Upfront Fees to Talent Agents… Okay?

Hi Bonnie,

I’m an actor in Southeast Washington (~4 hrs. removed from Seattle), and my five-year plan involves moving to LA to pursue acting professionally. In the meantime, I am acting in local community theatre.

I was looking at local talent agencies, and pretty much the only one that does anything on the east side is called Big Fish Northwest. I had looked them up a while ago, but on top of a standard 20% commission, they are mostly just a listing that you have to pay to access.

Being an avid reader of your column, this tripped my “don’t pay upfront for representation” alarm and I cancelled my account with them. Now I’m starting to wonder if the “don’t pay” is more targeted to LA/NY rather than to the minor markets. I know it’s a bit out of your area, but do you know anything about this agency or do you have some advice on my situation?

Thank you!
Eric Eberle

Hi Eric. Thanks for writing!

I don’t know anything about that agency in particular, but being a former actor from a minor market myself, I’m definitely familiar with the odd practices of agencies outside of New York and Los Angeles, and I know this issue has been discussed at the Hollywood Happy Hour Yahoo Group before.

But with so much going on in California with AB 1319 (congrats to Mark Lambert and BizParentz.org for getting charges filed against Nick Roses last week — and huge congrats to the families willing to step forward with formal complaints, rather than slinking away, ashamed. That’s the only way the law can work), I decided to reach out to Anne Henry and Paula Dorn of BizParentz.org to find out how advance fee service issues affect agencies in minor markets. Since AB 1319 is a California law, of course, its requirements for talent listing services don’t reach to other markets, but other states are watching carefully to see if a similar law might be in their near future, to protect actors from being scammed.

Here is what Paula had to say about Eric’s question.

Hi Bonnie,

Some info is on the SAG site (of course, this would really help solve problems if it weren’t for the fact that the SAG franchise agreement is only used by a small number of agents). Go here: https://sag.org/content/agency-questions-answers.

ATA brings us info on 1700.40: registration fee (per California law). Go here: https://agentassociation.com/frontdoor/agency_licensing_detail.cfm?id=572. The ATA site also has talent agency requirements by state (some states don’t have any).

I think you have to go back to the history pre-Internet just a bit to properly frame this. Back to the days when agents really had cubbyholes on their walls with paper headshots in them. Back to the days when they were taking on an expense (perhaps just a small one) with each client they repped because of courier fees and mailing fees. Every now and then you would hear about some agency charging new clients for postage — and that just told you they were a loser agency.

It was okay for both sides — the agent and the talent — to be making a monetary investment in the business aspects of working together. It also seems logical that — knowing they would have their own expenses — there weren’t as many agencies piling up people that they really didn’t want to represent. Too many clients that they could not properly represent meant expenses, and overflowing filing cabinets, and a labor-intensive job of looking at breakdowns, pulling pictures, and mailing in submissions, etc.

Fast forward to now, where the submission process is pushing a button, where the need to retain paper headshots in an office is almost obsolete or certainly at a much smaller quantity. Where the costs associated with breakdowns (old paper vs. new electronic) haven’t significantly changed. Yet, we have this “mystery tool” (an electronic cubbyhole system) and, even better, one that other people can see and everyone wants to be in! But it’s not the legitimate submission services! It’s something the agency has devised to do their own “marketing” for their clients.

Yes, there are some costs to setting up a site for an agency, but what has happened is that all of the other changes allow an agency to represent FAR MORE people than they did in the past, and if they can get all of those people to pay monthly registration fees to their own business site — voilà — that’s how they are paying the rent. No more need to be selective. In fact, the more the merrier! $$$$$

At least that’s the concern. Agents charge it because, like most other things, people will pay it. If it is implied, told, directed, or assumed that you won’t work without paying for that, people pay for it. And the fees aren’t reflective of a true “cost sharing” of the expense. The agent is making a profit!

I still think “don’t pay” should be the rule, but obviously there are going to be exceptions. If you have something real going on with an agent and contributing to THEIR marketing tool makes sense for you, then it might be worth considering. But if it’s overdone with the number of people on it, it isn’t really benefiting anyone for legitimate work anyway. It’s just revenue for the agency without doing any work — and far more revenue than the cost of any website.

AB 1319 covers talent listing services — like Children In Film (not that they have bothered to comply, they just changed their address to appear as though they aren’t in California anymore). A talent listing service has to post a bond, have a contract, etc. Agents and managers aren’t supposed to also be talent listing services, but I would assume that this isn’t something that will be enforced unless there are complaints that lend themselves to a bigger problem.

I think that something in the SAG regulations flat-out says an agent can’t charge talent a listing fee… or maybe it is the state law. But it seems everyone looks the other way, and accepts it as just normal business these days. Another thing sliding down the slope.

I am so grateful to the amazing resource that is BizParentz.org! Everything Paula shared, above, underscores what I was thinking about the whole issue. I mean, why bother being selective about your talent roster, as an agent, if you’re getting money with every actor who signs on? Before you even pitch an actor to a casting director in hopes of getting that actor an audition, having that actor do well, and learning the actor gets cast, so that you can earn a commission, you’re getting money. Sign ’em up! Cha-ching! And gross.

Part of what makes having an agent so valuable is that it’s someone who believes in your ability to make money (for yourself and for them) in a very competitive industry. If all the agent believes in is your ability to write a check, which you must hand over to the agency before you’re even “represented,” that’s not an endorsement of your talent level. And you have to know that casting directors learn quickly which agents actually have great taste in actors and which ones just have a bunch of folks so desperate to have any representation that they’ll pay to have it. Thinking beyond the actor-agent relationship, what do you think that means about the agent-casting director relationship? We like dealing with people who help lead us to the BEST talent. Not people who help lead us to anyone whose check clears.

Again, rules are different in minor markets, so take a look at who’s booking work and who reps those folks. But I agree with Paula (and with your spidey sense, Eric) that “don’t pay” is the best practice. I know it’s tough, if that’s the only game in town, and there’s just not as much commissionable work out there in your market. But if most of the opportunities are ones to which you have access with or without an agent, well, that takes care of that!

Good for you, checking it out. Hope this is helpful information, or at least encouragement. Keep creating!

Wanna be sure your tools *and* your mindset are in peak form? Start your 11-day FREE training today!

Let’s DO this!

bon


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/001327.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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9 Comments

  1. Avatar pat brady June 4, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    My husband is an actor in Portland Oregon. He is represented by Ryan Artist. The reason I am writing is that he just got booked for a photo shoot that on the posting was to pay $1000, agency fee inclusive. He is non union ( working on it) so the Agency Fee was posted at 15%. He got an email from Ryan Artist with a voucher that he was to download and bring to the photo shoot with him. and then bring the voucher back to Ryan Artist.(The voucher is from Ryan Artist.) He was told by Ryan Artists in their email that he would receive $600. This is not what the posting for the job stated.( The photo shoot is for Regents Health Care) When my husband called Ryan Artist he was told that ” There would be a talent fee of 20% and agency fee of 20%. My question is, Is Ryan Artist able to charge this when the posting by Regents Health Care stated that the pay would be $1000 dollars, agency Fee inclusive of 15%. I am confused and so is my husband. We both feel this is wrong. Thanks! Pat Brady ( I am writing this because my husband is on the other computer trying to find out more information. Thanks again)

    Reply
  2. Bonnie Gillespie Bonnie Gillespie June 4, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Hiya Pat! The “double fee” on nonunion projects is fairly common, I’m afraid. Now, the difference in quoted rates between the breakdown and what you’re now being told is troubling, and I would fight for whatever was stated IN the breakdown (hopefully the contract for the job reflects exactly that, otherwise, that bait and switch is NOT okay).

    But the double fee, unfortunately, happens a lot with nonunion gigs. I would encourage you and your husband to also check HIS contract with the agency, because the terms of commission should’ve been spelled out there as well.

    Sorry I don’t have more encouraging information, but that’s one of the troublesome issues with nonunion deals… the fees can really get your pay taken WAY down. 🙁 Good luck! Please lemmeknow how it goes.

    Reply
  3. Avatar Virginia February 23, 2014 at 7:37 am

    This kind of relationship is no different than the pimp/prostitute relationship. No one should continue to get money or make up any kind of unreasonable percentages to take just for submitting you to a job. As a client, we don’t pay extra to agents as they don’t work for us and any talent company who asks us to pay extra we never work with again. I don’t care what the norm is. It’s time for this parasitic system to change. We have agencies doing no more than submitting talent for open roles. The talent does all the work. This system is just shameful.

    Reply
  4. Avatar Michelle ross July 21, 2014 at 11:31 pm

    I’m trying to get a career in music and acting and as a fashion designer and artist why is it so hard there are too many scams that gets in the way every time by asking for money I don’t have yet. So who and where are the real ones that don’t ask for any illegal fees upfront I need to know please let me have this info. Michelle ROSS 515-779-1278.

    Reply
  5. Avatar Michelle ross July 21, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    U can email me or call me for this info thank u Michelle ROSS also at Ross Michelle I gmail.com

    Reply
  6. Avatar Jacqueline M. August 21, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    I just recently relocated back to Chicago from LA and resigned with my old agent. I am a bit shocked at a few of the practices in the office and I wanted to see if this was normal in Chicago, because it certainly wouldn’t fly in LA. I knew I was taking a step back in my career, but I didn’t anticipate this…

    My agent requires us to pick up checks or to drop of pre paid and self addressed envelopes to send out our checks. I find this so wrong, especially when much of my work has come from self promoting and specifically being upgraded on a commercial set when I was background. I did not audition, I just called them to say I upgraded and now they take a huge commission (which I am more than happy to give), but my check must be picked up? They are downtown, where there is little to no parking ever available and I have a 2 year old…not an easy task. I just find this to be tactless.

    Also, I was told that there isn’t much tv and film work here for me. I am 30-35 age range female, with a nice network television and film resume from LA??? I didn’t expect to work, more, but no auditions for my type??? Seems like an excuse for a bad relationship with the CDs. I asked for a general when I moved back to get back on the CDs radar and they said, we don’t do that??? strange, if they could get me a general meeting, maybe those non existent auditions would be available. I have seen the breakdowns and there are plenty of roles I fit. I’m not expecting a series regular, but with an LA guest star resume, the co star roles should be within my reach. I would be happy to be working and while the roles take me out of contention for Guest star roles, my agent doesn’t submit me for those either.

    Advice???

    Reply
  7. Avatar Bon September 3, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    Jacqueline, it seems to me you’ve landed with a “ho-hum” agent, rather than a “hell yes.” Definitely, the penny-pinching of the envelopes or picking up the checks is them “playing small” and it’s a sign of a lack-based mentality, which is not the kind of agent *I* would want to do business with. I’d want one who believes we can all THRIVE with the right hustle.

    And, you’re clearly not getting “hustle” from them on your behalf. Luckily, in Chicago, there are other options for talent agencies and I recommend you shop around! Find your “hell yes” and then you’ll make money together at the next tier!

    Reply

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