Let's get this out of the way quickly. Bona fide agents and managers are all gung ho on several points, starting with the fact that they never ask potential clients for money—for any purpose. Indeed, they do not receive funds from their signed clients either, short of a percentage earned from a client's employment. If Johnny is in a commercial, the agent will receive 10% of his salary, the manager may get 15%. Agents and managers who are on the up-and-up do not stipulate which photographers or coaches the kids should be seeing as a condition for representation, either. (If anyone does that, the odds are he's getting a kickback.) In fact, it should be noted that many genuine agents and managers who handle youngsters don't even think professional photographs are necessary, certainly not at the very beginning of a career. And no professional photos are necessary for babies; after all, within short order, the baby has changed and the old photos have become obsolete. A charming snapshot will do just fine, thank you.
That said, the questions still remain: How does the bona fide agent or manager work? What exactly does he do for his child clients? And perhaps most central, where does he find them? In light of the fact that so many parents have responded to ads in local papers—those ads proclaiming that fame is around the corner, "no experience necessary"—and then found themselves conned, emotionally as well as financially, the question seems especially germane. Back Stage talked with several agents and managers for their feedback. Here's what they had to say.
On the topic of where they find the kids that they represent, most admit frankly that these children usually come through referrals—either casting directors or word-of-mouth recommendations. Another common source is the parents of working clients who may make a recommendation. And then there are the agent or manager's former child-actor clients—who may or may not still be in the business—who are now grown up and have kids of their own whom they want to see in the business. Agents and managers are undoubtedly likely to be kindly disposed, if nothing else, to the children of former clients.
Still, it is not a closed club, and all the agents and managers we talked with insist they receive hundreds of shots a month, cold. Further, they all maintain that they set time aside to go over these shots, and if they are turned on by them—which is not an anomalous occurrence, they assert—they will contact the parents and kids for interviews. These interviews may indeed lead to representation.
Managers and agents wear somewhat different hats, although their functions may overlap. Both have relationships with casting directors and can send clients out on auditions. The talent agent, however, is franchised by the unions and can negotiate contracts, whereas managers cannot. The unions also stipulate precisely how much money an agent may earn. As noted, it is 10%. Managers operate under fewer guidelines—although the National Conference of Personal Managers has some jurisdiction over what they do—and they usually receive more than 10% of a client's earnings, although for the most part, managers don't take more than 15%. Managers claim that their role is guiding a client's career, meaning they are professional advice-givers (some agents say they do the same). Managers suggest they may even be instrumental in helping a client get an agent.
If a manager takes on a client, the client will sign a contract with him, meaning the client can have no other manager. Agents may sign on a client or have a freelance relationship with him. The latter is his way of trying out a client. At the same time, the client is free to freelance with other agents, who may also send him out for work. All the agents Back Stage talked with for this story sign their clients to contracts once they've decided to represent them.
Managers and agents may specialize in children and teens; some handle them exclusively, others handle youngsters as part of a larger roster of clients. Some are commercial agents or managers, i.e., representing clients who will do commercials and/or print advertisements; others are legitimate agents, representing clients in film, TV, and theatre; and still others cover all bases. Back Stage's interviewees spanned the spectrum.
Nonetheless, they all contend that responses to photos—which may lead to an interview and, ideally, representation—are clearly subjective. They talk about the intangible, not-readily-definable spark that they sense in a child. They also talk about the appeal of natural-looking, casually dressed kids—at play, at school, or even interacting with parents.
"Photos featuring kids and parents show me how they relate and that's important," says New York City-based manager Tsu Tsu Stanton. "I like to see kids who are sociable and at ease with their parents."
A real turnoff: posed or overdressed kids or, most grievous, kids who have been made up to look like little adults.
"I like kids who obviously enjoy being center stage. And you can see that quality in their shots," notes manager Myra Unger, of Myra's Kids Talent Management, a New York City management firm. "It just comes through."
Stanton agrees, suggesting that you can even feel "that ease in front of a camera" from an infant.
Photos can be mailed in, emailed, or faxed. Color copying—an 8x11 laser copy—of a shot is acceptable. None of this is to suggest that professional photos are a turnoff. But the point that's made repeatedly is that they're just not necessary at the beginning stages of a child's career. Whether the photo is a snapshot or a pricey headshot, it's a good idea to include the child's vital statistics with it—age, height, weight, etc.—special skills the child may have, and performing experience if, indeed, he has any. A brief cover letter, indicating what it is you think your child would be good at and why, is also recommended.
The Initial Interview
Clearly, liking the photo is only the first step. What happens next varies.
"If the photo catches my eye, I'll bring the kid and parent in, but meet with them separately," observes commercial agent Bonnie Shumofsky, with the New York City office of Abrams Artists Agency. "I want to see if a child can speak clearly and follow directions without the parent in the room and without fear. If he's old enough, I'll ask him to read some commercial copy. A child with a real personality and one who is having fun turns me on." Again, she insists—and this is a view echoed by all those we talked with—kids should be casually dressed for the interview. "Children in suits or party dresses are not for me. I like clothes from the Gap or Old Navy, plain and simple.
"When I talk to the parents, I'm turned on by those who ask questions and want to learn about the industry," Shumofsky continues. "I'm turned off by parents who don't understand that this is a business. It's not an after-school activity and parents have a lot of responsibility if their kids get involved in the business. They will have to get work permits for their child and be able to drive him back and forth to auditions."
One area that Shumofsky—and the others—will not equivocate on is the child's education. All the agents and managers say that comes first. In fact, Shumofsky asserts, "If a child cannot maintain good grades, I will not represent him until he brings those grades back up."
Unger voices the view that birthday parties, playing ball, camp, and school plays are important as well. She believes that kids in the business are still kids and should be doing the fun things that other kids do.
Fun is an important concept to her, not simply outside the professional arena, but also within the industry's parameters. And she will not represent a kid who is obviously not having fun improvising, reading copy, or performing in front of the camera.
"I ask the kid, 'Do you want to do this?' It's obvious if he does and equally obvious if he doesn't," she says. "Beyond that desire to be performing, a kid with a quirky sense of humor is appealing to me." She also talks about the "grounded parent who is supportive but not pushy, and able to keep family life in balance. I will ask the parent if he has a backup support system in place if the child has to travel. Will he be able to travel with the kid and who will be on hand to take care of the rest of the family when he does?"
Adds talent agent Aggie Gold of Fresh Faces, a Long Island-based talent agency: "Being in the business should be kept in perspective. It shouldn't be the only thing in the child's life or the family's life."
Like the others, she is very concerned with the child-parent interaction, and the quality of that relationship will often determine whether or not she'll take on a child as a client. The parent who views the child as his or her extension, fulfilling his or her fantasies, is out. So is the aggressive parent who insists that the child sing, for example, when the kid has just said he doesn't want to sing.
"At that first interview, I watch out for those parents who answer all the questions, especially if I'm talking to the child," says Gold. "Parents should not be speaking for their children."
One of the more striking aspects of Gold's approach is that she engages the youngsters in improvisations in front of their parents. She contends that if the kids are really good, everyone will recognize that and, similarly, if they're not, everyone, including the parents, will recognize that as well.
Gold stresses that she always finds something positive to say about the kids—so that no one walks away with hurt feelings—but may gently suggest to the parents that the kid in question is not ready yet.
Gold has another reason for having the child perform in front of the parent. "No one knows better than the kid's parent whether the acting is honest or not," she says. "And if the child goes into the business, I feel the parent has to be able to function as an acting coach. If I decide to represent a child, I will teach parents how to coach their children. Having a child in the business is much more than driving kids to auditions."
Professional Photos and Acting Classes
It should be noted that Gold was the only person with whom Back Stage spoke who feels that parents should function as acting coaches. Indeed, most of the agents and managers interviewed don't talk about acting classes at all, although on occasion—if the child is already moving along in the business—they may suggest it. They may even make recommendations, but no recommendation has to be adhered to. It's presented as another option and that's all, and the same for headshots. If and when professional shots—or new headshots—are required, the legitimate agent or manager may make suggestions. But he has no financial stake in whether or not a client chooses to go to that photographer. And he never makes it a condition for employment.
"We may make any number of recommendations, but if you can get a good shot at Sears department store, that's fine, too," says Shumofsky. "The best shots are taken when your child is most comfortable."
Ultimately, what happens after a child is represented is up for grabs. Some will do very well, others less so, and still others may decide that it's not for them at all. If they continue in the business, most will move on to other agents and managers at some point. But, in many ways, none will be as significant as the first—the man or woman who set the stage and started the ball rolling.