What You Need to Know About Agents, Managers, and Lawyers in the Film IndustryBuilding your (A) Team as a creative professional.
Let’s discuss the connectors between the creative and business sides of your career.
What are agents, managers, and entertainment lawyers, and what do they do for screenwriters and filmmakers? What role could they play in your filmmaking career?
After graduating from college with a degree in screenwriting, I set out to learn as many sides of the entertainment industry as I could. My first job was working as a child wrangler – yes, that was my title – on a children’s TV show. Basically, I had to make sure that our child stars were where they needed to be when they needed to be there, and that when they weren’t on set, they were well-behaved, safe, and taken care of. It was one of the most tiring jobs I’ve ever had.
My next job kicked off what I would come to think of as my non-collegiate “graduate school” years. I became the assistant to the president of a boutique talent management firm in New York City, and over the next four years, I received a hands-on, well-rounded education in the business side of the entertainment industry. Things that I once recognized only as buzzwords on Entourage – agents, managers, entertainment lawyers – were part of the day-to-day of my very demanding job. I wasn’t quite Lloyd (I solemnly swear, that’ll be my last Entourage reference), but I handled some high-intensity work for some high-profile people with client lists including actors, writers, and directors, some just starting out and others established Oscar nominees.
In that job, I learned that the work that’s being done by agents, managers, and entertainment lawyers is really what keeps America’s traditional entertainment industry thriving. It’s their work as connectors between talent and studios and producers that gives life force to the razzle-dazzle we call “Hollywood.”
It’s also hardly ever discussed.
The work that these important people do is so behind-the-scenes that often, it’s not even part of the conversation. But for anyone who’s thinking about working in the mainstream entertainment industry, it’s really important to know who is keeping the business side of “the business” ticking.
So, today, we’re going to take a look at these important people and what they do.
Agent Versus Manager
People often mix up the jobs of agents and managers. On the surface, it may look like they play similar roles in the career of a creative professional. They’re both invested in that person getting jobs so that he or she can make money using his or her talents.
For the sake of discussion, let’s invent an up-and-coming creative professional so that we can break down the characters who populate her world. We’ll call her Sarah.
Sarah is in her late 20s, and she’s a writer and director. She graduated from a top film program, and two of her shorts won several awards. She went on to direct three feature films, which all received critical praise and met with some financial success. Now, Sarah is looking to take her career to the next level, which to her means writing and directing a film with a strong budget, notable actors, and high profile.
Sarah has an agent and a manager, who each play distinct roles in her career. Sometimes it can be helpful to think of it this way: even though both the agent and the manager are invested in furthering Sarah’s career, the agent is more invested in the business side of things, while the manager is more invested in the creative, artistic, “Sarah side” of things.
An agent’s job is to find jobs and broker deals for their client. They’re constantly talking with producers and studios, trying to find the best deals for the client. For a screenwriter, that would mean selling the screenwriter’s script or getting the screenwriter hired to write a project that a studio is commissioning (for example, if a studio owned the rights to turn a book into a movie, then they would hire a writer to pen the script). For a television writer, that would mean getting the writer a staff position on a TV show. For a director, that would mean getting the director jobs directing films or episodes of television.
The manager is also interested in all of these things, and is typically in direct communication with the agent about his or her progress in these pursuits. But the manager has another job as well, which is to nurture the client’s creative side. Since our made-up creative, Sarah, is a writer and a director, her manager is probably having creative conversations with her, brainstorming about new projects, reading drafts of her script, and talking to her about what direction she’d like to take her creative pursuits in next. Although a manager wants the client to succeed and to make money, the heart of a manager’s job is more focused on creative fulfillment for their client.
That’s not to say that Sarah can’t have creative conversations with her agent, too, but one of Sarah’s manager’s main focuses is seeking creative fulfillment for and with Sarah.
So, for example: let’s say that one day, Sarah’s agent gets a call from an executive at Disney, who tells him that the studio has just purchased a new superhero property and they need a fantastic writer to pen the screenplay. The studio loves Sarah and her work, and they’d like to hire her. Sounds great, right? It could be, but Sarah, it turns out, loathes superhero movies on a very deep, personal level. She’s told both her agent and her manager that she never, ever wants to work in the realm of superhero writing or directing.
Sarah’s agent, doing his due diligence, calls Sarah’s manager to let her know what’s going on. Sarah’s manager knows, based on all of the developmental and creative work she and Sarah have done together, that Sarah is not going to sign on to a superhero movie. Nevertheless, the manager lets Sarah know what’s going on, but also lets her know that if she doesn’t want to do this film, it’s okay. The manager empowers Sarah to make the decision that’s right for her. Ultimately, Sarah decides not to do the superhero film, which her manager calls her agent to report. In that conversation, Sarah’s manager tells her agent that Sarah really wants that caliber of work, she just doesn’t want a superhero movie. Sarah’s manager urges her agent to find something just as high-profile and lucrative, but in a different creative realm.
Energized, Sarah’s agent calls all of the producers and studio heads he knows, letting them know that Disney just wanted to hire Sarah and that she’s looking for her next amazing project. Within a few days, he’s found a movie that suits Sarah’s creative soul – one that’s possibly even better and more career-making than the superhero film. And to add to the great news, for this new project, the studio is looking for someone to write and direct the film. Sarah, her manager, and her agent all talk together about how incredible this job would be for her. Sarah’s agent says he’ll do whatever he can to land her the job.
Now, Sarah’s agent is tasked with making the best deal possible for Sarah. He wants to get her the job and he wants to get it for her at the highest price tag possible. And he does! He gets a deal that is better than he had hoped for, which he calls the manager to report. Together, Sarah’s manager and agent call her to give her the good news.
The agent and the manager, together, are what creative professionals often refer to as their “team”. Also on the team – and the person who would come in next in this chapter for Sarah – is the entertainment lawyer.
What Is an Entertainment Lawyer?
An entertainment lawyer is a specific type of lawyer whose job it is to protect the interests of creative professionals. A large part of an entertainment lawyer’s job is to negotiate contracts on behalf of his or her clients.
Since Sarah is both writing and directing the project her agent has just landed for her, her contract would include stipulations about how many drafts she is being commissioned to write, what timeframe those drafts will be written in, whether or not she is beholden to creative requests of the studio, and whether or not she will be the final writer on the project (in some cases, an uncredited writer might be brought in to doctor parts of the script).
On the directing side of things, the contract would include which creative decisions are Sarah’s and which are the studio’s (such as casting, locations, etc.), how much time Sarah is being contracted to work for, whether or not she has final cut privileges (on some films, the studio or producer has say over the final edit), and whether or not she will be in the editing room. Contracts also sometimes include things we might not normally think about, like how many tickets Sarah is allotted for the premiere of the film, and whether or not she’ll be flown to the premiere if it’s not in her own hometown.
Of course, the contract will also include how much Sarah will be paid for her services.
Sarah’s entertainment lawyer would go through the studio’s proposed contract and would request changes wherever he or she saw an opportunity for Sarah’s interests to be protected more. The lawyer and the studio would go back and forth until both parties were happy with the contract, and then the lawyer would arrange for Sarah to sign the contract.
How are agents, managers, and entertainment lawyers paid?
Agents, managers, and entertainment lawyers often are paid on commission. Typically, agents and managers receive 10% of a client’s wages for any given project. Entertainment lawyers earn between 5% and 10%.
The theory behind commission payments is that because agents’, managers’, and entertainment lawyers’ jobs are to get jobs for their clients, they’re motivated to get their clients more jobs and at higher rates if their own income is tied to that of their clients.
How do you get an agent, manager, or entertainment lawyer?
All of these people work together a ton – remember, they’re “the team” – and often, once you have one, they’ll help you find the other.
The way to open conversations with agents and managers is to send query letters. This is sometimes referred to as “querying agents” or “querying managers”. A query letter is essentially a letter (or email) that introduces yourself as an artist and lets the person know why you’re writing. For a screenwriter or director, it will typically include some description of the person’s past work, and a writer should offer to send the agent or manager materials to read or view if they would like.
It’s important to note that a query letter should not include a script as an attachment. Scripts sent without a request for them are considered “unsolicited materials”. Most agencies and management firms have strict policies against accepting unsolicited materials due to creative liability issues. If an agency accepted unsolicited materials, they might receive hundreds of scripts a day, which might be way too much for an agent to ever get through reading.
So let’s imagine that Writer A sent a script that Agent B never had a chance to open. Years later, a movie comes out that Writer A thinks sounds a lot like his idea, and it’s been written by a client of Agent B. Writer A may very well call up Agent B assuming that his idea was stolen, when in reality, Agent B never even opened Writer A’s script all those years ago. It’s cleaner (and safer) to not engage with creative material unless the agent has explicitly agreed to do so.
It’s also important to note that you shouldn’t really reach out to managers and agents until you have some work under your belt – something that you can send once they ask you to send it! Simply writing to someone and saying “I’m a great writer” isn’t enough. You have to have some work to show. So put in some time and get to know yourself as a writer or filmmaker, even if it’s just a small project with a couple of friends, before you reach out.
As assistant to talent managers, I often reviewed query letters that came in and decided whether or not they were worth my bosses’ time (which was limited). In that capacity, I read a lot of query letters that do the wrong thing. They’re too long, not professional enough, and don’t do a good job of getting the reader interested in the writer’s or director’s work.
It’s not a perfect parallel, but basically don’t be this guy:
Here’s a fictional query letter that strikes the right tone and gives the right information. Though I may be partial because I wrote it, I can say with confidence that if I got this letter, I would have passed it onto my boss:
I’m a writer and filmmaker currently seeking representation. I’m familiar with the work of several of your clients, notably John Spring and Sarah Green, and I think that my artistic sensibilities fall in line with theirs. Given that, I thought that you and I may be a good fit for one another.
I graduated from NYU’s film program, where I made a short film, WILLOW, which premiered at the New York International Film Festival and went on to play at a dozen festivals nationwide. Notably, it was named Best Short at the Hamptons International Film Festival. I recently finished my second short film, CASA VERDE, which is set to premiere at the Buffalo Film Festival in November 2017.
I’m interested in pursuing film and television directing and am seeking representation so that I can elevate my career to its next level. If you may be interested in viewing them, I would be happy to send you a link to my films and to my reel. Additionally, I live in New York City and would be happy to come to your office for a visit at your convenience.
Thank you so much for your time and consideration. I really appreciate it.
A letter to an agent would be similar. If Jacob, our fictional artist, were to find representation with Sam, our fictional manager, Sam might introduce Jacob to other people in his professional contacts, such as an agent or an entertainment lawyer.
Typically, a creative professional wouldn’t have an entertainment lawyer unless he or she had an explicit need for one (if his or her script were being sold, for example). However, if a creative professional doesn’t have anyone on his or her “team” and is offered a chance to sell rights to a script, the first call he or she should make is to an entertainment lawyer. It’s never recommended to enter into any sort of creative deal without the help of a reputable entertainment lawyer.
Where can you find the names and contact information for agents, managers, and lawyers?
A great resource is IMDBPro, which lists the contact information of all agents and managers as well as their client lists. IMDBPro requires a subscription, but it’s really the best and most comprehensive resource for information about agents, lawyers, and managers. In fact, agents, lawyers, and managers often use IMDBPro as a resource to find information about each other! It’s a very trusted (and simple to navigate) resource.
A lot of this industry-related Hollywood stuff can seem big and inaccessible sometimes, but really, most everyone who is working in the industry is doing so because they love great artists, and they want to bring incredible work to audiences.
If you’re an indie filmmaker and you’re hoping to start making more connections or get different types of work, do some research about who represents your favorite filmmakers, and think about reaching out to them through a query letter – once you have something to show, of course! Respect their time, and they’ll respect yours.
I can promise you, the people who answer the phones at talent agencies and management firms are (literally) just like you and I. Most of them have a deep appreciation for talented artists, and they’re eager to meet new ones.
Lauren McGrail, with
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