Once an actor secures a representative—whether an agent, a manager, or both—the actor will be presented with a representation agreement (although agents sometimes "hip pocket" certain clients, or represent them without signing them, holding off until a big role comes up). Because a representation agreement can have long-term implications, it's a good idea to have it reviewed by an attorney.
General Services Agreement
A "general services agreement" is the standard, very broad representation agreement (hence the "general") used by talent agencies. In California, these agreements are governed by the state and must be approved by the labor commissioner. In New York, the industrial commissioner regulates them.
In addition to a GSA, an agency franchised by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists or Actors' Equity Association will typically have the actor sign the union's agency agreement if the actor's services will fall under union jurisdiction. (The Screen Actors Guild's agreement with agencies expired around 2000, so its forms are no longer used.) Union agreements are geared toward protecting the actor and are usually more actor-friendly than a typical GSA. Because their provisions are approved by the union, there is less concern about signing one without extensive review (though you can always improve its terms).
Actors often sign a GSA in conjunction with one or more union agreements, as the GSA covers services that aren't covered by the union agreements (such as personal appearances and endorsements). In some cases, the GSA will be the only agreement signed by the actor. Here are some key terms to look out for, though there are many more.
The term of a representation agreement is typically between one and five years. AFTRA and Equity restrict the duration of an actor's initial representation term to one year. After that, the term can be longer if the agreement is renewed. Typically, union contracts can be terminated if the artist has not received a minimum number of engagements or a minimum amount of income during a three- or four-month period. Actors should request the same provision in a GSA, in order to retain their right to terminate the agreement if the relationship with the agent is not working.
Because GSAs are usually broad and include all artistic services, actors often carve out some types of employment or certain pre-existing projects from the agreement—meaning they are not included in it. For instance, an actor who is established in theater but looking to work in commercials would carve out stage projects. Carve-outs can be very specific ("commercials for Coca-Cola") or general ("commercials").
Another coverage issue is the representative's right to take a commission after the term of the agreement expires. Only projects substantially negotiated during the term should be covered. Union agreements address this issue as well.
Technically, commission rates are negotiable, but most agencies won't reduce their standard percentage. Licensed agents abiding by union-mandated provisions cannot take more than 10 percent of the actor's earnings, while personal managers occasionally ask for upward of 15 percent. If the actor has both a manager and an agent, the manager will typically limit his or her commission to 10 percent.
In some cases (usually the bigger talent agencies), the agent will take a "package fee"—a percentage of the budget or license fee for the project, paid for by the studio—in lieu of commissioning the actor. This applies to projects for which the agency "packaged" several clients (actors, writers, directors) who together make the project saleable.
An actor should never pay up front for representation. Such offers, occasionally accompanied by a guarantee of employment, are typically illegal.
Travel, expenses, and similar perks should never be commissionable.
Personal Managers and Talent Attorneys
Actors may engage a personal manager and/or a talent attorney instead of or in addition to an agent. Management representation agreements are similar to agency representation agreements but are not subject to union protections or state approval. The key negotiation issues are essentially the same as with an agency agreement.
Talent attorneys are not usually involved in procuring employment but are valuable in reviewing employment agreements. Talent attorneys use "retainer agreements" and often take a 5 percent commission on earnings in lieu of an hourly fee.