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Secret Agent Man

Why Agents Have to Be Picky

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Why Agents Have to Be Picky
Photo Source: Steve Weigl

What’s wrong with us agents? Why are we so picky about who we sign? Would it kill us to take more chances?

Well, the sad truth is, we can’t sign every talented actor we meet. It’s just not possible. So we have to pass on good actors all the time. That’s just the way it is. Knowing when to say no is a big part of our job.

A few months ago, I attended the graduation showcases for all the major acting schools across the country. I’m talking about Juilliard, Carnegie Mellon, Yale, and the other big names. Hundreds of actors paraded across those stages. I’d say most of them had potential, but my company only met with six and signed two.

There are many reasons for this. You see, agents act as gatekeepers for casting directors. Part of our job is finding and developing new talent, getting them ready to audition for professional acting jobs. So if I’m pitching a kid with no credits, the casting director is going to assume there’s a reason I signed that actor. This is why I have to be picky. If I send in one dud too many, my reputation is going to suffer, and that casting director will stop trusting me.  

Now let’s talk about actors in general, both new and established.

A client list is constantly changing. It grows in size and then gets cut down, only to start growing again. Sometimes the list has holes in it. Sometimes it’s close to bursting. It all depends on who we’re signing and who we’re dropping.

To be effective, agents have to service their list. We try to keep everyone happy by submitting and pitching people for all the roles we think they can play. One of the reasons we’re picky is that we can’t submit 12 actors for the same part. That’s overkill. It means we have too many actors in the same category. And when that’s the case, some of those people aren’t going to get the attention they deserve. So we have to keep the list at a manageable size.

That brings up “conflicts.” This occurs when we’re talking about a specific type, like an Asian character actor or a heavyset woman in her 40s. Those are both valuable categories, but we don’t need multiple choices in each one. So agents try to avoid signing conflicts because like I said before, someone’s going to get the short end of the stick.

Over the years I’ve had clients leave over this issue, because there’s no way to keep conflicts a secret. The actors will eventually run into each other at an audition, and that’s when the brown stuff hits the fan. Sadly, most of it will end up splattering on me.

When I’m thinking about working with an actor, I also have to consider his or her potential. I’m constantly meeting actors who are perfectly fine. They can deliver lines and hit their marks. I know they’ll always pick up work, saying a few lines here and there. But maybe that’s not what I want. Maybe I’m looking for that special actor who has the potential to do more.

When I was starting out as an assistant, my boss taught me a valuable lesson. She said the most important decision an agent can make is deciding who to sign. The moment we say yes to an actor, an artificial relationship is created based on very different needs and desires. Will we be able to make each other happy? Or will we end up in divorce court? Only time will tell…

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