This article was originally published in August 2015. We are republishing it today because of the ongoing labor dispute between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Talent Agents, which has led thousands of Guild writers to fire their agents in recent days. If you’ve been wondering just what, exactly, a Hollywood agent does, here’s the answer.
As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka Mattoo represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and directs, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide. In show business, they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck because now you know Priyanka!
What differentiates the jobs of an agent and manager, and do I need both? —Megan P., Los Angeles
The well-trod joke is that managers can wear sneakers to work, but agents wear suits. The exception is that if your agent wears sneakers, she must be extremely important.
Ostensibly, the purpose of an agent is to make you rich and famous by lining up jobs that beget more and better jobs, and it’s a pretty systematic process. Part one of any representation plan, whether agent or manager, is to familiarize the industry with your work — send out your script, invite a ton of influential people to your live show, share your directing reel, etc. It’s easiest for an agent to sign you when you actually have that piece of work, which we call a “calling card.” Part two is to parade you around town like a debutante so you meet all of the aforementioned relevant comedy execs, producers, writers in TV or film. In comedy especially, this is a short list of people who all know each other. Then all of those people talk to each other, saying “I met/saw/read this really funny, smart person, you should see them live or read their script and call agent X to set something up,” and ideally they either want to develop your ideas or start putting you on their lists for new open jobs. The first few months of good representation feel like an endless string of pointless and meandering meetings, but they’re useful because people in the business have the short-term memories of goldfish, and when we are making casting, writer, or director lists, proximity to the top is often directly related to how long ago you met someone. People like to hire people they know and like, so it never hurts to invest in face time.
Part three, coverage, is specific to agencies. Coverage in this case does not refer to script summaries, but instead to the thorough and painstaking way that agencies gather their information in order to be able to find you work. Every young agent in every agency department is assigned coverage — that is, a studio or two that they are required to call constantly and extract information on which casting, writing, or directing assignments are available, and who they’re considering to fill them. Every studio and financier in the business is assigned so that no jobs can fall through the cracks. At the talent department meeting every week, for example, the entire department sits down to go through the project grid of every movie in development and talk through every open job at every studio and indie film and pitch clients who might be right for it. The same happens in every other department, from TV Lit to unscripted. It’s a dreadful and time-consuming slog for anyone who has to make these calls (or maybe just me, because I was unimaginably horrible at it), but it’s how agents stay on top of every single opportunity available for every single client. “Coverage” is a term that bores everyone on the business side of entertainment into a fugue state, but it’s the nuts and bolts of representation — matching up every available opportunity to every available client.
A manager serves a more broadly defined purpose, which is to keep your long-term, big-picture goals on track. I feel like I have had every job in entertainment except manager, so I asked my expert and beloved manager friend to contribute his definition: “The manager spends all day making sure the client is set up to succeed, while they are working with the agent and lawyer to keep all of the progress going.”
A manager will often reach out to you before an agent because they tend to intercede earlier in your career, before you have that perfect screenplay or test for a pilot, when you’re just a funny person with potential and no calling card. She will serve as your first professional creative sounding board — give notes on your ideas, tell you how to prepare for auditions, make your first introductions. Once you’re more established, a manager is traditionally the Mama Bear who keeps an eye on your starry-eyed career goals: building a development slate, exploring other skills like directing or producing, packaging big-time TV shows and movies in tandem with agencies. Managers, unlike agents, are permitted to produce, and they want to produce with and for you some day — this is the foundation of a company like 3 Arts, for example, which has built innumerable young clients into the creators and stars of major TV shows, which they produce.
Of course it’s never as black-and-white as all that, as some agents have a full-service, hands-on, macro style and others choose to be simply transactional. Some managers make it their business to stay on top of open jobs around town. Many managers are major value added for creative feedback and notes, while others are decidedly not, but are great at kissing boo-boos when you’re down — also a priceless skill, and another thing I’m awful at; thank goodness my clients all had managers. But the rough division of labor is as above.
Now, do you need a manager and an agent? It’s a matter of personal preference, as you want to surround yourself with a team that makes you feel like you’re being exposed to the most opportunities. Often in comedy, the people who we see benefit most from managers are writer-performers, who tend to have the longest and most diverse list of goals, and clients who want to produce and create but don’t want to deal with the infrastructure of a production company, which they can instead access via their management company.
If you’re first signed by an agency, it will start looking for jobs for you immediately. That will get the career ball rolling, and if, down the road, you feel like you have a ton of ideas and ambition and need more hands on deck or access to a specific set of relationships that your agent doesn’t have (although, again, small world; everyone knows everyone), hire a manager. A terrible reason to hire a manager is if you feel like your agent isn’t doing her job. If your agent isn’t doing her job, you need to talk to her about your feelings, and if she doesn’t correct it after a reasonable amount of time, you need a different agent.
If you are first approached by a manager, great! You have an experienced hand guiding your budding career and access to a good network of new collaborators and people who can hire you. You will need an agent at some point, and your manager will help guide you through that selection process, and having both can be a dream. The only reason to rock the boat after this is if you feel like someone isn’t doing her job, or it’s a financial strain.
After all, there is the sticky conversation of commission, which for a manager is around 10 percent but can be up to 15 percent, while agents are capped at 10 percent. A good lawyer will set you back 5 percent, and if you’re as absentminded and disorganized as most creative geniuses, a business manager will be another 5 percent. That’s 30 percent off the top before taxes, but as long as you can support yourself financially and feel that everyone is pulling her weight to make you extra income and build you better opportunities, the outlay is worth it.