Winter 2007/2008

Agents at Work

Association of Talent Agencies Executive Director Karen Stuart says agents have to push hard to serve their clients—even if they get a bad rap for it.

Karen Stuart, ATA Executive Director1. What is the mission of the ATA and how does it serve its agent members?

The Association of Talent Agencies leads the talent agency community. We represent over 1,000 talent agencies and they probably represent more than 50,000 clients collectively. And what ATA does is we unify the voice of all of those members. We’re involved in a lot of research, development, dissemination of information. Sometimes it’s just bringing together our own members to brainstorm and develop new ideas. We worked very closely with the Directors Guild on the American Jobs Creation Act. We work with the industry on runaway production legislation. Our mission is to promote a strong and growing agency community; we want to protect the economic growth and stability of our members.

2. What do you think is the primary role of the agent in the industry today?

I think that agents today are more crucial than ever in a particular area, and that is creating opportunities for clients. In the not-too-distant past the major studios were really generating nearly all their own production costs. That’s just not true anymore. We’ve got a very different experience today in terms of film financing than we ever had before. So I think that the agency has got to be able to prepare for those shifts. In other words, helping to raise financing for projects. I don’t think the servicing issue has changed, but I believe more important than ever the agency’s got to be able to prepare for those shifts before they happen, so they’ve got to stay educated, they’ve got to stay informed, and they’re an entrepreneurial group. Some people misunderstand that entrepreneurial dynamic, but believe me, the client benefits from that.

3. What is the most important attribute a director should look for in evaluating an agent?

I don’t think there is a single attribute, but I do think that you are looking for someone that you can have a partnership with. I think the director should be very clear about his or her objectives. But I would say that you want an agent who can procure employment, create opportunities, a good negotiator and advisor. You know, it’s not just about the procurement and the negotiation. You want a partnership, and that involves brainstorming and the give and take of advice. Those are the best relationships.

4. Has the client-agent relationship changed in recent years?

I don’t know that the relationship has changed, but I think the services the client expects have changed. I think that you’ve got a lot of mobile networks, you’ve got what we’ve all been calling new technology, you’ve got the Internet, you’ve got this change in home entertainment systems, you’ve got new employers, you have new sources to tap for revenues to get projects made. So I’m not sure that that’s a relationship change, but I think you’ve got to be more creative as a talent agent. And you may have an agent who’s out there talking about all this new technology and gaming and you’ve got a client who says, ‘I’m just not interested in approaching these things,’ and that’s a challenge that the agent and the client really have to sit down and talk about.

5. How do agents seek and discover new talent?

That’s an interesting question. I think it’s a lot of word of mouth. I think that you have current clients of agencies who refer friends and acquaintances. I would say the good news is that the industry is always looking for new people, new talent and part of the job for the agency is to go out and look for those new people. It’s not like they won’t look at demo reels and materials that are sent to them. They will.

6. So what advice would you have for a young director who’s looking for an agent?

You’ve got to do your homework. If you’re a young director, you can’t just sit back and dial. You’ve got to find people in the business, go to workshops, knock on doors, send demo reels. And your cover letter is crucial. Misspelled names are terrible. I know it sounds like it’s somewhat petty, but it shows the seriousness of somebody.

7. Production companies have been under steady pressure in recent years to increase revenue and cut expenses in light of spiraling production costs. Has that affected how agencies do business on behalf of their clients?

It’s had a negative impact. There’s less hiring; there are less employers; they’re offering less money; there are less opportunities. Every deal takes, I’m told by agents, twice, three times as long to close as they did in the past. An agent told me a story recently, and this is a feature film, they were bargaining over a per diem point for two hours with a major studio, and I think it was a $50 difference and they couldn’t close the deal until they got that done. Again, you have to service the client, but with less hiring, less employers offering less money, less opportunities—this is that paradigm shift I talked about a moment ago where you can’t just find existing opportunities anymore. You’ve got to help create that. But every deal takes longer than it ever took before.

8. Directors would like to have the answer to the age-old question: How do I get my agent to return my phone call?

[laughs] I remember Phil Gersh, who is legendary and was on our Board for many years, was adamant about returning phone calls. That’s what his mantra was, and a lot of agents that came from the Gersh Agency will tell you that. That is really an individual question. I have agents who return every single phone call within 24 hours. So I don’t know if it’s that we only hear about the agents who don’t return. There are more jokes than you can imagine about agents not returning phone calls, but for the members that we represent at ATA, I would think that there is a larger percentage that do return their phone calls than don’t.

9. Speaking of jokes, agents are frequently stereotyped in film and television—all you have to do is look at the Ari Gold character in Entourage. Why do you think agents get such a bad rap in how they’re portrayed?

I think part of it is we’re very entrepreneurial, and I think that a good agent exploits opportunity. And I say that in a very positive sense. I think as a result, agents are willing to do things and move very quickly in order to both blow open those opportunities and exploit those opportunities. So you’re driving hard, and you’re the butt of a lot of jokes. Entourage is an extremely well-done show, but it takes what I think are some of the positive, important attributes of a talent agent and makes it cartoonish, which is funny and entertaining. But if you really look behind the drive, the drive is for the client.

10. What do you think the agent’s role could and should be in labor negotiations?

I think that agents have probably the broadest perspective about the kinds of deals that are being made. And because agents are talking to the employers on behalf of their clients every day, they have a really good understanding [of the business]. Agents have to stay ahead of the curve. So ATA has always believed that it is a good practice to offer both our trade association’s assistance and our members’ assistance to all of the guilds and the unions in their negotiations with employers. We’re not attempting to be in the negotiations, but what we always do is try to offer our assistance to the guilds leading up to those negotiations or during those negotiations. We’ve just made that offer to Actors Equity. We’ve certainly made that offer to the Directors Guild and to the Writers Guild. I think it’s critical. Again, we come back to this partnership, and we are all tied together.

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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