An agent is a salesperson who sells artistic or athletic talent. Talent agents act as representatives for actors, directors, writers, models, athletes, and other people who work in the arts, advertising, sports, and fashion. Agents promote their clients’ talent and manage their legal contractual business.
History of Talent Agent and Scout Career
The wide variety of careers that exists in the film and television industries today evolved gradually. In the 19th century in England and America, leading actors and actresses developed a system, called the “actor-manager system,” in which the actor both performed and handled business and financial arrangements. Over the course of the 20th century, responsibilities diversified. In the first decades of the century, major studios took charge of the actors’ professional and financial management.
In the 1950s the major studio monopolies were broken, and control of actors and contracts came up for grabs. Resourceful business-minded people became agents when they realized that there was money to be made by controlling access to the talent behind movie and television productions. They became middlemen between actors (and other creative people) and the production studios, charging commissions for use of their clients.
Currently, commissions range between 10 and 15 percent of the money an actor earns in a production. In more recent years, agents have formed revolutionary deals for their stars, making more money for agencies and actors alike. Powerful agencies such as Creative Artists Agency, International Creative Management, and the William Morris Agency are credited with (or, by some, accused of) heralding in the age of the multimillion dollar deal for film stars. This has proved controversial, as some top actor fees have inflated to over $20 million per picture; some industry professionals worry that high actor salaries are cutting too deeply into film budgets, while others believe that actors are finally getting their fair share of the profits. Whichever the case, the film industry still thrives, and filmmakers still compete for the highest priced talent. And the agent, always an active player in the industry, has become even more influential in how films are made.
In the 1960s a number of models became popular celebrity figures, such as Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, and Varushka, who were noted not only for their modeling work but also for the image and lifestyle they portrayed. In the early days of the fashion industry, models were the products of modeling schools, which also monitored their work schedules. However, as the industry grew and individual models became successful, models often needed, and relied, on someone to manage and organize their careers. Thus, modeling agencies developed to fill this niche. Ford Models Inc., an agency founded in 1946 by Eileen and Jerry Ford, was one of the first modern agencies devoted to promoting the career of the fashion model. The agency made fashion history by negotiating the first big-money contract between model Lauren Hutton and Revlon. Today, Ford Models is an industry leader, employing many talented agents and scouts internationally to represent hundreds of the world’s top models.
Sports figures, like movie stars and models, have become internationally recognized figures, renowned not only for their athletic prowess, but also for their charismatic personalities. Like movie stars, athletes began to realize the need to have talented representation—or agents—to protect and promote their interests during contract negotiations. In addition, today’s sports agents handle most, if not all, aspects of a professional athlete’s career, from commercial endorsements to financial investments to postretirement career offers.
The Job of Talent Agents and Scouts
Talent agents act as representatives for actors, writers, artists, models, athletes, and others who work in performing and visual arts, fashion, sports, and advertising. They look for clients who have potential for success and then work aggressively to promote their clients to film and television directors, casting directors, production companies, advertising companies, sports managers, publishers, catalog companies, photographers, galleries, and other potential employers. Agents work closely with clients to find assignments that will best achieve clients’ career goals.
Agents find clients in several ways. Those who work for an agency might be assigned a client by the agency, based on experience or a compatible personality. Some agents also work as talent scouts and actively search for new clients, whom they then bring to an agency. Or the clients themselves might approach agents who have good reputations and request their representation. The methods agents use to locate talent are different, depending on each agent’s specialty. A sports agent follows high school and college sports to find athletes who have good potential for a career in professional sports. Modeling, acting, and broadcasting agents review portfolios, screen tests, and audiotapes to evaluate potential clients’ appearance, voice, personality, experience, ability to take direction, and other factors. A literary agent reads scripts, books, articles, short stories, and poetry submitted by writers. An artist’s agent looks at portfolios and original works of art, visits galleries, attends art fairs, and visits student exhibitions. All agents consider a client’s potential for a long career—it is important to find people who will grow, develop their skills, and eventually create a continuing demand for their talents.
When an agent agrees to represent a client, they both sign a contract that specifies the extent of representation, the time period, payment, and other legal considerations.
When agents look for jobs for their clients, they do not necessarily try to find as many assignments as possible. Agents try to carefully choose assignments that will further their clients’ careers. For example, an agent might represent an actor who wants to work in film, but is having difficulty finding a role. The agent looks for roles in commercials, music videos, or voice-overs that will give the actor some exposure. A model’s agent might find shooting assignments for fashion catalogs while searching for a high-profile assignment with a beauty and fashion magazine.
Agents also work closely with the potential employers of their clients. They need to satisfy the requirements of both parties. Agents who represent actors have a network of directors, producers, advertising executives, and photographers that they contact frequently to see if any of their clients can meet their needs. Models’ agents are in touch with magazine and catalog publishers, advertising firms, fashion designers, and event planners. Literary agents have contacts in the publishing world, including small and large presses, magazines, and newspapers. Sports agents know the management personnel of professional sports teams. Artists’ representatives know gallery owners, art dealers, and art book publishers.
When agents see a possible match between employer and client, they speak to both and quickly organize meetings, interviews, or auditions so that employers can meet potential hires and evaluate their work and capabilities. Agents must be both persistent and aggressive on behalf of their clients. They spend time on the phone with employers, convincing them of their clients’ talents and persuading them to hire their clients. There may be one or several interviews, and the agent may coach clients through this process to make sure clients understand what the employer is looking for and adapt their presentations accordingly. When a client achieves success and is in great demand, the agent receives calls, scripts, and other types of work requests and passes along only those that are appropriate to the interests and goals of the client.
When an employer agrees to hire a client, the agent helps negotiate a contract that outlines salary, benefits, promotional appearances, and other fees, rights, and obligations. Agents have to look out for the best interests of their clients and at the same time satisfy employers in order to establish continuing, long-lasting relationships.
In addition to promoting individuals, agents may also work to make package deals—for example, combining a writer, director, and a star to make up a package, which they then market to production studios. The agent charges a packaging commission to the studio in addition to the commissions agreed to in each package member’s contract. A strong package can be very lucrative for the agency or agencies who represent the talent involved, since the package commission is often a percentage of the total budget of the production.
Agents often develop lifelong working relationships with their clients. They act as business associates, advisers, advocates, mentors, teachers, guardians, and confidantes. Because of the complicated nature of these relationships, they can be volatile, so a successful relationship requires trust and respect on both sides, which can be earned only through experience and time. Agents who represent high-profile talent make up only a small percentage of agency work. Most agents represent lesser-known or locally known talent.
The largest agencies are located in Los Angeles and New York City, where film, theater, advertising, publishing, fashion, and art-buying industries are centered. There are modeling and theatrical agencies in most large cities, however, and independent agents are established throughout the country.
Talent Agent and Scout Career Requirements
You should take courses in business, mathematics, and accounting to prepare for the management aspects of an agent’s job. Take English and speech courses to develop good communication skills because an agent must be gifted at negotiation. You also need a good eye for talent, so you need to develop some expertise in film, theater, art, literature, advertising, sports, or whatever field you hope to specialize in.
There are no formal requirements for becoming an agent, but a bachelor’s degree is strongly recommended. Advanced degrees in law and business are becoming increasingly prevalent; law and business training are useful because agents are responsible for writing contracts according to legal regulations. However, in some cases an agent may obtain this training on the job. Agents come from a variety of backgrounds; some of them have worked as actors or other creative professionals and then shifted into agent careers because they enjoyed working in the industry. Agents who have degrees from law or business schools have an advantage when it comes to advancing their careers or opening a new agency.
It is most important to be willing to work hard and aggressively pursue opportunities for clients. You should have a good head for business; contract work requires meticulous attention to detail. You need a great deal of self-motivation and ambition to develop good contacts in industries that may be difficult to break into. You should be comfortable talking with all kinds of people and be able to develop relationships easily. It helps to be a good general conversationalist in addition to being knowledgeable about your field.
Exploring Talent Agent and Scout Career
Learn as much as you can about the industry that interests you. If it’s film, read publications agents read, such as Daily Variety (http://variety.com/), The Hollywood Reporter (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/), and Entertainment Weekly (http://www.ew.com/ew/). See current movies to get a sense of the established and up-and-coming talents in the film industry. Trace the careers of actors whom you like, including their early work in independent films, commercials, and stage work.
If sports is your interest, watch games and pay attention to the negotiations for players. Read media reports on the management, coaching, and team-building strategies for professional sports (See “Sports Agents”). To explore the world of fashion and modeling, read Vogue (http://www.vogue.com/), and other beauty and glamour magazines. Attend fashion shows. Learn about fashion photography.
If you are interested in art or literature, study both historical and current trends. There are numerous art and literary review publications in your library and on newsstands. Look for Art Business Magazine, Artweek (http://www.artweek.com/), and Communication Arts (http://www.commarts.com/).
If you live in Los Angeles or New York, you may be able to volunteer or intern at an agency to find out more about the career. If you live outside Los Angeles and New York, check your phone book’s Yellow Pages or search the Web for listings of local agencies. Most major cities have agents who represent local performing artists, actors, and models. If you contact them, they may be willing to offer you some insight into the nature of talent management in general.
Talent agencies are located all across the United States, handling a variety of talents. Those agencies that represent artists and professionals in the film industry are located primarily in Los Angeles. Some film agencies, such as The William Morris Agency, are located in New York City. An agency may specialize in a particular type of talent, such as minority actors, extras, or TV commercial actors. The top three film agencies—Creative Artists Agency, International Creative Management, and the William Morris Agency—employ approximately 1,500 agents. The Association of Authors’ Representatives has a list of member agencies, and the vast majority are located in New York City. Pro Sports Group offers a comprehensive sports agent directory that includes more than 1,000 certified agents in all. The top modeling agencies, such as Wilhelmina, Ford, and Elite, are located in New York City, but there are talent/modeling agencies in all metropolitan areas. Check your Yellow Pages for listings.
The best way to enter this field is to seek an internship with an agency. If you live in or can spend a summer in Los Angeles or New York, you have an advantage in terms of numbers of opportunities. Libraries and bookstores will have resources for locating talent agencies. By searching the Web, you can find many free listings of reputable agents. The Screen Actors Guild also maintains a list of franchised agents that is available on its Web site. The Yellow Pages will yield a list of local talent agencies. For those who live in Los Angeles, there are employment agencies that deal specifically with talent agent careers. Compile a list of agencies that may offer internship opportunities. Some internships will be paid and others may provide college course credit, but most importantly, they will provide you with experience and contacts in the industry. An intern who works hard and knows something about the business stands a good chance of securing an entry-level position at an agency. At the top agencies, this will be a position in the mail room, where almost everyone starts. In smaller agencies, it may be an assistant position. Eventually persistence, hard work, and cultivated connections will lead to a job as an agent.
Once you have a job as an assistant, you will be allowed to work closely with an agent to learn the ropes. You may be able to read contracts and listen in on phone calls and meetings. You will begin to take on some of your own clients as you gain experience. Agents who wish to advance must work aggressively on behalf of their clients as well as seek out quality talent to bring into an agency. Those who are successful command more lucrative salaries and may choose to open their own agencies. Some agents find that their work is a good stepping-stone toward a different career in the industry.
Earnings for agents vary greatly, depending on the success of the agent and his or her clients. An agency receives 10 to 15 percent of a client’s fee for a project. An agent is then paid a commission by the agency as well as a base salary. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, agents and business managers of artists, performers, and athletes earned a median annual salary of $53,800 in 2005. The lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $25,840 a year, while the highest paid 10 percent earned more than $140,000 annually.
Salaries for fashion model agents depend on the agent’s experience, the size and location of the agency, and the models represented. A new agent can expect to earn an annual starting salary of approximately $26,000. An agent with previous agency experience can earn about $45,000 per year or more. Agents at the top of the industry may make in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some agencies choose to pay their agents a commission based on fees generated by model/client bookings. These commissions normally range from 10 to 15 percent of booking totals.
Literary agents generally earn between $20,000 and $60,000 annually, with a rare few making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Commissions range from 4 to 20 percent of their clients’ earnings.
Working for an agency, an experienced agent will receive health and retirement benefits, bonuses, and paid travel and accommodations.
Work in a talent agency can be lively and exciting. It is rewarding to watch a client attain success with your help. The work can seem very glamorous, allowing you to rub elbows with the rich and famous and make contacts with the most powerful people in entertainment, sports, fashion, or publishing. Most agents, however, represent less famous actors, artists, models, authors, and athletes.
Agents’ work requires a great deal of stamina and determination in the face of setbacks. The work can be extremely stressful, even in small agencies. It often demands long hours, including evenings and weekends. To remain successful, agents at the top of the industry must constantly network. They spend a great deal of time on the telephone, with both clients and others in the industry, and attending industry functions.
Talent Agent and Scout Career Outlook
Employment in the arts and entertainment field is expected to grow rapidly in response to the demand for entertainment from a growing population. However, the numbers of artists and performers also continues to grow, creating fierce competition for all jobs in this industry. This competition will drive the need for more agents and scouts to find talented individuals and place them in the best jobs.
The film industry is enjoying record box office receipts. With markets overseas expanding, even the films that don’t do so well domestically can still turn a tidy profit. As a result, agents at all levels in the film industry will continue to thrive. Also, more original cable television programming will lead to more actors and performers seeking representation. The fashion and modeling industries fluctuate slightly with the economy. During recession periods, consumers are likely to spend less, and advertisers plan more modest campaigns. There is stiff competition among the vast numbers of hopeful models for the relatively few available positions, and it takes skillful agents to find the best assignments for their clients. Artists’ and authors’ agents play an important role in getting their clients’ work seen and read. Most book publishers will not even consider a manuscript unless it is submitted through a reputable agent.
For More Information:
- Association of Authors’ Representatives
- National Association of Performing Arts Managers and Agents
- Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists