Should I Sign Across The Board?
Help! I’m Trapped At A Commercial Agency and I Can’t Get Out!
This is a common story. John is a beginning actor who moved to Los Angeles about a year ago. He has been taking acting classes and has recently gotten great photos. After a commercial workshop a few months ago, he was offered exclusive representation by a commercial talent agency, and is finally going out on some nice auditions. He really likes his commercial agents, and they really seem to be working hard for him.
Recently, John participated in a theatrical showcase, and he got a meeting with a reputable theatrical agent. Things are looking up!
He takes the meeting, and it goes very well. The agency offers to represent him, but there’s a hitch. They want him to sign exclusively with them not only for theatrical representation, but also for commercial and print work as well. This is typically known as signing “across the board,” and puts John in an awkward situation. Does he leave his commercial agency? Does he tell the new agency that he will only sign for theatrical work? What are the pros and cons of this situation? Why are so many actors faced with this decision, and what should you do?
First, in case this isn’t clear to some readers, you should understand that it is perfectly acceptable for actors to have multiple agents for separate disciplines in Los Angeles. Actors can have one agency exclusively for commercials, a second agency for voiceover, a third for print, a fourth for theatrical (Film/TV), and even sometimes others for legit theatre work, hosting, industrials, dance, singing, personal appearances, and so on. You get the point. Specialists are good. They focus well. They can be very productive.
Now let’s get back to our dilemma. Let’s begin by discussing why an agency would want to sign a new, developmental actor across the board. Realistically, it is significantly easier for an agency to get commercial auditions for a new actor, partly because of the high volume of roles, and partly because the depth of an actor’s resume isn’t as important for most commercial auditions or bookings. Additionally, the structure of residual payments for commercial bookings make this part of the industry very lucrative for new talent. On the other side of the issue, it is much more difficult to obtain theatrical auditions for new actors, and with few exceptions, the financial rewards for each booking are much lower than commercials. For example, if an actor books a Guest Star role on a sitcom, and receives “top of show” payment for a weeks work, that same actor would not receive as much money over time as he would for working for a few hours on one national commercial that has a modest run. It is only when a theatrical actor begins booking major roles in films, or series regular roles, do they far surpass the typical income levels of an actor who books commercials regularly.
In light of this, it seems the main reason for an agency to request that an actor sign with them across the board is for the purposes of “balance.” If the agent is going to expend a great deal of effort pitching the actor for theatrical roles with little near-term rewards, then it makes good business sense from an agency standpoint to balance the scales by generating statistically easier income from the commercial side while building towards a riskier big score theatrically. That’s the agency strategy.
Now that we understand the vantage point of the agency, what else does an actor need to consider before determining the best course of action? Here are some important factors to evaluate:
1. Which agency has a stronger commercial department, according to the commercial casting community at large?
2. Does the same agent handle theatrical and commercial submissions?
3. How many theatrical and/or commercial agents would be handling your career at one agency?
4. Do you have a signed contract with the original commercial agency?
5. Does the commercial agency have a theatrical department that might also consider you as a potential client?
6. Which agents seem more passionate about your career?
Keeping all this information in mind, and regardless of the answers to all of the above questions, I should note that it is generally NOT a good idea to leave your commercial agency for another agency that offers you representation across the board. More often than not, it is a big mistake. It’s a smart idea to give your commercial agency enough time to build your commercial career, and to stay with them as long as you continue to audition. It is never a wise idea to burn a bridge with any agent.
Another big factor (and there are exceptions to this, of course) is that most commercial agencies are more productive for commercial actors than theatrical agencies that have chosen to add a commercial division. As the entertainment industry has evolved in the past decade, many theatrical agencies have experienced a decline of theatrical bookings due to the rise in reality television production and the loss of viewers to the web. Many of those agencies have been forced to diversify to help balance the books. Thus, a theatrical agency chooses to hire a junior commercial agent from another agency, and build a new commercial department. Those upstart divisions may take years to build a solid reputation, and many actors being handled by those agents could find themselves at a disadvantage over their peers who are represented by stronger, more established commercial agencies.
Here’s the bottom line – Don’t leave your new commercial agency under most circumstances. It’s easier and nicer to decline the offer from the theatrical agency by citing loyalty to your commercial agents. In the future, if you become available, that theatrical agency may still be interested, and they will feel more confident that you would be a loyal client. However, if you leave your commercial agency, you could be burning a bridge that cannot be crossed again. That’s the deal.
Adam Lieblein is a graduate of the UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television, and spent eight years as a producer of films, commercials and television projects until 1993 when he opened a talent agency. Adam was the president of Acme Talent & Literary for sixteen years, and together with his eighteen agents represented actors for film, television, commercials, print modeling and voiceover work, and writers for film and novels. At the end of 2008, Acme’s several divisions were sold to other agencies, and Adam returned to the business of producing and teaching at UCLA. In 2011 Adam was recruited by Casting Networks to work in Business and Product Development.