How to Find an Agent... and Survive

by Cathy McKim

Sign suggesting talent is needed

Learn about talent agents, where to find them, and how to get one.

You're looking for an agent. And there are people everywhere calling themselves agents, advertising for new faces, walking the streets looking for actors and models. Some of these are agents - mostly background or extras agents. Many of them are simply selling courses or photography sessions; others function as booking services for extras in addition to selling courses and photos, but lack the contacts to promote you as a serious actor or model. How can you tell the players from the phonies?

Agencies Who Advertise
Principal talent agencies rarely if ever advertise. These folks have so many hopefuls lined up at their doors, photos and resumes in hand, that they never need to look for new actors; when an opening appears on the roster, they already have more than enough applicants without having to pay to find more.

Some modelling agencies occasionally hold promotional events such as modelling contests; such events are infrequent, and heavily promoted in up-scale media with major corporate sponsors. Everything about the agency, the contest, and its sponsors is easily verifiable. But they do not advertise in other ways; they also have hundreds of hopefuls lined up outside the doors, and don't need to ask people to come and see them.

So who does advertise? Extras agencies sometimes do. There is a high turnover on some agency rosters as people either get frustrated and quit or (much less frequently) move up to actor's parts. Also, crowd extras (the most common type of extra work, but also the most boring and poorly paid) do not require a great deal of training or experience to start. But the better the extras agency, the less likely it is to advertise. Why? That long line of hopefuls standing patiently outside their door, resume in hand.

So when you see an ad in the paper, or on TV, or at a transit stop, or a sandwich board, think about who might be behind the ad. Certainly not a well established professional agency that already has its hands full of applicants. Maybe a brand new agency that doesn't have a reputation yet, and no line of hopefuls at the door. But it's far more likely to be someone in the business of selling services to a high volume of people, and that's not how a real agency makes its money.

Administration and Maintenance Fees
Agents earn a living on the commissions you pay them when you get work. In most agencies, normal costs such as phone bills, breakdown and courier fees, salaries and overhead are paid out of general revenues, which is to say, commissions. However, some talent agencies charge maintenance fees to cover some or all of these costs. Where maintenance fees are charged, it means that the agent does not expect to be able to pay normal costs out of commission revenue. This may mean that the agent thinks you will not get work, or in the worst of cases it may mean that the agent is not an agent and cannot get you work. So if an agency asks for money up front to represent you, you should be cautious.

If you are inexperienced, perhaps the agent is taking a chance on you. Many agencies who represent new performers or extras charge maintenance fees because their people may work less often and earn less money when they do work.

Established principal talent agencies should have a strong enough roster that they do not need to charge registration, administration, or maintenance fees. Modelling agencies do not charge any registration fees, and rarely charge maintenance fees.

Agencies which charge such fees average around $60.00 per year; fees should not exceed $120.00 per year. Agencies should not charge fees of a union member. Photographic Services Agencies are not photographic studios; however, agents will have varying degrees of involvement with the photographic requirements of the actors and models they represent. Generally speaking, legitimate talent agencies do not offer ionium photographic services for actors. Some talent agencies will make arrangements for you but if you are told that you must have photos taken through the agency, leave at once. Standard procedure is for a talent agency to give you a short list of photographers that they recommend. You should visit each one, look at their work, and select the one you feel the most comfortable with. Photos are a vital promotional tool. While an agent's advice about what photographer to use may be helpful, it is your choice to make.

Major modeling agencies in urban centres such as Toronto will generally recommend either one or more reputable imaging specialists or a short list of photographers to test with. Again, you should visit each one, look at their work, and select the one you feel the most comfortable with. modeling agencies and schools outside of urban areas such as Toronto are more likely to directly arrange the test sessions for their prospective models.

If you are booking a photographer through an agency, find out the name and credentials of the photographer, what services are offered, and what you will be charged for them. Ask to see samples of the photographer's work and make sure that he or she is a working professional photographer. Contact other people in the industry to find out the photographer's reputation. Comparison shop: get price lists from other photographers, but remember that price is not as important as quality. Find out what this photographer charges for a session not booked through the agency: the price should be the same.

Keep in mind the differences in photographic requirements for actor and models. An actor needs a black and white 8" x 10" headshot. Actors do not need portfolios. A model does need a portfolio and "comp cards". The initial portfolio is developed through test shoots with fashion photographers, and is then expanded with tearsheets of the model's professional print work. Some of these pictures are used in making up the comp card. Models being promoted for commercial television will also need a "TV glossy", or 8" x 10" headshot.

Child actors under eight do not need professional photos. It is acceptable to promote children with inexpensive snapshots, and most agents do this to avoid the expense of having new professional photos taken for children every few months as they grow and change. Child models may require comp cards, based on the agency's policies, but should not require the extensive portfolios that an adult model needs.

Actors will need prints made of the headshot that you and your agent have selected from the contact sheet provided by the photographer. Models will need prints of their TV glossies, blow- ups of the shots to be used in their portfolio, and multiple prints of their comp cards. It may be convenient for your agent to maintain the supply of prints and promotional photos, and bill you for reproduction costs. Check the costs first; find out what a reproduction house would charge you for prints. Whatever you choose to do, make sure that your agent has a supply of your promotional photos on hand at all times; you don't want to miss out because your agent had no photos to send out.

Classes and Workshops
Talent agencies sometimes offer workshops for actors, bringing in a well-known or respected specialist for an evening or weekend session. If attendance is optional and prices are not excessive, this practice is acceptable.

When talent or modeling agencies offer on-going classes in-house or make arrangements for clients of an agency to take classes at a specific school (which is often affiliated with the agency), you need to do some investigation. Check the training, experience, and other credentials of the instructors. Check the cost against fees charged by independent schools or instructors. Find out if you must take the courses provided by this agency before you will be represented. An agency that does not accept training from other sources is not serving your best interests.

There are many places to get training: universities and colleges offer acting and drama courses, and some colleges offer programs in fashion and modeling as well. There are independent schools with good reputations for both actors and models, and many highly regarded individuals who offer classes, workshops and private instruction. Local school boards may offer acting and modeling or "self-improvement/self-image" courses through their continuing education departments. A model's most valuable training can be the "on-the-job" experience s/he receives in the course of shooting his/her test portfolio.

Some modeling agencies, especially those outside the heavily competitive Toronto area, run legitimate schools which serve both as self-improvement or "finishing" academies for young men and women who are not planning a career in modeling, and as introductory training schools for those who are. The hallmarks of such legitimate schools are honesty with respect to an applicant's potential, strong ties to the local business community, and connections with national and international "high profile" agencies. Most also participate in one of the Canadian modeling associations: the modeling Association of Canada (MAC) or the Canadian Model and Talent Convention (CMTC). To check out such a school, request local business references, and ask about affiliations with national and international agencies and modeling associations.

Talent agencies prepare binders or promotional packages with photos of the talent on their roster and distribute these to casting directors; these should not require any expense on the part of the performer beyond the cost of printing sufficient photo reproductions to be placed in each binder.

Modeling agencies do charge their models for inclusion in various promotional packages; the most common of these are the agency book, and the agency headsheet. Sometimes only the agency's top-line models are included in these; other agencies prefer to include all of their models in the agency book or on the headsheet.

If you are being charged to be in a book, or on an agency's headsheet, ask to see earlier editions to assure yourself of the quality of these promotional tools. Also, contact some of the agency's clients to see if the book and headsheet are distributed and used. The fees charged for inclusion in agency books and on headsheets should be calculated based on the cost of printing the promotional material, divided by the number of models included in the material. A nominal fee to cover distribution costs may be added to the cost. Remember that legitimate modelling agencies do not make any profit on these promotions. If the fees are greater than your fair share of the costs, something is wrong.

You may also find yourself being asked to pay for audio or video demo tapes, computer database casting services, or resume preparation and maintenance services, just to name a few of the services some agencies are selling. For all these services, do your homework; find out what is normal practice.

The best way to get a professional job on a demo tape is to hire a professional who specializes in that service. While casting directors look at tapes sent by agents they know, and some will request them, if the tape is not good quality, it will do nothing for you. Normally demo tapes are edited from clips of actual work you have done; if you have no media work to use, you may select material to record for a demo. If your agency does demo tapes in- house, ask to see some tapes done for other performers to check on the quality. Call a few casting directors to see if they would look at a tape sent by your agent. And as always, find out whether the costs are comparable.

At the present time, some U.S. casting directors are beginning to make use of computer database casting services. The practice is not common in Canada. If your career is at a point that you wish to be visible to the U.S. market, you might consider such a service. But check it out carefully first - preferably with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) if it is a U.S. service, or with ACTRA and the Casting Directors Society of Canada if it is a Canadian service.

Resumes are like photo reproductions: if you prefer to take responsibility for regular updates and printing, discuss this with your agent. It can be convenient to have your resume on your agent's computer: it will be updated with each new job, and copies are no further than the agent's printer. As always, investigate the costs; even if you prefer not to take care of your resume yourself, there are professional services that can offer you similar convenience, and the price may be better. Just be certain that your agent always has copies of your resume on hand.

As a rule of thumb, for any service offered, first find out if that service is necessary, check the credentials of the people who will be providing the service, and always comparison shop for price and quality.

In Conclusion
If an agency's fees seem excessive, or if the services offered differ from the norm in the industry, do further research. Check with casting directors, or fashion photographers and studios (for modelling agencies), to see if the agency is known by the people who work with actors or models. Ask the agency for professional references, and check them out. Watch out for circular references, where connected companies give each other good references, but no one else seems to know who they are. A reference is not worth much when given by someone who has no credibility.

A contract is a binding legal agreement; once you sign, you are committed to uphold all terms of the contract. Get legal advice if there is anything you don't understand in the contract. Make certain that all obligations - yours and the agent's - are clearly laid out. Do your research before you sign anything, or give anyone any money. A legitimate agent will answer your questions, and will give you time to make a decision without undue pressure. Do not sign anything until you are satisfied that the agent is legitimate and the deal is right for you.
Cathy McKim is an author and blogger living in Toronto, Canada. She studied visual arts at York University and acting at George Brown Theatre School. By day, she works as a copy editor/staff writer. After hours, she can be found acting, scenic painting, or involved in other forms of visual arts projects. She also finds time to write short stories, personal essays and blog posts. Her article is an excerpt from "An Actor's Guide to Agencies in Toronto" published by Moonlighters Publishing Inc.

With thanks to: Jeff Andrews, Colin Armstrong, Shari Caldwell, Cari Fallis, Michael Gaitt, Jennifer Goldie, Megan Goldwell, Carolyn Govers, Frank Hogg, Gerry Jordan, Cindee Karnick, Peter McGuire, Fran Messinger, Sandie Newton, Penny Noble, Michael Oscars, Louise Parent, Mark Preston, Nancy Ramos, Estella Ruston and Sandi Sloan for their time, insight and humour.

Copyright © Moonlighters Publishing Inc. Used with permission of the author. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or distributed.
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Reader Comments

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Posted by Hana Greene (2008-09-04) 331

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