Agent vs. Manager: The Differences (According to an Agent)

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Agents and managers are a lot like the Israelis and Palestinians. Our views are different, there’s a lack of trust between us, and we uncomfortably share the same piece of real estate.

I’ve been an agent for over 10 years and when I started, 25 percent of my clients had personal managers; now it’s more like 75. Why has that number tripled in such a short period of time?

Well, thanks to reality television and runaway production, there’s less work to go around and the business has become very competitive. So it makes sense to have extra people on your team, even if that means paying out more commissions.

Unfortunately, a lot of performers don’t understand the difference between agents and managers. Hell, I’m not sure I do. It’s a blurry line, but you need to know the basics if you want to create an effective team that can help advance your career.

What is the Difference Between an Agent and Manager?

To begin, an agent works for a talent agency that is licensed by the state and in some cases, franchised by the union. That gives us the legal right to solicit employment for our clients. It also allows us to negotiate contracts on their behalf. Managers, on the other hand, do not have to be employed by a management company. They can work on their own. Their sole function is to provide guidance. Managers are not allowed to set up auditions or negotiate contracts.

That’s the letter of the law, but the real world doesn’t work that way. Any manager who wants to keep their clients happy will do their best to get auditions. And while they won’t work on contracts directly, they will be actively involved in any and all negotiations. So in many superficial ways, we all perform the same function.

An interesting difference is where we perform that function. By law, an agency must work out of an office. A manager can work anywhere. I know one who turned his garage into an office and holds most of his meetings at the local Starbucks.

Now let’s dig deeper. The average talent agent—a guy like me—represents anywhere from 125 to 150 clients. A manager’s list is smaller. The best ones work with fewer than 20 actors. In theory, that allows them to give their people more personal attention. In reality, that’s not always the case, but it’s a pretty picture, isn’t it? I’m sure it hangs well in the right light.

The next big difference is money. Agents are not allowed to take more than 10 percent of their client’s earnings, but managers don’t suffer from the same restriction. Most of the ones I know only accept 10, but quite a few ask for 15, and others work on a sliding scale. That means they take 15 percent of your earnings up to $50,000 during a one-year period, but the commission drops to 10 if you make more than that.

And by the way, most managers commission all of your earnings, including theatrical, commercial, voiceover, and any other work that’s part of the entertainment industry.

Now, please don’t misunderstand the tone of this column. I’m not against managers. Some of my best friends are managers. And I’ve made a lot of money over the years working with actors I never would’ve met unless a manager had introduced us. It’s just that I believe you need to understand some of the differences between us before you start thinking about putting your team together. And no matter what you decide, it’s all good as long as I get to pitch.

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Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man is a Los Angeles–based talent agent and our resident tell-all columnist. Writing anonymously, he dishes out the candid and honest industry insight all actors need to hear.
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