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Managers: Who Needs One and What Do They Do?

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So who needs a manager? In the best of all possible worlds, every actor, especially at the beginning of a career, would have one, says Tom Ingegno, a New York-based manager with the bicoastal firm OmniPop. "Actors need someone to believe in them and get in their corner." For the most part he represents performers who are known quantities or beginning to make headway. Others he represents are quite well known, he admits. "But if I see someone who knocks me out, I will want to be part of that career. But generally, performers need a manager when they've gotten to a certain level and are ready to move on to the next level but they're not there yet."

Ross Reports spoke to several managers for their spins. In keeping with this month's focus on comedy, the managers interviewed represent comics, as well as actors, and are able to talk about the needs of both. It should be noted that there is a fair degree of crossover and many actors and comics are writers as well.

Says Lou Viola, a New York-based manager, "An actor needs a manager when there is enough activity being generated that he needs help juggling all the activities, where there's the need to make choices and decisions. But," he cautions, "we're managers, not alchemists, which means we regretfully pass on clients at early points in their career when they don't generate enough income to support themselves. They're in no position to pay us. Still, I will take chances. I'll nurture and develop new talent."

Evan Steinberg of Steinberg Talent Management in New York echoes the view, insisting that managers take chances on clients when agents won't. "Some years ago, we had one client who booked a spot on SNL," he recalls. "We had been shopping him around to every agency in town. Only one agent expressed interest. When it was announced that he was going to be on SNL, suddenly all those agents who had turned him down before were sending him scripts."

The Agent vs. the Manager

Agents and managers do a lot of the same things; indeed, the line between the two is growing increasingly blurred, all agree, though there are some differences. The agent's central role is to procure employment for his client and negotiate contracts, while the manager attempts to get his client exposure (which may or may not generate income) in addition to serving as career guide, emotional booster, and, on occasion, life coach.

Very often the managers' is to "grease the wheels," says Ingegno. "For actors, we'll try to find them agents if they don't have one. We'll also try to find agents for comics, specifically commercial agents. There are many comics who are particularly good in commercials. We might try to find our comics voiceover agents or hosting agents. There are agents who specialize in getting their clients work as TV hosts, which is where comics may find opportunities."

Drew Carey and Howie Mandel, comics who host game shows, are perfect examples, Ingegno says. Since the sitcom boom — indeed, the comedy boom — ended in the late 1980s and early '90s, other avenues of employment have needed to be found, he suggests. With the increase of reality shows, comics may find employment in such series.

For actors and comics, the manager "plants seeds," Ingegno continues. "If a comic, for example, is making an appearance somewhere, I can let a casting director know about it. We also direct them to our extensive and updated client website."

A good manager knows the behind-the-scenes players. Steinberg says many of his evenings are spent networking in ways that will ultimately benefit his clients. The day Ross Reports talked with him, for example, he was off to a networking event with producers and casting directors.

While managers are able to book comics in clubs, for example, they are not (in theory, anyway) supposed to submit clients for film, television, and theatre gigs. In short, projects that are under union jurisdiction — whether it's SAG, AFTRA, or Equity — are outside the purview of managers. Only franchised agents should be submitting clients to casting directors affiliated with union projects. But many managers, at least in New York, breach that protocol. In Los Angeles, it's against the law for managers to procure work for clients. Still, they may read the breakdowns each day and urge their clients to submit themselves if a role is right.

The other fundamental difference between a manager and an agent is contract negotiation. Again, it is the role of the franchised agent to negotiate contractual agreements. But the reality is that some managers participate in the process, especially if the actor or comic has no agent. Another distinction is cost: Agents get 10 percent of an actor's earnings; a manager typically earns 15 percent. A reason for the discrepancy is their respective roles, the managers assert. They're on call almost around the clock, functioning as guidance counselor and booster, often with little financial compensation.

Finding Talent

Like agents, most managers find their talent through word of mouth and recommendation. They also find talent on their own, attending theatre and university showcases and comedy clubs to see who's doing what. They insist they're not in the market for new clients, but they're always eager to find exceptional talent. For the most part, cold submissions don't work, they acknowledge.

Viola says he goes to comedy clubs frequently, but for him to be interested in a comic, on the most rudimentary level he has to laugh. "But then I examine why I'm laughing and who laughed," he says. "Was it my inner 13-year-old or the professional adult?" He admits his inner 13-year-old may be more in touch with the popular sensibilities than his grownup persona. But to make sure, he test-markets the comics on his own kids, ages 23, 21, 14. "Yes, my kids are a good gauge of public taste," he says.

While gut response to a talent always plays its role, there seem to be more clearly defined criteria for comics than for actors when it comes to being represented by a manager. "I want to see a solid 20-to-30-minute act, without the comic going, 'Hi, so how are you doing? Where are you all from?' " Ingegno explains. "During the comic boom, all they'd need is a solid 10 minutes. There were so many places to perform that within a short time they could move up the ladder from emcee to featured performer to headliner. During the boom, they could do 250, 300 dates a year. Now it'll probably take the comic three years to do 250 dates. Now I have to know that the comic will start as an emcee and quickly move on to the next level."

By contrast, Steinberg may take on a new comic if he or she has a "very strong" 10-to-15 minute piece. "With that you can start pitching them to certain TV programs like Comedy Central's Live at Gotham." Steinberg will look at DVDs: "I actually prefer getting a DVD of an act before running all over town to see it at a club, though we do that as well."

Once a manager has taken on a client, a game plan is established, though each actor or comic has distinct needs. While one may require new headshots or a more polished resume or updated website, another might need acting classes or coaching. "There are those who are not ready," says Steinberg. "They need to be kept under the radar. First impressions are important. And timing is everything."

On the flip side, there are the more advanced clients who are ready, if only they had that door-opening show. Viola has given clients very specific ideas for shows and is now in the process of pitching a comic advice program, created by a client (with his moral support), to National Public Radio.

"I urge all of my clients to take control of their careers and not wait for me to call them," he notes. "It won't happen if they're sitting at home or pushing themselves on MySpace pages. They all need to find a place where they can be seen performing on a regular basis. If they're comic actors, they should try to get into UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre] or PIT [Peoples Improv Theater]. If they're standup comics, they need to be out there developing their comic personas. Performing is the only way they'll find out if it's working."

He sums up the views of the managers best when he quips, "I always say, 'You create the show; I'll create the buzz.' "

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