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How Do You Get To Be an Agent?

I get questions all the time about how one goes about getting an agent. But a question came up at one of our Actorfest panels the other week, which focused on how one goes about becoming an agent. Because there wasn't enough time to answer the question that afternoon (and it wasn't directly related to the panel discussion anyway), I thought I would try to answer it in this column. It's a topic that I think many readers would want to know more about, and something that I wanted to know more about as well.

To do so, I called upon two people who could best address this: Gareth May, agency representative in New York for Actors' Equity Association, and Anthony LeGrand, executive administrator of the Agency Department in New York for Screen Actors Guild. Both are professional colleagues whom I've known for quite a while and call upon whenever I have a question about a particular agent or agency.

The requirements and procedures for these unions are very similar in many respects, differing only in a few areas. Still, the purposes of the franchising procedures are exactly the same: to assure that the agents are best qualified to represent the interests of union members.

I spoke first to Gareth regarding becoming an Equity franchised agent. He preceded the process explanation with a bit of history about the union. Equity's Agency Department is the second oldest department (the oldest being Membership). It got underway in 1928-15 years after Equity's formation in 1913. From 1928 through 1958, the Agency Department issued permits stating its rules and instructions. Then in 1958, Equity issued "Rule A," which very specifically laid out the rules governing the relationship between actors and agents and Equity. The Equity Agency Department has been operating under these same rules since. "Many of our actors weren't even born before these rules were created," Gareth quips. He notes that the rules are collectively bargained with two professional agent associations: On the East Coast it's the National Association of Talent Representatives (NATR), with The Gage Group's Phil Adelman as president. On the West Coast it's the Association of Talent Agents (ATA), with Karen Stewart as executive director. Some agents belong to both organizations, but basically the New York agents belong to NATR.

So when a person comes into the Equity office or calls the Agency Department expressing interest in an agency franchise, Gareth gives or sends to him/her an agency franchising kit, which includes an application and a list of procedures to follow. These are: 1.) Completing and notarizing the application; 2.) Submitting (a) five letters of recommendation from Equity members in good standing; (b) a resume noting professional background in the industry; (c) a statement of ownership (plus a copy of both your corporate seal and your incorporation or partnership papers); (d) a copy of your state (or city) license; (e) a copy (if you have them) of other union franchises; (f) proof (if you have it) of existing "client" bank accounts.

Gareth notes that there are no application fees, nor processing fees. The rulebooks for the various contract areas are free, and so are the standard contract forms. (The fees come with the state or city licensing procedures, which I'll get to soon.) Gareth then turns over all the collected information to Judy Rice, who is the chair of the Agency Committee. "If she has a question, or if a question is raised," Gareth adds, "it then goes to the full Agency Committee for review."

From here, notice of an application from a prospective agent is posted on the bulletin boards. (In New York, at the AEA Audition Center, on the second floor of the Equity building.) The department is specifically looking for feedback from Equity members regarding the applicant. "In most cases," states Gareth, "it's not a complaint. In many cases, the feedback is very favorable."

Mind you, what I've explained so far is for an agent who is obtaining an agency franchise-the agent being the owner of the agency. Other agents working in the agency office are actually sub-agents. Gareth points out, for example, that everyone at William Morris is a sub-agent, since the agency is owned by a board of directors. The procedure for becoming a sub-agent differs: The agency submits an application and a professional resume for the prospective employee. Each individual agency determines when the sub-agent is ready for that status and, according to Gareth, the union usually endorses it.

Continuing with obtaining an agency franchise, after the posting on the Equity bulletin board, Gareth meets with the agent and conducts an onsite inspection in what has to be a commercial space. The space can not be shared with any other business that might be considered a conflict of interest, i.e., photographers, publicists, personal managers, casting directors, producers, schools, or coaches.

"When I first started," Gareth states, "we would do office inspections and we would count ceiling tiles to make sure the space was big enough. I'd also have to check out the men's and ladies' rooms." But, he adds, "Now a lot of the union field work has been taken over by the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Department of Buildings [as part of obtaining your license]."

Because of the soaring prices of real estate in New York, the union, says Gareth, is a bit more liberal about just how large an office space should be, allowing agents to double up if they both have a license, or sharing a space with a non-conflict-of-interest business.

Copies of the rulebooks and standard contract forms are given to the prospective agent during the office visit. "You can imagine, all of Equity's rules handed over in a big folder, and a week or 10 days later, a staff person asking, "Do you have any questions?' " Gareth states, and adds that SAG requires a written exam on the rules and contracts; Equity does not at this time.

After the application is submitted to Committee Chair Judy Rice, it then goes to the Eastern Regional Board (or Central, or Western, depending where the agency is), and that body approves or disapproves the franchise. Notes Gareth: "Any time that Equity ever turns down an agency, the agency has the right to go to arbitration to understand why the franchise was denied, though this has not happened in many years."

If approved by the Regional Board, Equity will then forward a formal agency document to the agent's office.

Getting a license from the state or city (in New York, a license is mandatory) may be the most difficult part of becoming an agent, says Gareth. A license is required by the New York State general business law. "In New York City, the jurisdiction is run by the Department of Consumer Affairs; outside the city, it's the Department of Labor for the State of New York. Each state has a different procedure. In California, it's the Department of Labor. Connecticut has no state or city regulations. They don't have any rules governing talent agents. Prospective agents just submit the application to us. Equity has to obey the local law. If the law calls for licensing, we have to make sure they have a license."

The applicant needs to apply in person. He or she needs to get fingerprinted. A surety bond must be put up in the amount of $5,000. (You can purchase a premium from an insurance company to cover that amount.) If a problem comes up, because there are so many different types of licenses being applied for at the same place, Equity has a liaison at the Department of Consumer Affairs who will try to work out any difficulties that might arise.

About 100 agencies exist in the Eastern Region, 150 to 200 in the Western Region, and another 20 or so in the Central Region. I asked Gareth to note how he's seen the business change over the years.

"The agency business is always changing," he points out. "Right now the big issue is computers, electronic breakdowns, and pictures on the computer. Some of our agencies don't even have computers set up, but a lot of them do.

"The world is getting a lot smaller. I've seen a lot of changes. When I first started out, the agent used to write contracts. Now it's generated from the producers. In the old days before Breakdown Services, an agent would get a copy of the script from the producer that he knew personally and would do the parts breakdown himself. Now everybody gets the same. It's more of an equal-opportunity situation."

Screen Actors Guild was established in 1933 and the agency regulations, called "Rule 16," have been in effect since 1938. (SAG also collectively negotiates with NATR and ATA.) Anthony explained that SAG took the lead from Equity. The union realized that agents needed to be regulated, otherwise they would play a role in undermining SAG's collective-bargaining agreements. "The William Morris Agency came to the Guild, sat down with them, and banged out a first set of agency regulations," Anthony states. "The regulations are part of SAG's Constitution and Bylaws. That's how they got the name "Rule 16.' It's Rule 16(g) in the Bylaws of SAG."

One thing that differs between SAG's and Equity's procedures is that SAG requires that the agent be tested on the basics of each of its contracts and the collective-bargaining agreements. "Something we are contemplating for the future," says Anthony, "is to extend that testing to all sub-agents. But right now only the agent-owner has to take that test, because they're ultimately responsible for the needs of their sub-agents.

"Once they get an acceptable score," Anthony continues, "they pass that bar. The next bar is that we check their bank accounts to make sure that they have two separate accounts, one being the operating account, and that they have sufficient monies in it to run the agency; and the other is the client trust account." And he emphasizes, "neither the two shall meet," making reference to the trouble an agency recently had over mingling those funds.

A $5,000 surety bond is required for the state license, as we previously mentioned, but SAG requires a $10,000 bond (which includes the state bond). Anthony mentions that there are several insurance companies, called surety companies, that provide specific coverage for theatrical employment agents. (The $10,000 bond will cost the prospective agent $200 to $300 a year.) Anthony also notes that discussions are now underway to revisit the bonding procedure.

An onsite evaluation is the next step, and an Agency Department rep makes sure the agent's office complies with the standard business practices: a reception area, a private office, separate men's and women's rooms, and not sharing space with a conflict-of-interest entity. When the information is reviewed, and a franchise granted, the agent comes to the SAG offices and has a two- to three-hour meeting with Anthony. "We go over the agency regulations and talk about them and I answer any questions. We go through all the requirements of being a SAG-franchised agent-how to enter contracts, how to service clients if clients go to L.A., and so on."

I asked Anthony if SAG posts the names of prospective franchised agents as Equity does. "No, we don't, because in our agency regs it says that any information gathered is confidential. Also, in terms of practicality, agents come from other offices and they don't want their office to know that they're leaving and striking out on their own."

Regarding sub-agents, states Anthony, "Once the sub-agent leaves the employ of the agency, their authorization to be an agent in that agency terminates. They cannot carry it on. It's not transferable to another agency...they have to reapply all over again and we have to review again because only the agent-owner is responsible under the disciplinary provisions of the agency regulations." The same thing happens at Equity.

I asked Anthony to talk about trends that he sees in the agency business. "I think that the smaller agencies are having a rough go at it and we're trying to make sure that they survive. The business is changing so quickly. The larger agencies are getting connections and they have a lot of clout. It's hard for the smaller agencies to compete. We try to be responsive to them by studying who gets the calls for jobs and auditions and to make sure the smaller agency gets their share as well. That's something that we'll definitely continue to work on. We also want to be sure that the agency regs, Rule 16(g), are applicable to the changing landscape of the entertainment business."

Finally, I asked the Agency Department exec what he thinks is the ideal agent and what he looks for in people who are representing an agency.

"I think the best agent is akin to a manager," Anthony asserts. "If you read our agency regs, it really reads like a description of what a good manager is. A good agent is going to look out for all the concerns of the client, try to protect the client, look for the long-term benefits of doing certain projects for their client, and really guide their career. Giving good counsel to the performer and having a real relationship-not just a telephone relationship or a paper relationship. If you notice, the agents who are very successful are the ones who have that reputation of being that kind of hands-on agent, being right up in-your-face with their clients. I think it takes someone with intelligence, who is a little bit of a psychologist, salesperson, and someone who has a real love of the business."

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