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making the sausage

Polone: Why I Don’t Miss My Life As a Ruthless Agent

Sixteen years after leaving my prior career as an agent, I'm still frequently asked if I miss it. The answer is “no,” though not an unequivocal one. I've been a vegetarian for over twenty years, and I would say I miss being an agent like I miss eating animal flesh: I am happier not doing it and I think I am a better person because I don’t, but I must admit that when I’m at my own restaurant, the Waffle in Hollywood, and I see someone eating a cheeseburger, fries, and a chocolate milkshake, I crave more than just a bite. Being an agent was in some ways like that meal: momentarily satisfying but ultimately a fusion of unhealthful ingredients that isn’t easily digested and would result in a shorter life if it were the mainstay of my diet for too long.

Marty Bauer, my boss at United Talent Agency, used to refer to agenting as “the Wild West for Jews.” This was particularly apt, since there are few rules governing conduct and, when I was doing it, there was certainly a prevalent kill-or-be-killed mentality. Back then, and to some extent today, agents were seen as either signers (who landed the clients) or servicers (the worker bees who helped to do the actual job of delivering jobs for the clients once they were signed) — and I had no doubt that I wanted to be a signer. Like with other service businesses, the rainmakers get all the glory and more of the compensation; but bringing in valuable clients usually means stealing them from some other agents at other agencies, or, on occasion, at your own. If you are a signer, your client list is your capital, and losing it means directly losing job security and cash. Therefore, it can be quite stressful knowing that others are always trying to steal them. When I was just starting out at International Creative Management, mostly repping writers, I was too green and unknown to poach anyone’s clients and had to develop them on my own. As soon as I was representing a few writers who were making money, I was besieged by other agents trying to take them away from me. The attacks came from all directions. I lost one hot TV writer on the staff of Married With Children when he started dating another writer on that show and she badgered him to leave me and sign with her own agent. I remember one writer client who was working on Saturday Night Live telling me that an agent came up to him at the show and told him that he should have someone more experienced than me shepherding his career. And that agent was a colleague of mine.

Another problem with the agency business is leadership: Those who bring in the most money have the leverage to demand positions of authority, yet the qualities that can help one to build an impressive client list, such as ruthlessness and guile, don't make for a good manager. When I was just starting to gain some traction in my career (meaning I had enough of a track record to feel comfortable calling the clients of my competitors and explaining why I could do a better job for them), I contacted a newly successful writer whom I wanted to sign and was surprised when she agreed to meet with me. During the first meeting, I gathered that she liked my energy and the plan I laid out for her career but she was skeptical that I could deliver for her, since I was in my early twenties and didn’t have years of experience. I asked the head of my department to meet with me and this potential client to help reel her into the boat. He did as I asked, and then had a follow-up meeting with her — and not me — sometime after that. Eventually, he walked into my office and told me that the writer really wanted to sign with the agency but wanted him to be her agent, because of his experience. Though, he added, I could also work on her account. Clearly, instead of being supported, I had been pimped. The result was that I was now sure to limit my cooperation with anyone else when it came to my clients, and it undermined any loyalty I had for the agency. Eventually, I left ICM and was able to take almost all of my clients with me to UTA. Had I been helped by my boss when I asked for it, instead of backstabbed, maybe I would have stayed at the company and they would have retained the tens of millions of dollars I brought in to the next place I worked.

My early experiences as an agent honed the “me against the world” edge that was always nascent within me, and it served me well: I grew to see everyone, other than my clients, as enemies. I took no prisoners when it came to pursuing my clients' interests with studios and networks, constantly pushing to get the last dollar available in every negotiation. While other agents would try to conclude a deal in which both sides were satisfied and their relationships with the buyers were maintained, I felt that I hadn’t done my job if the other side didn’t hate me in the end because I took every penny from them that I could. Similarly, I treated my employers as adversaries rather than associates or partners, and never stopped pushing them for greater compensation. All of that anger and tension made me successful, but it also made it impossible for me to be content with what I was achieving. More important for me, there was a hollowness to my achievement, since my job was about getting someone work and negotiating the deal, and was disconnected from the ultimate product of the client’s work. When people would congratulate me on the success of one of my client’s projects, I would say, “Why? I didn’t make it.” In reality, I always wanted to express myself creatively by working directly on and actually contributing to the making of a movie or TV show. As an agent, I felt, at times, like an “enforcer” on a hockey team, protecting the guys who actually make the plays and score the goals by checking and beating up the goons from the opposing teams. There is some satisfaction in that position but it is limited, and the punishment you receive doing your job wears you down. It seemed that if I wasn’t involved in some struggle inside or outside the agency, I was going over and over some past or possible future conflict in my head, even if I were at home or on vacation. Anger is a great motivator, but it isn’t a tool that you can take out of the box when you need it and put it back when you don’t.

So, leaving agenting and becoming a producer has, unquestionably, led to greater career fulfillment and a calmer life for me. I do miss parts of my prior job. I miss the feeling of winning. When you sign a client, it is almost gladiatorial in that you’re taking away the livelihood of your competitor: It is very visceral and gratifying in a primordial way, not unlike biting into the flesh of an animal you’ve hunted. I also miss the feeling of being really good at what I do; I’m an okay producer but will never break out from the middle of the pack. When I was an agent I knew I was a better one than most everyone else and still feel that, had I not left that career at 31, I would have probably been one of the top five in the business. Being so angry and desperate to prove myself pressed me to work hard and be focused, which is all it takes to be a good agent: I made more calls, read more scripts, spent more time negotiating deals and never put my interests ahead of those of the client. Back then, when I would show up on the set of a TV show where I represented most of the staff, I'd see other agents who were either there covering their clients or trying to pick off one of mine, and I would feel immensely superior to them. Even better, I could tell they felt inferior to me, because they were. Still, the ego fulfillment I associated with being an agent doesn’t outweigh the distaste for who I was back then — a constantly combative person incapable of contentment. I don't want to go back to that life any more than I want to dig into a cheeseburger, though there is nothing wrong with, occasionally, enjoying the memory of what it was like.

Follow Gavin Polone on Twitter: @gavinpolone

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