For actors, perhaps no relationship is more crucial than that which is maintained with their agent. Sure, significant others are lovely—but this is the person whose job it is to serve as your personal representative in the industry at large. If that sounds like a big deal, that’s because it is. There are countless ways an agent can make or break your career, today and for years to come.
Navigating the actor-agent landscape can be treacherous, with unforeseen obstacles galore. We at Backstage know how daunting agency prospects can be, so we created your one-stop shop for all things agent: how to get an acting agent, how to keep one, how to make ’em happy, and every question in between. Below you will find everything you could possibly want and need to know, because you love your craft and you deserve a talent agent who loves theirs, too.
- What does an agent do?
- Who needs an agent?
- What’s the difference between an agent and a manager?
- What does a really good agent do?
- When should I look for an agent?
- What are some red flags I should look out for?
- So how do I find an agent?
- How should I submit to an agent?
- How should I approach an agent?
- What questions should I ask a potential agent?
- How can I keep my agent happy?
- What is the life-cycle of an actor-agent relationship?
Agents have a few different jobs:
- Submit you for auditions
- Pitch you to industry leaders and work their industry connections
- Follow up on your behalf
- Help to negotiate better pay and contracts for you
- Re-negotiate existing contracts
Of course, what an agent is willing and able to do depends on the circumstances as well as the agent-actor relationship. After all, agents and managers are as diverse as the actors they represent. Some are decidedly hands-on; others are more remote. Some are highly selective, representing only a few clients; others maintain a much deeper roster. Fortunately, actors these days can enlighten themselves, at least partially, by doing a little basic online research.
Remember, too, that agents are not employed by actors, but rather by agencies. Actors are agents’ clients. It’s a subtle distinction, but one worth noting
So now you know the basic duties of an agent, but how do you know whether or not you need an agent? After all, with casting resources like Backstage available to all comers, there are plenty of ways for actors to find work without the help of a liaison.
“When you’re just starting out, you don’t really need an agent,” says Backstage’s go-to anonymous agency specialist, Secret Agent Man. “A personal manager can step in and guide you to the point where you’re ready to start working. That means getting you in the right classes, making sure your pictures are great, and teaching you the ins and outs of the business.”
Actors on both ends of the experience spectrum—those starting out and those bona fide superstars—can go agent-free. Those in the in-between throes, however, will fare best with an agent.
This again falls under the category of, “The only stupid question is the one not asked.” To some, the differences between agent and manager are as starkly contrasting as night and day. But rest assured, you are not alone if you’re a bit confused as to the responsibilities of the agent versus manager—because there is some overlap! After all, both of these entities revolve around little old you.
Acting teacher and Backstage Expert Mae West acknowledges the often-fuzzy line between agent and manager, which “grows increasingly fuzzy with the advancement in technology,” she says. “There are quite a few managers who have access to the casting breakdown service used by talent agents and, once given agency permission, can then submit actors for auditions. Knowing the differences between an agent and manager will help you decide what kind of representation is best for you at this stage in your acting career.” Fortunately, West compiled this handy key to guide you through what to expect when working with both an agent and a manager:
- Talent agents normally earn 10 percent commission for the union roles they procure for an actor and 20 percent for the nonunion bookings.
- Agents have access to the casting breakdown services and submit actors for auditions.
- Follow up on your behalf
- Agents receive payment from production companies. They take their 10-20 percent commission, and then cut their actor a check for the remaining amount the actor has earned.
- According to California AB 884 and 2860, and New York Art and Cultural Affairs Law § 37.07, talent agents must be licensed and bonded with the state in which are they are operating business. Licensed agents are subject to state regulation.
- Agents (and attorneys) can handle talent contracts for actors.
- Talents agents are normally franchised by SAG-AFTRA, thus utilizing SAG-AFTRA union contracts. Agents may also associate with ATA (Association of Talent Agents) and use a general service agreement contract.
- Agencies represent actors in different talent categories: commercial, theatrical (TV/Film), voiceover, print, etc.
- Managers earn a 15 percent commission of all bookings. That means in addition to paying 10 percent of your acting income to your commercial or theatrical agent, you are also required to pay 15 percent to your manager. So, if you are represented by both an agent and manager, 25 percent of your payment goes to representation.
- Rather than coordinating auditions, a manager’s focus is to figure out the best trajectory for an actor’s career and help lay out those steps. Working along with agents, managers take a more personalized approach and guide an actor’s creative and personal choices to shape them into a more marketable actor.
- Managers are not agents, publicists, attorneys, or accountants, but they can act as a liaison to all of these people. A manager’s connections may be extremely beneficial for actors who are having a hard time securing talent agency representation and booking jobs.
- Managers may not legally book work or handle contracts for the actors they represent, because they are not licensed by the state to do so.
- Managers may become members of organizations such as the National Conference of Personal Managers or Talent Managers Association. It is not required that managers join such organizations and some of Hollywood’s top talent managers have chosen not to do so. However, managers who choose to be a part of these private organizations have agreed to abide by their code of ethics.
The other crucial difference is, perhaps unsurprisingly, 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,” says Secret Agent Man. “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.”
You now know what, by definition, an agent does (and how that differs from what a manager does). But what does a positively fantastic agent do? In what ways do they go above and beyond for their clients, and how will you be able to tell when they are doing so?
“[Wonderful representation] is the kind that pitches you via telephone for every role you’re right for,” explains acting coach and Backstage Expert Joseph Pearlman. “It’s the kind that generates 5–6 major auditions per week during peak months. The kind of agent/manager who you sign with as a result of you seeking them out is the not kind of rep that will pitch you for every role you’re right for.”
Essentially, what makes a superb agent is also what makes a superb actor: personal and sincere investment. “What makes these great agents and managers so great is that they keep an ear to the ground,” Pearlman continues. “These are essentially the reps who live and breathe this industry. They love the business, they actually love actors—(most of the time, and who can blame them?)—and they make it their personal responsibility to keep up with the brightest talent that is swinging from the vines of the industry jungle.”
And, also like actors, some agents will manage to continue working despite their less-than stellar flair for the industry. You may even find yourself intertwined with one of said agents at some point and wondering whether a subpar representative will really have an effect on your career. Well, for better or worse, it does. “These truly great reps are going to be the ones who are really going to make a discernible difference in your career,” Pearlman adds. “They’re going to be able to help push you forward in ways that you simply can’t do yourself.”
Again, discerning the effectiveness and loyalty of any given agent can be tentative, but casting director and acting coach Marci Liroff has one litmus test of sorts for measuring an agent’s usefulness. “As an actor you need to make sure that your agent is representing you with integrity and precision,” she states. “From my years-long relationship with an agent or manager, I learn whether I can trust them to have good taste and honesty when I’m negotiating a deal or checking a client’s quote (what they earned).”
You’ve deliberated and decided that, yes, an agent would probably be the right choice for furthering your career. But timing is tricky: when exactly should you go about finding your agent?
Contrary to popular belief, just having some training under your belt isn’t enough to land you an agent. You need to learn how the business works, and develop context for what you’re getting into. Figure out your type, find a non-acting entry-level job in the industry itself, spend time on sets so you understand how things work behind the scenes, network and develop contacts, and build up your credits.
So how do you convince an agent to work with you, beyond possessing buckets of raw talent? Here’s a handy checklist:
- Have you trained with qualified teachers? Are the people you’ve trained with names your potential agent is likely to recognize?
- Are you ready to commit to acting? Can you focus on going out for auditions, and is your life in order?
- Are your tools prepared? Do you already have headshots, a social media presence, a website, or a showreel?
- Are you in the union? If you have your SAG-AFTRA card, your agent can submit you to far more roles than otherwise.
- Do you have any industry connections? Do you know anyone who is already established who is willing to vouch for you?
If you run down this checklist and surmise that you’re ready for an agent, whether you actually get one will, again, ultimately come down to putting in the hard work. “Agencies already have a full roster of clients from the moment they open their doors or soon thereafter,” insists marketing guru and Backstage Expert Gwyn Gilliss. “They aren’t ‘looking’ for new young faces unless they’re short of a particular type, age range, nationality, or other unique quality… Otherwise you need to market yourself and get experience—showcases, Off-Off-Broadway plays, or indie/student films. Self-submit online to Backstage, N.Y. or L.A. Casting… it’ll teach you how to audition, compete, and book! When you have some credits under your belt, then contact agents.”
Patrick Ryan, founder of Aligned Stars Agency in Atlanta, echoes this sentiment, and advances it even further. “Treat yourself as a small business,” he says. “Know your industry. Understand the sales tools we use and be ready to work. Training is a key factor; that shows people the kind of effort you’re putting into your career. If you’re going to seriously compete for these roles, training is extremely important and you should know your type and the kinds of roles you should be going up for. When it’s time to come in and read for an agent, come in and show us what you can do! We want to see what makes you unique, what you can do right now.”
And if you do submit to an agency and it doesn’t come to fruition, don’t think of the outcome as finalized. “Don’t give up if you don’t hear from us in a month or two,” says ASA special advisor Andie Jordan. “Resubmit after six months—our needs may have changed between your submissions.”
A lame duck agent can be counterproductive in advancing your career, but a bad or devious agent can be detrimental and have lasting effects. After all, this person is quite literally representing you to the rest of the business. Fortunately, there are several ways in which you can recognize and avoid this type of dread.
Casting director and acting coach Marci Liroff, again, points out the relevance of an agent’s honesty when it comes to financial aspects of the business. “If an agent lies to me about an actor’s salary, I know I can’t trust them—at all,” she says. However, Liroff also emphasizes an agent’s treatment of the casting process, citing the importance of respecting all involved. “When an agent or manager tries to go around me and deal directly with my director or producer, I realize they don’t respect me or the process,” she says. “The casting director isn’t a hurdle to be jumped over, but a relationship to foster.”
Similarly, when agents are submitting their clients, minimal effort will be immediately sniffed out and, oftentimes, then ignored. “Many times agents use photos that are 10 years old and black-and-white (which we don’t use anymore), or résumés that aren’t updated,” says Liroff. “Or they’ll call or email with a client suggestion and not include a link to their demo along with a photo and résumé. Lazy? Careless? Overworked? I’m not sure—but it’s not effective in the least. You’ve got to ‘police’ your agent (and his or her assistant) to make sure your most up-to-date information is being sent.”
Casting director and Backstage Expert Brette Goldstein, acknowledges that, unfortunately, agent meagerness is actually quite common. “You’d be shocked at how often actors don’t receive even 50 percent of what I send their agents or managers,” she says. “I’d ask for a breakdown, sides, and a script, just in case they were provided and not given to you.”
You know the drill by now: hard work, hard work, hard work—got it! Now really, how do I actually go about finding an agent? It’s a question with many (many) answers, but for starters, you can use your trusted friend Backstage, where we've created a four-step system to help you land an agent with our Call Sheet resource. Like most facets of the business, however, you as an actor and you as a human being will be the determining factor in how you land an agent.
- Be professional.
Treat every interaction with a potential agent like it’s a job interview—because that’s what it is. Everything about you should broadcast professionalism: your outfit; your cover letter, headshots, resumé, and website; the way you conduct yourself in meetings; your social media presence—you want to be sure you’re representing yourself as the industry pro you are.
- Do your research.
Talk to your actor friends, talk to your teachers, read industry articles, use IMDbPro, google local SAG-AFTRA agents and use Callsheet, the online directory right here at Backstage. Make sure you’re submitting to agencies that represent your type.
- Work that network.
A personal referral from a teacher, casting director or fellow actor who the agents knows and trusts can be tremendously powerful. Even if an agent says no now, they might say yes later.
- Show, don’t tell.
Sending a potential agent a comp invitation to your next screening or performance is a great way for them to see you do what you do best. Another option is to enroll in a reputable, audition-only agent/manager showcase or workshop.
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Whether you’re submitting by email or with a hard copy, remember one thing: keep it simple.
If you’re writing an email, be clear why you’re writing in your subject line (“Actor seeking representation”)—sure, it’s boring, but it works! Want some snazzier subject line options, per Secret Agent Man? “‘Just got great reviews!’ is better. ‘Referred to you by [insert casting director’s name]’ is best.”
Keep your cover letter short and to the point, whether it’s an email or snail mail. Marketing guru and Backstage Expert Gwyn Gilliss has some great advice for what to include (and what not to include) in your one-to-two paragraphs about yourself: “Cut to the chase. They know you’re an actor. Who else would send them a photo and résumé? Don't go into exquisite detail about your childhood on the farm in Iowa, your favorite show tunes, and how many character roles you played in junior high. Instead, talk about your type and brand (girl-next-door, quirky neighbor, suburban mom, beer-drinking dude, Home Depot husband, spy, Ivy League college guy). This will tell the agent that you are savvy and know how you will be cast. Also, make sure you share what major roles you played, respected theater companies you worked with, and established actors you've acted alongside. This is your ‘hook.’ If they decide to call you in, it's because they have something to sell when they chat about you with a casting director.”
Don’t forget to mention a referral if you have one, and to offer to put them in touch with the potential agent. If you have a website or reel, include links.
As for attachments (or extras): send a maximum of three headshots (they’re not going to look at more) and a concise résumé. If you’re emailing, jpgs or pdfs are your best bets. If you’re sending this by snail mail, don’t include a flash drive with your reel on it—the danger of it transmitting a virus or other malware to another computer is real!
Finally, here’s one more piece of advice from Secret Agent Man: “Always put yourself on the receiving end and consider what kind of submission you’d like to get. That way of thinking, along with my advice, should help your submission stand out from the avalanche of need I receive on a daily basis.”
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Generating a relationship with an agent is similar to the start of any other relationship, really. You must be socially cunning and highly enthusiastic, without coming on too strong or appearing abrasive. Your initial approach to an agent could damage your partnership before it even begins. Again, what will gel with a potential agent is based entirely on personal preference and the exchanged energy between you both. To gauge the vastly disparate range of outcomes, we’ve compiled testimony from several Backstage Experts on ways in which they were and were not intrigued when approached by a possible new client.
“In the era of YouTube, Vine, Vimeo, and other emerging social platforms, there are more opportunities than ever for an actor to self-generate work that shows agents why they should say yes to representing them. A local play, a short film, a funny YouTube video—these are all potential ways to show off your talent. The catch is, if the production value is low, the performance has to be that much better. Meaning: It has to be phenomenal and has to make me feel like if I don’t reach out to you, I’ll be missing out.” —Marni Rosenzweig
“People who show me résumés that are just loaded with crap? I don’t like liars at all. A lot of people will show you a résumé and say, ‘I was Student #1 in ‘Vampire Diaries,’ when really they were an extra. The reality is, there are speaking roles called Student #1 and things like that, and you’re really kind of insulting the people who work really hard to get those by lying about it on your résumé. I throw those away immediately.” —Alexander White
“OK, so you got yourself a meeting. But how do you turn a meeting into representation? Let's start by getting clear about what you're asking of an agent. You're not just asking them to pitch you to a casting director. You're asking them to take time away from the clients who pay their mortgage and keep their kids in private school to focus on you and your career. That's a tall order… So they have to believe that with minimal development you will make them money. You do that in a few ways. Either you're charming and have the perfect look, you've worked consistently and/or recently, or you're talented and will absolutely kill in the room, and most of that you can't do much about. You look how you look, and you can't create a solid reel and résumé out of nothing. But the two things you can control are your talent and your hard work. You can work consistently in acting classes and on stage to cultivate your talent so that it’s strong and unique. And you can do the work of creating your own material, writing, shooting, and posting content consistently, always doing everything you can to create work for yourself. If you do that work, are ‘of the work,’ and walk into the meeting with talent, you walk in with power.”—Risa Bramon Garcia & Steve Braun
Casting director and Backstage Expert Kate McClanaghan has an important reminder for you: “This ‘meeting’ is an audition. It’s important you understand this regardless of how you got in the room (i.e. a friend-of-a-friend, a professional referral, or even a personal submission). This is a job interview. You may think it's a simple ‘meet and greet,’ or pleasant fact-finding mission on your end, but the agent in front of you is reading whether or not you’re worthy (and savvy) enough to become someone who would represent the best of what the agency provides producers and directors. Therefore, this is as much a “chemistry read” as anything, whether the agent has you read a script or two or not.”
Agent Nancy Curtis emphasizes dressing for the specific success of an actor:
“How you dress for me is how you're going to dress for the audition. A lot of times actors will dress kind of like they wake up on Saturday morning. They'll be in very casual clothes, and they don't understand that that last memory I have of them is how I'm going to sell them. I like it when somebody says, "Hey, this is how I'm dressing for auditions, if you have any comments on that." Don't dress for the interview; dress for potential auditions.”
Curtis also notes the power of courtesy: “Be nice to everyone in the office, because the front-desk person in 10 years is running a company. Let's say you had been rude to the front-desk person. The moment you walk out that door, my front-desk person walks up to me: ‘So, you want to know what they were really like?’... So if you show attitude in the outer office it gets reported back to me within two seconds. And the opposite happens too: If you're wonderful to the front desk person, literally you'll walk out that door and my front-desk person will come up to me and say, ‘They were the most gracious person I have ever met; my God, they were lovely; my God, what a wonderful attitude.’”
When you do get a chance to come face to face with a prospective agent, they will likely have many questions for you. However, if you’re wise, you will for them as well. In fact, when they very probably solicit inquiries, a moment of red-hot panic will surely result if you haven’t adequately prepared. Asking questions is extremely important, and asking the right kind of questions is doubly so.
Acting coach and Backstage Expert Denise Simon provides insight, this time with four essential questions which all talent should ask when meeting with a possible agent. These will help you to get the ball rolling on your own brainstorm, as well, because surely you know what is most important for you as a human being and actor:
- What type do you see me as?
This is a really important question and one that needs addressing before signing. You may think you can play the leading lady but your potential rep sees you as a character actress. Now is the time to get on the same page. Discuss whether or not you will be sent out on theater as well as television and film auditions. Do you both agree that comedy is your thing? And if it is, will you still be considered for one-hour dramas and film as well? If you are interested in pursuing commercials and voiceovers, find out who within the agency handles that.
- How many clients do you have and how many are my type?
Agencies and management companies come in all sizes. Some have a handful of clients; some have hundreds. Find out how many other represented clients are your type and how that might affect you getting submitted for projects.
- How do you feel about me submitting myself for projects?
There are many ways these days to find out about projects on your own. There are open calls listed in Backstage and plenty of resources on the Internet. While your potential rep will work hard for you in securing auditions, there may be times when you find something that he or she does not know about it. Ask how they like to handle this. What about student films? Find out if they are open to you pursuing these leads on your own. Remember you are part of the team, and it’s nice to know they are a team player.
- Do you recommend photographers, acting, voice or dance teachers?
There are a plethora of photographers and teachers out there. Ask what this potential rep thinks of your current headshot. Who takes their clients’ fabulous pictures? Find out where some of their other clients study acting, voice or dance. It’s always great to get a personal recommendation when you can.
We also suggest this bonus question:
Do you freelance?
Many agents decide to freelance with actors, while others require you to sign an exclusivity agreement. Freelancing allows you to work with multiple agents at the same time, but it can also mean that you’re on the backburner, as compared to an agency’s signed clients. Ask your potential rep their thoughts: if they freelance, and if so, for how long. Some agents decide to freelance with clients on a trial basis to see if they’d like to sign with you down the road. Others freelance indefinitely.
Let’s say, at long last, you’ve landed yourself an agent who’s compatible with your needs and disposition. Hooray! Alas, that in no way means your efforts can falter. Getting an agent is tough, but keeping that agent satisfied is surely as exacting. Though not a precise science, there are steps which can be taken to ensuring your agent’s smile never wanes.
There are the obvious duties which need to be upheld, including staying in class, timeliness to auditions and appointments and keeping your materials up to date. However, when it comes to maintaining your agent’s happiness, there are less apparent requirements that are of equal importance.
- Keep your phone on.
Agents recommend that you purchase a smartphone if you don’t already have one, and respond instantly to phone calls, text messages or emails.
- Update your information.
Your headshots and profiles are vital tools for your agent to use when pitching you, so if you’ve made any major changes to your physical appearance, make sure your agent knows before breakdowns come in.
- Respect that your agent has a life.
Call to let your agent know how an audition went, by all means—just not at six in the morning! Keep correspondence limited to between work hours.
- Take their advice.
If your agent is counseling you to get another headshot taken, it’s not personal, it’s professional—trust that they’re looking out for you and your career.
An actor’s relationship with their agent, like every other relationship in their life, will change and evolve over time. And yes, it may likely end. Sometimes, your relationship with your agency will end on your terms, and other times, well, not so much. But that capricious nature of the business is also what makes it thrilling, right? After all, you could have gone into finance, where you’d know exactly what your days will look like for the next 35 years.
Getting dropped by your agency, though painful, is entirely common and is not anything your resilient self can’t bounce back from. Remember again, this is common.
“A top agent who signs you in the early days of your career can also drop you,” says Gilliss. “And I've seen this happen often. A young actor gets a small part in a major film with stars and gets signed to a celebrity agency, such as William Morris Endeavor or Creative Artists Agency. They're riding high, and six months later, the film is forgotten, no new film or bookings have come up, and the agency drops you. Your 15 minutes of glory are over and you're back on the street looking for a showcase and a new agent. Ouch!”
Ouch, indeed, but it is vital to maintain a levelheaded understanding of what just happened, and look towards the future. “If you have worked before and have talent, it is time to reassess your assets with a trusted professional,” says acting coach and Backstage Expert Denise Simon. “Get an opinion of your strengths, repackage your portfolio, and shop till you drop. I'm not talking Macy's! Agents and managers need talent. Just because your current representation is unwilling to handle you, doesn’t mean someone else won’t. What may not be in vogue for one rep, may be just the thing another is looking for.”
You can also use the incident as a moment of reflection to better yourself as an actor and client. Chris Roth of Avant Artists agency in L.A. also underlines that many reasons for being dropped are not detrimental and are easily amended. “Take the agent’s reasoning and criticism to heart and learn what you can do to make the most of it,” he says. “Reflect for a moment: Do you let your agent’s phone calls go to voicemail? Do you forget to reply to work-related emails? Do you turn in audition tapes late? All of these little mistakes can add up—and they’re very fixable.”
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Ready to start your agent search? Check out Backstage’s Call Sheet for all your agency listing needs!