studios/producers rely on that series of promises. Why? Why so different? Because creative talent success simply isn’t predictable.
If you commit to making high decibel handling headphones, you can predict what a million units will cost, and if you make a lot of phone calls ahead of time, you can predict what stores will stock them and likely even get minimum guarantees if the product is somehow new or cool.
You can't do this research with a new TV series or movie. You can hire Brad Pitt to star in it, but audiences may just not like the story. Or maybe the weather was nice the opening weekend and they didn't really show up at the theater. Or maybe when you started filming, the plot had to change. Or the set blew up. Or the director quit. Or…well, you get the idea.
So the deal then has to change. Instead of working 11 weeks, the actor needs to work 13 weeks. And if they are a hot actor, the timing might clash with another project, even one at a rival studio. Shockingly (maybe), studios tend to work together—Fox will give a waiver or rearrange its shooting schedule a bit to accommodate a problem at Paramount.
Because Fox knows that it will have the same problem next month. Or the next month. Or the next. Or maybe all months in a bad production year.
So they cooperate—and the agent is the WD-40 in the middle who makes everything…smooth (ish). For a small fee. (It’s 10%—but that’s the commission that the agency takes, not what the individual agent keeps. See the Salary section for deets.)
Agents have this stereotyped reputation of being slick-talking liars. Well, some likely are. But if they are lying to the people buying from them, they are likely short career stint-lifers. So while they are salesmen, there are…limits.
And remember that most of their clients are less-than-sophisticated financially. Most actors came from some form of horrible childhood experience and they ended up learning how to be…really good at acting…to escape something about their lives that they hated. Writers and directors to a meaningful extent followed a similar route—they are just, as a whole, fatter and generally less aesthetically pleasing than actors.
These nutty clients often fire their agents for bad reason (and some for good)—so after a while, it would be understandable if agents became simply jaded from bad actors making their lives miserable.
Think about the dynamics of representing a highly paid celeb. JoeJoe Starman makes $10 million a year, doing an action film every 12 months. His agency collects $1 million in commissions. That agency might have 50 clients in total (smaller agency) and has total revenues of $5 million in a given year as the remaining 49 clients make a fraction of what JoeJoe makes. So if JoeJoe ever quit and went to another agency…pink slips aplenty.
If JoeJoe wants his agent, Bob Schlub, to get him a date for Saturday night, it's highly likely Bob Schlub will find a way.