The dead deal between the Screen Actors Guild and the Association of Talent Agents—recently shot down by a vote of Guild members—has drawn attention to the thin border between agents and managers, but does it invite more reps to cross it? Or does it mean the age-old battle between agents and managers will intensify like never before? Will actors get lost in the shuffle?
These are just a few of the questions floating through actors' minds as the business of talent representation moves into uncharted terrain. Agents and managers who spoke with Back Stage West explained that the only thing certain right now in the rep biz is that nothing is certain.
A hobbling economy, combined with rising star salaries—which has come to mean scale pay for everyone else—has made it tougher for ten-percenters to subsist, they say. Over the past few years, while the SAG/ATA standoff was dragging on, economic pressures have led many agents to make the switch to management, merge their agencies, or go out of business entirely. The same pressures continue apace, and all of these trends mean shrinking client lists—and growing ranks of unrepresented actors.
While many agents operate with hundreds of clients, managers typically keep a roster of 10 to 20. Recent agents who have turned to management include Joan Scott of Writers and Artists, Marty Bauer of United Talent Associates, Arnold Soloway of SGK, Marty Adelstein of Innovative, Michael Mann, Darren Capik of Barry Haft Brown, and Loch Powell.
Mitchell Gossett, a manager-turned-agent now at Cunningham-Escott-Dipene, has been on both sides of the line. Said Gossett, "I think any agent worth his salt would be thinking, Should I become a manager? Some smaller agents have realized that they can make more money doing the same exact thing they've been doing as a manager. Since SAG ignores the enforcement of Rule 2"—the union rule that requires members to work only with franchised representatives—"then agents said, 'Well, why do I need to be an agent when I can just go and become a manager, collect more commission, and SAG won't bother me? I can work out of my house. I'm not regulated. I can produce, I can teach, I can give workshops. And I can make 15 percent instead of 10 percent.' "
In Gossett's view many small agents are not necessarily interested in producing, though he did point out the exception of Darryl Marshak, who left Gold Marshak Liedke five months ago and is now producing films for a client.
While switching to management may provide small agents some temporary financial benefits, the very field of "talent management" is likely to face scrutiny over the next few years. Indeed many managers suspect that SAG's next move will be to take the issue of unregulated talent managers to the state Legislature to have the "safe harbor" provision—which allows managers to negotiate employment for actors in conjunction with an agent—repealed.
Said manager Brad Lemack, "It seems to me that the fallout from this debacle at SAG with the ATA could very well mean SAG now turning its claws toward managers because they're having such a hard time reining talent agents in."
"It will become pretty bloody," predicted Lawrence Parke, who publishes The Agents and Agency News for Agents. "The whole operative parameters of the management professionals are being threatened. The very top management companies are now becoming personally re-involved to fight the [safe harbor] repeal attempt."
A handful of new manager coalitions have been formed in an attempt to give managers a more unified front. Most notable is a new lobbying group, called the National Association of Artists Managers (NAAM). Said LeMack, who is currently debating which, if any, of the manager coalitions to join, "[NAAM] is meant to serve as a lobbying entity on behalf of managers, to monitor activities in Sacramento that would impact the business of talent management, and to become proactive as often as possible in dealing with the legislation that will protect the interests of talent managers."
In September, state Sen. John Burton expressed a reluctance to get involved in the fray between agents and managers. Still, it remains to be seen whether the failed SAG/ATA deal will make state intervention inevitable.
"The pot has been stirred now because of the rift between agents and SAG," said LeMack. "Where do we go from here? It's almost open season on anything having to do with actors and talent representation in general."
Last week Writers Guild of America West president Victoria Riskin added an unexpected twist to the ongoing turmoil over representation for Hollywood's creative community by proposing the implementation of a franchise agreement for talent managers. Riskin said the WGA will be holding a joint meeting of the screen and television councils and a town hall meeting in the summer to hear directly from WGA members regarding the issue.
"There ought to be guidelines for anybody who has a fiduciary responsibility to talent that serves both sides of the equation, whether it is managers or agents; everyone is better off with clearer ground rules," Riskin said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
For his part, Lemack was not entirely opposed to the idea of managers being regulated. Said Lemack, "Those of us who are good at what we do, and are credible and legitimate, why would we fight anything that would back us up as an ethical businessperson?"
Further highlighting the uncertainty of the management business is this week's news that Mike Ovitz—perhaps the most talked about agent-turned-manager—has sold his troubled talent management company, Artists Management Group, to Firm, a music management company that represents the popular groups Korn, Limp Bizkit, and the Dixie Chicks.
"He might have bitten off more than he could chew," commented Gossett. "But there's no guarantee that managers have the golden touch. They're not Midas. There are management companies that merge and close, and I think you'll see more management companies merge than you'll see new management companies open."