If you’re interested in having a professional acting career, you’re interested in acting agencies. Specifically, you probably wonder which talent agency is best for you. There’s a lot to consider, so let’s unpack this question.
What Agents Do
Talent agencies bring actors and content creators together. The content can be anything: TV shows, features, short films, Broadway shows and touring companies, commercials, corporate projects, books, e-learning and on and on. Agents represent actors when negotiating terms for the job. They agree on what actors will be paid, the dates of the job, and other specifics like whether actors will be reimbursed for travel expenses to and from the job’s location.
Think of agents as the gatekeepers of a lot of the world’s paying acting jobs. Content creators will contact an agent when they need talent, and the agent will make recommendations, or possibly coordinate an audition depending on the market the agent is in.
For a lot of actors, agents sit between them and potential paying work. In this way, having a relationship with an agent can be essential to an actor’s professional progress.
What Agents Don’t Do
You may have heard of an agent “discovering” an actor. In this scenario, the agent sees the actor somewhere, notices their charisma, and guides them to stardom. That may have happened once or twice, but those stories have been blown out of proportion and are the exception, not the rule. While agents might approach someone, that actor is usually experienced enough to be seen by the agent; they’re in a movie, play, or on TV already. Actors new to the craft should not expect something like this to happen.
But you’ll eventually need an agent if you want to act professionally. So which is one is best for you?
My book, Acting In Chicago, goes into tons of detail about local Chicago agents.
The Big Names
You may have heard of agencies like WME, UTA, CAA and ICM, considered among the world’s largest with offices in multiple cities across the globe. These are celebrity agencies, and represent new actors only through industry referrals. It’s just not practical for most actors, established and otherwise, to aim for these agents unless they have a strong track record of doing very high-profile work, and doing it often. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be represented by them one day, but you’ll find it much easier to land representation with lesser known names.
The best place to look for your first agent is in your home market. You don’t have to be in Los Angeles or New York to have an agent, though most agencies are located in large metro areas. The business of acting tends to cluster around big cities. Your search may uncover one agency, or many. If there are no talent agents in your closest city, look at cities nearby. For example, Milwaukee has a couple agencies, while 150 miles away in Chicago, there are over a dozen.
Still, location matters. Actors must be able to get to the location of the work they get, so it’s not a good idea to be represented by an agent far from your home base unless you’re willing to get yourself to the job. A lot of TV shows are shot in Atlanta, Chicago and other areas of the country, and plenty of actors who don’t live in those areas audition for that work through their agents. But if they’re chosen for the role, it’s common for them to work as a local hire, meaning they pay their own way to get there, house themselves and cover all their own expenses. Unless you’re ready to make that kind of financial commitment, stick with work that’s nearby.
Picking An Agent
When you’re a new actor, virtually any agent will be your best agent. If they’ve welcomed you into their talent pool and are putting you on auditions, they’re a good place to start.
As you book more, you should consider if your first agency is the right one for you going forward. The actor/agent relationship is a partnership, with rights and responsibilities on both sides. If either side isn’t doing their job, your progress will suffer. Your agent should be consistently submitting you to clients for work, and you should consistently be available for that work, and always be training to become a stronger actor. You should be keeping your materials up to date, and your agent should be keeping tabs on what you’re working on so they’re submitting you for the right things. Communication should be open and unrestricted. Calls and emails should be returned promptly on both sides. When you book work, payment normally comes to the agent first, who then issues actors checks less commission in a reasonable amount of time. You shouldn’t have to wait four months or more to get paid.
The agency should be able to help you advance to bigger and better things, if that’s what you want from your career. They should help you achieve certain goals, or at the very least, not stand in the way of those goals. If you’re used to doing theatre and you’d like to do a TV show, the agent should have a path to that work. If the agency doesn’t have relationships with TV casting directors, they won’t be able to help you. Larger agencies may have relationships, but also may have so many other talent of your type that you get lost in the shuffle.
If your agency isn’t playing by these rules, it might be time to look elsewhere. In part 2, I’ll explain which agencies are best for established actors.