If an actor is working, make sure you talk to him at least twice a week. If he is not working, talk to him every day.
- Movie mogul, Lew Wasserman
Talent agents work on behalf of the 'creative talent' in the entertainment industry. Usually 'creative talent' means actors, directors and writers, but can also include producers, costume designers, lighting cameramen, choreographers, composers. Basically anyone who has creative input in an entertainment project can have an agent to represent them.
An agent's place in the industry pecking order is based not on their own personal qualities and talents, but the people on their list. If you want to get the head of Miramax on the phone, or make a same-day reservation for lunch at the Ivy1, you need to represent some major talent.
Scouting for Talent
As a junior agent, you generally have to make the rounds. If you're a casting agent, this means attending end of year shows at the drama schools and keeping an eye on early evening television in case there's anyone worth poaching.
If you're a literary agent (which means you represent directors and writers) you spend most of your evenings in fringe theatres, searching for the next Sam Mendes or David Hare.
And then there's the showreels, and the short films, and the scripts. Lots of them.
If you are an experienced agent or belong to a large agency, the talent generally comes to you - often introduced by those on the production side. If a producer who has a good relationship with your agency finds a bright young writer, they will tend to push them your way. And there's always that weather eye open for anyone who may be unhappy with their current representation.
I'll Call Monday
Agents don't take calls; they only return calls.
- Michael Wolff, New York Magazine
The talent business has undergone many changes in the last couple of decades, and there are two distinct types of talent agency in the UK.
First there are the small-scale partnerships, typically occupying cluttered offices in the back streets of London's Soho. The agents pride themselves on their close relationships with their clients. Like legendary literary agent Peggy Ramsey, they are eccentric yet dedicated. They have cosy names like Meredith Cavendish & Associates, frequent the Groucho Club2, and remember the days when a handshake was as good as a 50-page contract.
Then there are the larger-scale organisations comprising a host of agents and a contingent of assistants, runners and accountants, which have embraced the cut and thrust of Hollywood-style 'creative management'. Richard E Grant immortalised this new breed of agent in his film diaries With Nails, in his descriptions of his agent Michael Foster of ICM, whom Grant nicknamed - accurately if not necessarily affectionately - the Dwarf. These agencies have corporate names like International Talent Management, their agents frequent 'media dahling' clubs such as Soho House, and will fly thousands of miles to attend one screening if they smell a hot deal.
To clients, small agencies offer the personal touch and plenty of ego massage. Large agencies such as ICM (International Creative Management) offer power and influence, although they don't guarantee to get back to you when you call. No surprise then, that ICM's nickname in the industry is 'I'll Call Monday'.
Love 'Em or Hate 'Em
Talent agents are often perceived in the popular imagination as schmoozing backstabbers who will sell their own grandmothers for a 10% gross participation deal3. Richard E Grant certainly displays an equivocal opinion of The Dwarf and his colleagues:
Calls from a couple of rival agencies on the poach. Flattering and unnerving as I feel that even talking to them is traitorous. But then I remind myself that they have as much conscience as... fill in whatever Brutus comes to mind.
- from With Nails by Richard E Grant
However, there are agents who have commanded great respect and admiration from clients over the years. Michael Caine and Roger Moore joined together to pay public tribute to their agent Dennis Selinger, who died in 1998. Caine said Selinger was 'the best agent in England'. Although Selinger had become part of the ICM powerhouse, he was assuredly of the old school.
Literary agent Peggy Ramsey's intense, passionate relationship with Simon Callow has been chronicled in Callow's book Love is Where it Falls. She was in her 70s and Callow was in his 30s - and gay. Their remarkable association continued until Ramsey's death in 1991. As Joe Orton's agent, she features regularly in his famous diaries, and is a character in the film about Orton's life, Prick Up Your Ears. Another of her clients, the playwright Alan Plater, wrote a play about her called Peggy For You, in which Maureen Lipman took the title role.
However, some would say that this type of relationship is a thing of the past. In Hollywood, the agency business was almost single-handedly transformed in the late seventies by the infamous Michael Ovitz, founder of CAA (Creative Artists Agency) and dubbed by the press over the next two decades as 'the most powerful man in Hollywood'.
Ovitz and his fellow agents built up a huge and impressive client list, and went aggressively after big deals and big money. Using their experience in television, CAA began to offer 'package' deals - common in TV but unheard of in film - whereby the agents would bring together the writer, director, producer and principal cast from amongst their own clients and offer them to a studio as a package. CAA undercut normal agency fees but demanded huge salaries for their actors. ICM and WMA (William Morris Agency) eventually followed suit. The cost of making movies soared, and the powerbase was transferred from the studios to the 'superagents'.
I'd Like To Thank My Agent...
But what is it that talent agents do exactly?
The Dwarf calls from a mobile phone on his way into London. 'Gary has suggested you to Tom Stoppard and I think you would be great together. They've got Dreyfuss. Shoots for eight weeks in Zagreb and would fit in perfectly after you finish up in Paris. I'll send you the script and set up a meeting with Stoppard.'
- from With Nails by Richard E Grant
Primarily an agent's task is to find work for their clients, and negotiate the fees, royalties and credit for the work. When the client is earning, they are earning, as they receive 10% of the client's fee.
Agents also provide moral support, send flowers on opening night, post signed photographs to fans, field enquiries from chatshows and charities, take crisis calls from film sets on the other side of the world, deny everything to journalists, fend off producers, arrange schedules, throw parties and recommend good lawyers.
In fact, one of the more shadowy roles of an agent is damage limitation and, yes - spin. A negative story in the newspapers, a kiss-and-tell, a drugs allegation - all of these unfortunate situations generally fall first to the agent, who must therefore have good contacts with lawyers, publicity agents and gossip columnists4.
Swimming With Sharks
But the role of the agent has expanded even further in recent years, and the UK has taken its lead from Hollywood. Large agencies are now closely involved in packaging, script development and film financing. They will use their influence within the industry to help projects get financed and made. Often agents will assist in coming up with the initial ideas - say, for a new television series - and will sell the project directly to the channel controllers or commissioning editors.
There are also production companies who have realised the benefits of representing talent, such as Avalon, which specialises in comedy.
The biggest agents have moved towards playing with the corporate big boys - and often winning. Ovitz, for example, was the prime mover behind the spate of mergers that went on in Hollywood in the late 1980s, negotiating the sale of Columbia Pictures to Sony and the acquisition of Universal by Matsushita.
In the UK, Michael Foster (Richard E Grant's 'Dwarf'), who represented the presenter Chris Evans in the late 90s, helped Evans' production company, Ginger, to buy Virgin Radio from Richard Branson, in the biggest deal of its kind.
Interestingly, both Ovitz and Foster subsequently left their agencies to go over to 'the other side' - Ovitz to Disney, and Foster to Ginger Media Group. However, neither career move was a huge success, and both Ovitz and Foster are now back in the talent business. Rumours abounded as to why these relationships didn't work out; personality clashes were a major contributor in both cases. But it's probably also true to say that agents aren't very well adapted to working in a corporation-style environment.
Being an agent is an odd profession. For a start, it can hardly be called a profession. It has no qualifications, no standards, no regulations, no official training - and very few people know what agents actually do.
An agent's agreement with a client (there's no written contract; it's generally an oral agreement which can be terminated as easily as it is begun) has remained virtually unchanged over the decades: the agent takes 10% of the client's earnings from any work that the agent has negotiated for the client.
Yet it can be very lucrative, and with the perceived glamour that goes with wheeling and dealing in the film industry, it is not entirely surprising that the top agencies such as ICM, CAA and WMA have Ivy League graduates working in the mail room. Even Michael Ovitz started in the William Morris mailroom. It is difficult to walk into agenting in the way that you walk into management consulting. Generally it is an old-fashioned apprenticeship - you work your way up from the bottom.
An agent's work is often stressful and precarious. If a major client defects to another agency it can be both a public embarrassment and a financial problem. It may also spark off further defections. An agent may lose a client for something as significant as not getting them the right work, or for something as trivial as forgetting to send flowers on the first day of principal photography.
This job is not for seekers after fame. Agents are rarely known outside the business, and even within it their machinations can be closely-guarded secrets. In the end, there's nothing a client likes less than an agent who is more prominent than they are!