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The Working Actor

Freelancer Commission, Manager Decision

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Freelancer Commission, Manager Decision
Dear Jackie:

Like the majority of actors in New York City, I do not have an agent, but I freelance with a couple of them, which, in the overall, has been a good arrangement for me.

I contacted a manager more than a year ago, and we agreed on a freelance arrangement. At that time, I did not know the exact fees involved. Now, when I say "freelance" with a manager, I mean that she is doing what an agent does: She calls me and sends me out for auditions. There have not been any traditional management duties whatsoever in our relationship. In other words, she does not do more than an agent. Don't get me wrong: I am fine with it, and I think that agents do an exhausting and good job.

A couple of months ago, I booked a nonunion voiceover through her, and to my surprise she took 25 percent out of my fee. Now, while I feel that 75 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing, I feel that she is doing an agent's job and taking a manager's pay. My other agents take between 10 and 15 percent of the fee.

I understand that agents need to be licensed and somehow need to adhere to a very strict set of rules, as opposed to managers, who basically can do what they want. But when a manager does the job of an agent without doing a manager's job, I feel that is wrong. Am I right? Or am I just being a complainer?

—75 Percent Left, New York

Dear 75 Percent:

As you now realize, the time to discuss fees is in the initial meeting, before you have agreed to work with a representative. Had you brought up the issue at that time, you and the manager might have been able to come to a compromise about her commission. At the least, you would have known what to expect.

According to the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, theatrical agents are licensed by the department as employment agencies. Their commissions are then capped at 10 percent, except for orchestra and concert engagements, for which the cap is 20 percent. (For more info on New York agency licensing, visit www.labor.state.ny.us/formsdocs/wp/ls390.pdf.)

However, talent managers are not licensed by the state and are, according to the DCA, "exempt from the definition of employment agencies if their placement of their clients in employment is 'incidental to' their management services." The state's Arts and Cultural Affairs Law limits payments to "agreed commissions, royalties or similar compensation based upon payments received [by the client] as a result of his employment in the field of show business."

I followed up with the DCA, and apparently, "agreed commissions" could mean that you and your manager could set any commission rate as long as you both agree to it—10 percent, 25 percent, 99 percent, whatever. It's true that a manager isn't supposed to be working simply as an unlicensed agent—solely procuring work for you—but it sounds as if you are okay with that aspect and only object to the commission.

You're not being a complainer. You have a good point, but the question is how to proceed given what has occurred. My suggestion is that you let this 25 percent be water under the bridge, but go in and speak to the manager about the future. Let her know you love that she's sending you out but that you would like to use the agency commission model if she's not working with you in a management capacity. You can present this in a simple and respectful manner, and it might help cushion the point if you take responsibility for your part in not clarifying the issue earlier. She may go for your plan, or present you with compelling reasons to pay her a higher commission. She may step up her managerial duties. You may decide to part ways. Whatever happens, you'll have the conversation you needed to have back at the beginning.

Finally, New York actors who feel that a manager or an agent is abusing the rules outlined above or is otherwise acting outside the law can call 311 to speak to a DCA representative.

Dear Jackie:

I have a midlevel boutique management company representing me. I have signed a three-year contract. The manager seemed to really like me. She had me evaluated by her acting coach, who said, and I quote, "She is beautiful, and talented to boot!"

However, on one occasion she discouraged a talent agent from taking me on, saying very negative things about me. She has been very forthright with this information—almost to the point of being cruel. In addition, she tells me that I'm aiming too high and need to get a hobby. She also said that my passion for acting is a red flag in her book. I am concerned that my manager may be doing more harm than good.

Please know that I attended a prestigious acting conservatory on a full scholarship. I have also been in a competitive private class for a very short time and have been moved up twice. This positive feedback is the only thing keeping me motivated. Please, I love this work—I have since I was a small child. I want to be groomed. Is this grooming?

—Management Worries, Los Angeles

Dear Management:

You need to do what you feel is best. It's your life, your career, and your feelings in the grinder. You can either stay with this manager a bit longer while looking for another representative and seeing if the situation improves, or you can terminate the relationship immediately. If you honestly feel bad about yourself after speaking with her, I agree that she is—in your words—doing more harm than good.

Get out your contract and take a long look. It very likely has a clause in there about either party terminating the contract with written notice. If you haven't booked anything through the manager yet, she'll probably let you go without a word. Send her a polite, succinct letter thanking her for her time and letting her know that you are ending your professional relationship. No need to explain why. It's better to be unrepresented than to work with someone who drags you down.

Still, you might learn something from this experience. It's possible her boorish suggestion that you get a hobby is based in common sense. Acting is a tough nut to crack, and it can make you crazy if you don't have other interests. Do you have a life outside your craft or are you focused totally and completely on acting? If it's the latter, take her poorly worded advice to heart and begin looking for balance. You love the work? Fantastic. Make sure you also love your life.

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