Being able to say "talk to my manager" no doubt has its allure for many performers who see a personal manager on one's payroll (imagine having a payroll) as a sign of a career on the move.
To others, a personal manager evokes images of self-indulgent nonsense (on the part of the actor who has hired him), or downright sleaze on the part of the personal manager who has allowed himself to be hired or, worse yet, sought the young actor out.
Admittedly until fairly recently, the subject of personal managers had little resonance to anybody outside of the industry. And even within its ranks, most performers assumed-and rightly so-that personal managers were the employees of the wildly successful, who probably had a team, including a lawyer, accountant, and several agents.
That's beginning to change, for better or worse, depending on whom you're speaking to. One thing is certain: Thanks to the activities of former superagent Mike Ovitz who has turned his aggressive talents-perhaps talent for being aggressive might be a more precise description-to management, suddenly the subject is hot, the source of political debate, and much contention.
Ovitz's roster of clients, whom he'll manage at his newly formed company, Artists Management Group, is a virtual "who's who" in the movie business, (Leonardo DiCaprio, Robin Williams, Martin Scorcese to name a few). Many of these stars were formerly clients of the mega-agency (CAA) that Ovitz headed until he left for Disney several years ago. Among other unethical practices, Ovitz has been accused of poaching and, more serious, blurring the line between agenting and managing, thus stepping on many industry players' individual and collective toes. CAA is an agenting, not managing operation.
In reality, the demarcation between what agents and managers do has been slowly eroding for a long time, more markedly on the West Coast than the East Coast. But the high-profile Ovitz-and the responses that his activities have elicited-has brought the subject of personal management to the public eye. What exactly do managers do? How are they different from agents? What's all the fuss?
On the most fundamental level legitimate talent agents are licensed by the state and franchised by the unions (Actors' Equity, AFTRA, and SAG). Within parameters, their activities are controlled. And if union actors feel that they have been dealt with poorly by their agents-assuming the agents are franchised-they have some recourse. They can contact their unions and take action against their agents. The agents, in turn, may lose their franchise status, meaning they can no longer negotiate with producers who want to hire union actors.
Personal managers, however, are neither franchised nor licensed. There are no real guidelines that they are obliged to adhere to, and no overseeing body has any real jurisdiction over what managers do. The National Conference of Personal Managers serves as a kind of clearing house, where grievances can be brought against its members, but beyond slapping a member's wrist, it cannot affect whether or not a manager continues to make money. And in some instances, lots of it.
Some specifics: agents can charge only a ten percent commission. Managers by contrast, may charge anything-although most don't go beyond 15%-for their services. But what exactly are those services and how long do they last?
Says Guy Pace, assistant executive director at Actors Equity in New York: "Many managers create servitude through their contracts, casting fish nets that end up costing an actor 20-30% of his income years down the road. If an actor had a manager when he was hired for a sitcom, does he still owe that money fifteen years later when the sitcom is in reruns and the manager is not even employed by the actor anymore?"
Agents are not allowed to serve as producers. Managers-the mega-managers anyway-do. The Hollywood-based Brillstein-Grey, a management-production team, is a prime example. And Mike Ovitz is open about his plans to do the same.
Managers who produce movies or TV shows that feature their clients may be guilty, it has been alleged, of a conflict of interest. Can they really be representing their clients if they're also their employers? And if the trend becomes widespread, what will the arrangement mean to all the other performers out there who are not the producer-manager's clients?
In response to the booming legions of managers and management firms-Ovitz is merely the flash point. California assemblywoman Sheila James Kuehl-former teen star, best known for her nerdy Zelda on "Dobie Gillis"-has introduced controversial licensing legislation that would put the brakes on the activities of managers, at least in the state of California.
Procuring Employment: Leading or Supporting Role?
None of this means that legitimate personal managers do not serve a real function, and that many performers have not benefited from having managers in their corner.
Historically the personal manger is a kind of coordinator for the actor; he may address everything from career advice to scheduling. He is there to help the actor with his image, pictures and resumes, and to come up with marketing strategies. Depending on the relationship between the manager and actor, he may find a baby-sitter for the actor's kids (or be one himself) or get the actor into a drug program, if that's called for.
Manager Lenore Zerman of Lieberman-Zerman Management in Los Angeles says "A good manager is looking at the big picture. His or her decisions are for the long term. That might mean suggesting that a well-known actor work with an unknown director who looks as if he [the director] might be hot down the road."
Traditionally, an agent provided some of the same services, and a few still do. But what clearly distinguished the agent from the personal manager, at least in the past, was his role as booker. The agent, not the personal manager, made the contacts, set up the auditions, and negotiated the deals. According to the unions' policy (Actors' Equity, SAG, AFTRA) he is still the only one, outside of the actor himself, who can procure employment for the actor or negotiate the contract. But that's a gray area.
"We tell our members the only people who are authorized to negotiate contracts are franchised agents," says Nancy Fox, manager of talent agent relations at AFTRA in New York. "But we are seeing more and more managers negotiating."
Procurement of employment is an even less clearly defined subject. "If I'm having lunch with a producer and he describes a movie project he's working on and I say, "You know, that sounds like something that might be of interest to my client, Julia Louis Dreyfus, am I attempting to procure employment for her? Of course. But should I not be allowed to say that?" asks Los Angeles-based personal manager Bill Malamed of Rosenberg-Malamed Management. "There's a difference between that and calling a producer or casting director and saying, "You must hire my client.' "
Interestingly, several New York-based casting directors we talked with have no philosophical problems in dealing with managers. Says Geoff Johnson of Johnson-Liff Casting Associates, "It's quite possible that an actor will come to our attention through a manager. And there's no reason for a casting director to be turned off by a manager unless he [the manager] puts on the pressure. But then an agent can be guilty of that too."
Still, Johnson admits there may be problems because of conflicts between the agent and manager. "That can happen if the agent and manager are not in agreement about how much the actor should get. Sometimes managers, especially those on the West Coast, are unrealistic about the kind of money theatre actors make. And the manager's demands may be so high, the actor is out of a job."
New York agent Jim Wilhelm of DGRW (Douglas, Gorman, Rothacker, & Wilhelm, Inc.) comments that in his experience money conflicts between managers and agents are rarely the issue, but rather what project an actor should or should not take. "We had signed one young actress who then hired a manager. At the time she had a small part in a Broadway show. The manager wanted the actress to leave the Broadway show in order to be a principal in a dinner theatre production. The manager obviously thought appearing as a principal-even in a dinner theatre production-would help the actress's career. This went over with us like a lead balloon! We convinced the actress that this was not a good idea, and she finally got rid of her manager."
Wilhelm stresses that "although we're not always on the same page, when we are, a good manager will help us do our job."
Other agents we talked with echoed the sentiment, suggesting that they see managers as partners, working in tandem for the same end-the advancement of their shared client's career and by extension, theirs-the agent's and manager's respectively.
Who's Using Whom?
But the questions remain who needs a manager? And who doesn't? Like everything else in this debate, opinions vary.
Says Manager Harris Spylios of Davis Spylios Management in New York, "If an actor wants a career in regional theatre and Off-Broadway and that's it, I don't think he needs a manager. Similarly, if his goal is a steady job on a soap-or if he's already on a soap-and happy with that, I don't think he needs a personal manager either. But if he wants to stretch, get into movies and/or a TV sitcom, a personal manager might be a good idea."
Adds Tony Award-nominated actor Douglas Sills ("The Scarlet Pimpernel") "If an actor is in an independent film that is generating a lot of heat, I would recommend that he hire a personal manager at that point who could come up with ideas, using the movie, to further the actor's career."
But what about at the beginning of one's career? Is a manager a good idea? There are still those who take a traditional approach, suggesting that unless you have a lot going on in your career, personal management makes no sense.
"I can understand a bonafide star or a child actor whose parents don't have access to agents, needing personal managers. There are some very good personal mangers for young children," asserts Guy Pace of Actors' Equity. "But I do not see why any actor in that large middle group needs a manager."
On the other hand, there are those who feel the industry's dynamics have changed so radically, personal management is a logical step even at an early stage of one's career.
"There are a handful of major agents who handle the major actors," says personal manager Bill Malamed. "Lesser-known clients in the big and even the smaller agencies may get lost. They simply don't get the attention that they once might have. That's why a personal manager is a good idea for the new actor."
Agrees agent Doug Warner of David Shapira and Associates in Sherman Oaks, CA. "We encourage all our clients to have managers. They [the managers] have more time to be labor-intensive than agents. They help us do our jobs by helping to build the actor's foundation."
Manager Spylios observes that one of the things he does with a young client is "get feedback about him from the various casting directors I've sent them to. This helps me determine strategies."
Relative newcomer Jeff Croteau, who now has a small part in Roundabout's "Lion in Winter," credits Spylios, his manager, with making the contacts and setting up the audition with the Roundabout. "Besides the Roundabout production, I got an industrial through Harris and met with TV casting directors at several ad agencies through him. I am now freelancing with a TV commercial agent and that relationship is directly related to the other contacts I made through my manager. I see no particular need to sign with an agent since my manager is doing everything for me."
Douglas Sills also enjoys a very good relationship with his manager, Bill Malamed, and encountered him well before his career was launched. Indeed, he was trying to negotiate the uncertain terrain of Los Angeles-"I had been out of school a year-and-a-half"-when he met Malamed at a party. "It never occurred to me to go look for a manager. The idea was pretentious." But when the two started talking they just clicked and by the party's end, Malamed asked Sills if he (Malamed) could have a shot at helping Sills' career.
"No, he had never seen my work," Sill recalls. "He wanted to represent me on the basis of a feeling. Look, you can't establish reasons in a universe that doesn't have them!"
Sills did not sign a contract with Malamed and in fact has never signed a contract with him in the 12 years Malamed has served as his manager. "I'm not saying this is an example of how to conduct yourself with a manager," Sills stresses. "But when we met I felt I had nothing to lose. And now that we're personal friends, there's no reason to sign anything."
Sills recalls that Malamed was instrumental in landing him, early on, a better agent than the one Sills had at the time, and a lucrative TV movie deal. A good manager is a team player with whom you can brainstorm, especially when your agent is pulled into the employer's court. Many agents are afraid of alienating producers. That's when you need a manager in your court to talk to the agent. Generally, I'd say a manger is someone who should be doing what the actor or agent is not. For me, working with Bill has been one of the best working experiences I've had."
When Things Go Bad
Not all actors have had good relationships with their personal managers. Indeed, there has been no shortage of well-publicized conflicts between major actors and their managers. Among these: Gary Coleman, Garry Shandling, Fabio, and years ago Judy Garland. She was involved in a notably distasteful brouhaha involving her personal manager.
Lesser known and unknown actors have also been badly burnt. The complaints run the gamut from an inability to get out of contracts that are no longer working, and/or wildly expensive promises that managers have made to actors and that are just not forthcoming. Jennifer Dikes, information and investigation specialist, at New York's Better Business Bureau, cites 69 complaints within the last 12 months leveled at personal managers representing either beginning actors and/or models. "Most of these complaints centered on promises that were not kept or large sums of money the actor/models were asked to spend up front for photos that were either never delivered or so bad as to be useless."
The Actor's Nightmare
Female impersonator Richard Skipper, best known for his Carol Channing and Judy Garland, had a simply appalling experience with a personal manager. Indeed, the nightmare dragged on for close to a year and cost Skipper $11,000 to extricate himself from his contractual arrangement with this con artist, who may in fact have been a borderline nut case.
As part of the deal, Skipper was subjected to a gag order, meaning he cannot name the manager in question. We will, however, refer to the personal manager as Dotty.
Skipper acknowledges that perhaps he should have been suspicious from the outset. For starters, Dotty who regularly appeared at his shows, claiming to be an avid fan, did not present herself as a manager until several months into their relationship.
"The first reference she made to management was on a taxi ride home after a gig. She said, and it was said very casually, "If I managed your career, I'd get you a good demo and create a press kit for you.' Then she asked me when my next performance was, and when I said it was a private benefit and couldn't bring anyone, she said "Tell your hosts I'm your manager.' I felt funny about this, but I went along with it. At the benefit, someone asked me for my card. I didn't have one, so she said, "Use mine.' And I did."
Not long after that, she made her formal pitch, claiming to have managed a number of cultural institutions, including a specific symphony orchestra, which she named. She also named a booking management firm whose owners, she said, she had grown up with. In addition, she claimed to have worked for the husband of one of the stars I impersonated in my act.
Skipper believed his luck had changed. "For eighteen years I'd been trying to get representation to no purpose. And suddenly someone shows up who is a constant visible presence and wants to manage my career. I figured why not? And then I got the contract!"
There was nothing illegal about the contract, but it turned out to be a textbook example of what not to sign, Skipper soon discovered. "At the time I felt I couldn't afford to have an attorney going over it. I now feel I couldn't afford to have an attorney not go over it."
A tip-off that something was wrong was a nonchalant observation that Dotty made. "She said in return for her drawing up the contract, I would owe her $400. She said she didn't expect to get paid for it up front, but would take the money out of future monies that I earned." In reality, a legitimate manager does not take money for drawing up a contract. But that was just the beginning.
In the contract, there was no "escape clause," meaning that the contract is automatically renewed with only a window of several days for the parties to back out. Again, there is nothing illegal about it, but a contract without a clearly defined-meaningful-escape clause, Skipper soon found out, does not work to the advantage of the performer.
Truthfully, he wondered about it immediately, and when he asked Dotty about the escape clause, she said, " "We're adults. If either of us is unhappy, we'll just shake hands and say goodbye. Why would I want to represent you if you weren't happy?' "
After the initial glow wore off, Skipper came to a sharp realization. "I loved to say, "Call my manager.' But the fact is she was doing nothing for me. She was not sending out my press kit. I was. She was not doing follow-up phone calls. I was. And she was not stuffing envelopes with my flyers. I was. When I mentioned this to her, she said, "That's not a manager's job. A manager's job is to guide a career.' "
As Skipper tells it, Dotty's career guidance consisted of her showing up at all his performances, appearing supportive, and for the most part business-like in manner. However, her on-site arrivals, which led to no future work, were not without cost.
"It was agreed that all my checks would go to her and she would take out her commission and then send me the rest. For the first three checks I earned, she didn't send me any money. When I asked her about it, she said, in addition to the $400 I owed her for the initial contract, she had expenses. When I said "What expenses?' she said "I have little pieces of paper with my expenses all over my house.'
"Later, she charged me $2,000 [the bits of paper had been morphed into an itemized bill] for her expenses-including hotel rooms, phone calls, car service, and tolls that she spent to come to my shows!
When Skipper finally told Dotty that he wanted out of the contract, she said that was not going to happen. "When I reminded her that she said, "If you're ever unhappy, why would I want to represent you?' she denied ever having said it." Shortly thereafter, Skipper arranged for his employers to stop sending Dotty his checks, but rather send them to him directly. In response, Dotty slapped him with a lawsuit for those and future payments.
Skipper contacted a lawyer at the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, a group of attorneys who work pro-bono (without pay) on behalf of artists who cannot afford to pay. They agreed to take on his case. It didn't take long for the team to uncover a tale of lies that Dotty had been telling from the very beginning.
For starters, she had never worked for the symphony she claimed to have managed, although she had applied for a job there but had never been interviewed for it. The owners of the booking operation she said she grew up with never heard of her, nor did the family of the star-one of Skipper's impersonations-whom she also claimed to have worked for.
All of the players involved, says Skipper, were so enraged by Dotty's using their names, they were willing to testify at an arbitration hearing as witnesses for Skipper. In the end, the case never got to arbitration. From Skipper's point of view that was merciful. "My lawyer was afraid that I might lose, because I had signed a perfectly legal document."
At the eleventh hour, Dotty's team settled. In exchange for $11,000-"It wiped out my bank account"-and the aforementioned gag order, Skipper was freed from his contract.
Despite the wounds he has sustained, Skipper would consider hiring a personal manager again, only this time his operative word is super-vigilance. "I would make sure the manager was well-connected, I would check all references, and I would have an attorney go over my contract. There is no such thing as a standard contract. Each contract has to be tailor-made for the performer's own needs."
Learning Who's On The Level
Although Skipper's case is extreme, it is by no means anomalous. As noted, since licensing is not yet called for, virtually anyone can call himself a manager. Regrettably these unscrupulous individuals are able to find easy targets among the most vulnerable. Many of these so-called managers advertise in local papers. Others approach the unsuspecting in shopping malls, and still others, like Skipper's Dotty, finagle their way into their "pigeon's" life (to use con artist parlance). Some make out-of-sight claims and promises. Others, like Dotty, are subtler.
"We do not have a formal relationship with managers, and so we can't recommend anyone," says AFTRA's Nancy Fox. "But for those actors who are considering hiring an agent, I would suggest going by word of mouth, personal recommendations from other actors. I would also contact the National Association of Personal Managers."
In existence for 50 years, with 200 current members, the National Association of Personal Mangers is a loose affiliation of personal mangers whose members must meet certain standards in order to maintain their membership. If an actor has a complaint against one of the members, a grievance can be brought to the attention of the association's board of directors.
"To be a member, a personal manager would have to be in business for at least one year," says Clinton Ford Billups, Jr., the executive director of the association's Eastern Division. "He cannot hold a franchise, meaning he cannot be an agent, and he can't share his office with an attorney or an accountant or a casting director or a photographer. He can't be moonlighting in one of these professions either. He cannot be running an acting school on the side."
These prohibitions make it a little less easy for personal mangers to be engaged in unethical activities, such as demanding that a potential client use a photographer with whom the manager has a financial arrangement-in short, he (the manager) may be getting a kickback. Clearly, this can be happening whether or not a photographer is on the premises. But an office-mate who is in a related field-like a photographer-sends off the alarm signals, says Billups.
Any manager who insists that a client go to a specific photographer, acting teacher or stylist should raise eyebrows, adds Billups. "Any personal manager who says "You need a total makeover' should be viewed with suspicion. The next thing he may be telling you is where to have it done. [Again, there's the spectre of possible kickbacks]. A manager who asks for any money up front for anything is doing something that is not right. A personal manager is supposed to get commissions on work, nothing else. And if he makes an offer that is too good to be true, the chances are, it is. For additional information, an actor can contact the Better Business Bureau or the Department of Consumer Affairs to determine if something fraudulent is going on, or to find out if there have already been complaints leveled against these individuals."
Yet it should be noted that many legitimate managers are not members of the National Conference of Managers. Another source of information, a list of personal managers that have met certain standards, is contained in the Ross Reports.
None of the pre-screening, however, takes the burden of effort off the actor who, according to all accounts, should request a list of his prospective manager's clients and then contact them. No legitimate manager will object, we were told repeatedly.
Manager Harris Spylios, who was an agent at one point, believes that an agent's background gives a manager added knowledge and leverage. In any case the actor should ask the manager "How do you see my career going? What would be the first five steps you would take to jumpstart my career?' But he also has to know what he [the actor] wants to do."
Management Into the Millennium
Looking into that perennial crystal ball, none of the experts we talked with was prepared to speculate how the personal manager phenomenon will play itself out, shy of suggesting that there will probably be more of them. A fair number of managers right now were formerly agents.
"There are fewer restrictions and greater freedom," former agent-turned manager Lenore Zerman admits without apology. "Management also gives us the opportunity to concentrate on a few select clients who really interest us."
Whether or not licensing is in the manager's future, is up for grabs. Manager Bill Malamed has no problem with the idea of licensing. "Any manager who objects is probably doing something unethical."
Agent Doug Warner doesn't agree at all. "We don't know what the effects would be, except that restrictions, I believe, are limiting in a business climate-especially in one that is changing as we speak. We now have a global marketplace. Markets are opening in Asia, Latin America, on the Internet, and on TV. We need an entrepreneurial approach to create opportunities. We need teams that are pro-active."
He stresses, "I have no problem with managers serving as producers for their own clients. For the actor, it's equivalent to having his board of directors in his corner. As long as the manager doesn't say to the networks, for example, "You can't have my client unless I get a producer title and fee,' there's nothing wrong with it."
Others who did not want to be identified agree, pointing out that agents have been serving as producers for years. Indeed, every time agents get a large fee from the network for a "package deal," they are in fact producers, whether or not they're engaged in a hands-on relationship with the creative team.
"If I come up with an idea for a project that features my client, why shouldn't I get a producer's credit and fee?" asks manager Bill Malamed.
The debate continues.
Additional research by B.L. Rice.