Agents Behaving Badly
If It Looks Like A Duck, and Quacks Like a Duck…
In a previous article for this column, I mentioned certain bad behaviors by actors that could cause an actor to lose his agent. Today we look at the opposite side of that issue. What type of agent behavior should be of serious concern to actors? Are there red flags that actors should look out for, and should they be ready to confront their agent or sometimes leave an agency when those things happen? Let’s put this in perspective…
First, we understand that it’s not an easy task to find and sign with an agent. Right? So actors tend to be a little too forgiving when an agent behaves in a questionable manner. Actors will put up with quite a bit, just to avoid having to look for a new agent. That makes sense. Agents are just people. They are fallible. They make mistakes. However, those mistakes may also be a sign that the agent is not very good at their job. Just because the company has an agency license doesn’t mean that their staff is doing business the right way. Having a bad agent is NOT necessarily better than having no agent at all. In this article, I will attempt to provide some insight about agent behavior that should give actors reason to reevaluate their relationship.
If an agent insists that you use a specific photographer or coach, that’s a red flag. The concept of a kickback is not new, and this scheme has never gone away completely. Even though this practice is technically against the law, and violates union franchise rules, there are always a handful of agencies out there that require their new clients to use a specific vendor before they will represent them. This likely means that the agency is getting a financial benefit (referral fee) from the vendor, and if an agent needs to make money this way, they are probably not very good at making it the old fashioned way – by getting actors jobs! If an agent makes demands like this as a prerequisite for signing, I strongly recommend that you consider passing.
If your agent is a frequent panelist at paid showcases, it can be a bad sign. Let’s put aside the argument about whether or not paid showcases are ethical at all. We can even make an assumption that an occasional paid showcase to scout for talent is perfectly fine. But an agent that attends several of these paid showcases each month, every month, is probably using those venues to line their pockets with extra cash. And as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, if an agent needs to resort to this kind of activity to make extra money, then it’s a sign that they aren’t booking enough actors to earn a decent living from their commissions. Furthermore, if the agent subsequently signs an actor or two from every one of those paid showcases, then I would be suspicious about the size of the agency’s client list. Are they simply playing a numbers game? Do they have enough time to pitch all the right actors for the right roles, or are they just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks? If your agent is a frequent attendee at these events, you should ask them why they do it.
If your agent fails to properly negotiate on your behalf, it can reveal not only a lack of competency, but a sense of desperation. If you were booking Guest Starring roles for television programs at the Top-Of-Show rate last year, but your current agent accepts a Co-Star credit for you at a much lower salary, and refuses to go back and ask for more, then you have to ask what happened. Many times there’s a good reason. But if the reason they give you sounds fishy, then I’d be concerned.
Another frequent example of a failure to negotiate revolves around union commercials. When an existing commercial has been active for 18 months, and is about to enter a final 3-month cycle of the initial 21-month maximum use period, there is a contractual window of opportunity that allows for the renegotiation of terms for extending the use of the commercial. A specific letter must be sent to the advertiser by the agency to commence those negotiations. If the letter is not sent to the right place during the proper time, then the advertiser has the right to continue airing the commercial at scale minimum rates. Failure to renegotiate a commercial is basically throwing good money away. An agent that misses this opportunity is really not paying attention.
If your agent spends all day on social networks, it’s a sign that they are not making the most productive use of their time to directly procure auditions for their clients. As an actor, you may have the time to browse Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or any one of multiple other similar sites during a day when you are not working. If your agent and/or agency has a profile on those sites, you obviously link to it and follow them. Generally speaking, that’s a good thing. However, if you find large numbers of posts from your agent generated during business hours on multiple social sites, I’d be concerned. Posting on social networks should not take precedence to making submissions and pitching.
If your agent rarely returns phone calls or emails, and seems to never be in the office, that should be worrisome. Of course, there are some times of day when an agent is busier than others, and even beloved clients will need to leave a message and wait until the morning submission cycle is finished. But when an actor tries to reach an agent for more than a couple of days without success, then the relationship has problems. You should be a bit more aggressive to connect with them (politely!) and find out what might be wrong.
If your agent complains to you about other clients they represent, then they are displaying very bad business etiquette, and it’s not a good sign. Would you want your agent complaining to other actors about you? (By that same logic, you should also never bad-mouth any of your former agents.)
If your agent sends you to auditions for roles that you are clearly not right for, many times, it is time for a heart-to-heart talk with them. They might have a distorted opinion of you as much older or younger, or much prettier or more character than you actually are. If you regularly experience discomfort while waiting in a casting lobby as you look around at all the other actors auditioning for the same role, because they all look vastly different than you, then you have a problem that needs to be discussed with your agent.
If you are unrepresented, and an agent offers to sign you without even meeting you, it’s a red flag. Even though much of an agent’s job can be done via the web, there’s no good reason to forego an in-person meeting when considering agent-actor representation. This behavior is very suspicious.
There are a myriad of other situations that an actor may experience that should encourage them to have a conversation with their agent and possibly reassess their representation altogether. For example, when an actor obtains few (or zero) auditions from their agent during a period of months, or if an agency makes frequent mistakes processing payroll checks for actors, an actor should wake up and take some action. Use common sense. If something seems wrong, it probably is. Don’t keep it to yourself. Talk to them about it.
With all of this being understood, I should say that the vast majority of Talent Agencies in Los Angeles and New York are competent and productive for most of the actors they represent. But there are bad players out there. Some are easy to spot, and others are more difficult to uncover. The bottom line is to always be suspicious. Be cautious. Do your research. Ask straightforward questions and listen carefully to the answers. This is your career, and you have every right to be selective when choosing your representation. And 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.