Sometimes a Your Turn question comes in that is so well-suited to a full-on column that I just can’t resist. This question, from a wonderfully-talented and business-minded actor, represents dozens of similarly-themed questions I’ve received from actors everywhere.
Electronic casting has made auditions more available than ever. For the diligent actor that goes after “everything” in Backstage, on CraigsList, at Actors Access, etc., what is the best way to deal with commission payments when said actor books a job independently of the agency they are represented by? No one wants to rock the boat, but should an actor pay a cut to their agent even if the agent does nothing to procure the audition or review the contract? If so, what is fair to the actor? Thanks for your input.
The short answer is easy: Always pay commission to your agents and managers. Always.
Now, here comes the long answer (which is all about WHY paying commission — yes, even on work you booked all by yourself — is a good business decision).
When you signed on with your agent, you did so to create a partnership. This agent basically said, “I believe in your ability to work in this business. And I believe this so strongly that I will work ON SPEC possibly for months and months and months before you actually book something. And then I will take 10% commission. No, that little 10% on one booking won’t even come close to paying me back for the months of work I’ve put in, but it’s an investment in our relationship. I believe in you and you will pay me every time you book, even when your career gets to the level where I’m not having to bust ass to get you an appointment. Yes, even when all I do is field offers that come for you every day, I will still get 10% commission because I worked for so long ON SPEC because I believed in your ability to book. It’s an investment. I’m glad to do it.”
And if you were to do the math on things like their business expenses (including plain “cost of doing business” stuff AND expenses that are directly related to getting you seen), you’d come to realize that they earn every bit of that 10% commission. You also have to know that most agents and managers get that if they’re doing their job well, you will eventually LEAVE THEM for bigger, better representation. So, they need to be paid for what they did on spec, what they did while you were working, and how they contributed to getting you to the place where you’ve outgrown them.
An actor friend of mine was signed commercially a few years ago by an agency that has both commercial and theatrical divisions. In his contract, it states that unless the actor retains the services of a theatrical agent, his commercial agency is free to take 10% commission on theatrical work as well as the commercial work already covered by the contract. This actor didn’t balk at this, since he had no theatrical rep at the time anyway (and he also thought paying such a commission could lead to across-the-board representation). Well, his first theatrical job after signing commercially came around and he wrote a check to the agency for commission. They sent it back. “Nah. We’ll let you know when and if we want commission on work you’re booking on your own.” And that may be what happens to you, when you try to pay commission on projects that haven’t involved your agent! It depends on so many factors (including how much commission you’re bringing in already).
Sure, we all know that the level of work we’re talking about here is way low budget (and that on a SAG Ultra Low Budget film, for example, you’re talking about $100/day which means $10/day for your agent’s commission), but the reason you are free to submit yourself on projects “below the radar” of your agent is specifically because you trust that your agent is covering you on the bigger projects. Think about it! If you didn’t have an agent, you’d be the one submitting not only on these micro projects but also working every angle to try and get seen on pilots, episodics, MOWs, national commercials, and studio features. Instead, your agent is focusing on that level of work for you. And that means you can target “little but cool” projects rather than just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring about those big ones.
“But my agent wouldn’t even look over the contract for this SAG ULB film! Why should I write him a check for $10?”
Look, if you’re doing a SAG ULB film, SAG Indie has already done the work for you. The performer agreement is a one-page contract that stipulates the entire deal. (Sure, agents and actors have negotiated back-end deals to go with these ULB contracts, but for the sake of this particular issue, let’s set that aside.) So, there is no negotiating to do. Your bare minimums are in place thanks to SAG Indie (whether you’re a SAG member or not), so you don’t really need your agent in on such a contract (unless you’re working way below quote and won’t do the project without stipulating points on the back-end or size parity on poster art or whatever).
That said, your agent should still be made aware of the fact that this deal is going down. Why? Well, first of all, it reminds him you’re out there getting work on your own, which makes him excited about getting you more work (never a bad thing). Also, once your agent is aware of the project, he might choose to get involved and get you a better deal (thereby increasing his commission). Finally, even if none of that happens, your agent is going to have to know that you’ve taken on a role in order to consider you “booked out” for the shoot dates. Believe me, I hear from agents all the time that they get furious when they hustle to get their clients appointments and then find out some low budget indie the agents weren’t even made aware of has taken those clients out of the mix for a month! Ooh, you do not want that to happen to you.
Beyond that, your agent should be kept in the loop on the deal (even just CC’ing the agent on an email you send to the producer or casting director about the terms of the contract will suffice) because, should something go horribly wrong down the line, your agent can be the bad guy, the bloodhound hunting down your missing money or copy of the finished product, etc.
When you’re questioning whether an agent deserves a cut of any particular project, I’d advise you to look not at that ONE gig but instead at the whole relationship. SO WHAT if an agent “did nothing” to earn this particular 10% on a gig? What about the times when the agent bends over backwards to get you better billing on a TV show or to bump up your quote? Do you give him a bonus then? Nope. It’s a straight 10% regardless of the amount of work required from job to job. And that’s before you even factor in the heavy lifting he’s been doing on getting you into rooms only to see you screw up from time to time once you get there. Just because you party too late one night, oversleep your audition appointment, show up frazzled hours late and totally unprepared doesn’t mean your agent worked any less to get you invited in. (Not to mention the amount of damage control he’s gonna have to do to get you invited back after a less-than-stellar showing.) Is he getting paid for that work? Nope. Not ’til you book.
And think about it: This is a small town. Do you want to get known as “that actor that won’t pay commission… even on the little stuff” among agents who are talking shop? “You signed so-and-so? Oh, yeah. I used to rep him three years ago. He still owes me money,” is not the kind of thing you want your new agent to hear from a former agent. It doesn’t create the urge to rock on your behalf, in the mind of that new agent. So, this decision goes beyond the “right now” check-writing process.
When Blake Robbins and I interviewed “the hardest working actor in Hollywood,” Stephon Fuller, for our book Acting Qs, he put it brilliantly: With all the hustling I do, I always pay the agency commission for the jobs I book on my own. Of course! There’s no question. Do they come after me for reimbursement of courier fees when I bomb an audition? No. We’re a team.
And that’s really the bottom line. You’re a TEAM. If you’re feeling less than confident about what your PARTNER is doing for you, and that’s why you don’t want to pay commission to him, then that’s a sign of something far more important than money: It’s time to evaluate your partnership… and move on if this isn’t the right match. And until you move on, PAY COMMISSION. It’s the deal you made when you signed on. It’s good business. It’s good karma.
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Enjoy… and stay ninja!
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Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000713.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.