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Manage This: Agents and managers are debating their evolving business like never before. What's in it for actors?

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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 sleaziness 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 for anybody outside of the industry. And even within its ranks, most performers have long assumed-and rightly so-that personal managers were the employees of the wildly successful, who probably had a whole team, including a lawyer, accountant, and several agents.

That's beginning to change, for better or worse, depending on who you talk to. One thing is certain: Thanks to the activities of former superagent Michael Ovitz, who has turned his aggressive talents-perhaps talent for aggression might be a more precise description-to management, suddenly the subject is hot, the source of political debate and much contention. At his new Artists Management Group, Ovitz has been accused of poaching his old Creative Artists Agency clients, and, more seriously, blurring the line between agenting and managing.

In reality, the demarcation between what agents and managers do has been slowly eroding for a long time. But the high-profile Ovitz, and the responses his activities have elicited, have 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 certain parameters, their activities are regulated, and if a union actor feels she has been dealt with poorly by her franchised agent, she has some recourse through her union. 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 to which they are obliged to adhere, and no overseeing body has any real jurisdiction over what managers do. The National Conference of Personal Managers serves as a kind of clearinghouse 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 be in business; most personal managers are not members of the National Conference, or its offshoot, simply called the Conference of Personal Managers.

While agents can charge only a 10 percent commission, managers may charge anything-although most don't go beyond 15 percent-for their services. But what exactly are those services and how long do they last?

Said Guy Pace, assistant executive director at Actors' Equity in New York: "Many managers create servitude through their contracts, casting fishnets that end up costing an actor 20-30 percent 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 15 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. Brillstein-Grey, a management/ production team, is a prime example, and Mike Ovitz is open about his plans to do the same. But managers who produce movies or TV shows that feature their clients may be guilty, it has been alleged, of a conflict of interest. Garry Shandling's much-publicized lawsuit against his former manager, Brad Grey, accused Grey of double-dipping fees from production and management.

Indeed, how can managers really represent clients competitively 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?

With seemingly fortuitous timing, California assemblywoman Sheila James Kuehl earlier this year introduced controversial licensing legislation that would require managers in California to be licensed by the state. But, as she told Back Stage West, the motivation for her bill was not the agent/manager controversy but fraud by phony "managers" who take advantage of the lack of regulation.

"This came to my attention through child actors," said Kuehl. "What was happening in L.A. was that there were growing numbers of reports of fraud of young adults and their parents. So I went to the city attorney's office, and the district attorney of L.A. County, and took a simple approach for an opener: We're going to regulate managers."

The bill Kuehl is drafting, which is going through the usual deliberative legislative process, will require managers to get fingerprints, fill out applications, be subject to a background check, post a bond, and write down all agreements.

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 manager is a kind of coordinator for the actor; he may address everything from career advice to scheduling. The manager is there to help the actor with his image, pictures, and resum s, 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.

Said manager Lenore Zerman of Lieberman-Zerman Management in L.A., "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 might be hot down the road."

Traditionally, agents provided some of the same services; a few still do. What 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), the agent is still the only one, outside of the actor himself, who can procure employment for the actor or negotiate the contract. But it's become 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?" asked personal manager Bill Melamed of Rosenberg-Melamed Management rhetorically. "Of course. But should I not be allowed to say that? There's a difference between that and calling a producer or casting director and saying, "You must hire my client.'"

Many casting directors have no philosophical problems in dealing with managers. Said 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 puts on the pressure. But then an agent can be guilty of that, too."

New York agent Jim Wilhelm of DGRW (Douglas, Gorman, Rothacker, & Wilhelm, Inc.) said that in his experience money conflicts between managers and agents are rarely the issue, but rather which 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 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' 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 stressed 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.

Who's Using Whom?

But the questions remain: Who needs a manager-and who doesn't? Like everything else in this debate, opinions vary. Said 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."

Added 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 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 bona fide star or a child actor whose parents don't have access to agents needing a personal manager," asserted Guy Pace of Actors' Equity. "There are some very good personal managers for young children. 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 that 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," said personal manager Bill Melamed. "Lesser-known clients in the big and even the smaller agencies may get lost. They simply don't get the attention they once might have. That's why a personal manager is a good idea for the new actor."

Agent Doug Warner of David Shapira and Associates in Sherman Oaks agreed: "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."

Douglas Sills also enjoys a very good relationship with his manager, Bill Melamed, 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 Melamed at a party.

"It never occurred to me to go look for a manager," recalled Sills. "The idea was pretentious." But when the two started talking they just clicked and by the party's end, Melamed asked Sills if he could have a shot at helping Sills' career. Sills did not sign a contract with Melamed, indeed has never signed a contract with him in the 12 years Melamed has served as his manager. "I'm not saying this is an example of how to conduct yourself with a manager," Sills stressed. "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 Melamed was instrumental in landing him, early on, a better agent than the one Sills had at the time and a lucrative TV movie deal.

When Things Go Bad

Not all actors have had good relationships with their personal managers. In addition to the well-publicized conflicts between major actors and their managers, 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 managers have made to actors that are just not forthcoming. Jennifer Dikes, information and investigation specialist at New York's Better Business Bureau, cited 69 complaints within the last 12 months leveled at personal managers representing either beginning actors 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," Dikes said.

Regrettably, these unscrupulous individuals are able to find easy targets among the most vulnerable. Many of these so-called managers advertise in local papers (some, heaven forfend, even in the venerable pages of Back Stage West-though we quickly hear about it and do our best to blacklist them). Others approach the unsuspecting in shopping malls, still others finagle their way into their "pigeon's" life (to use con artist parlance). Some make out-of-sight claims and promises. Others are subtler.

"We do not have a formal relationship with managers, and so we can't recommend anyone," said AFTRA's Nancy Fox. "But for those actors who are considering hiring a manager, I would suggest going by word of mouth, personal recommendations from other actors. I would also contact the National Conference of Personal Managers."

In existence for 50 years, with 200 current members, the National Conference of Personal Managers is a loose affiliation of personal managers whose members must meet certain standards 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," said 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 managers 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, 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, said Billups. Any manager who insists that a client go to a specific photographer, acting teacher, or stylist should raise eyebrows, added 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. 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, 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."

It should be noted that most legitimate managers are not members of the National Conference of Personal Managers. Another source of information, a list of personal managers which have met certain standards, is contained in the Ross Reports.

None of this pre-screening, however, takes the burden of effort off the actor who, according to all accounts, should request a list of her prospective manager's clients and then contact them. No legitimate manager will object, we were told repeatedly.

In any case, said Spylios, 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 the actor also has to know what he 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 admitted 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, too. Manager Bill Melamed has no problem with the idea of licensing. "Any manager who objects is probably doing something unethical," he said. 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 need an entrepreneurial approach to create opportunities. We need teams that are pro-active."

Warner stressed: "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 agreed, 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 producers in all but name, 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?" asked manager Bill Melamed.

The debate continues. BSW

Simi Horowitz writes for Back Stage.

Additional research by B.L. Rice and Rob Kendt.

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