Spotlight: Talent Agents Talk About the Biz
Your Industry Insider recently attended a Boston University Alumni/Los Angeles Program event on “How Media and Consumer Trends Affect Talent Representation.”
The event was moderated by entertainment executive Randi Siegel and featured:
William Morris Endeavor partner Jenny Rawlings, a graduate of the famed CAA Mailroom Trainee Program and a talent representative, primarily on the film side, of many award-winning actors and actresses.
APA Talent and Literary Agency Senior Vice President, Danny Robinson, also an agency mailroom veteran, who is focused on comedy and the personal appearance side of talent representation, which means touring, standup comedy, and concerts.
Mark Scroggs, an agent at David Shapira & Associates who started as a temp at William Morris and now represents some top actors and actresses, hosts, comics, and improv and sketch performers. (Read Mark’s Inside Scoop profile here.)
Below are selected excerpts from the night’s discussion edited for length and clarity. The panelists were all consummate professionals, smart and very passionate about what they do, and it’s no wonder they are at the top of the talent representation ladder. They graciously gave up a night of their time and imparted their wisdom on the students and professionals gathered at the BU in Los Angeles Program offices.
Randi Siegel: Let’s just start out briefly by discussing what talent representation is. What is being an agent in Hollywood?
Jenny Rawlings: When you start out at an agency, you work your way up the ranks, more than likely, unless you’re brought in from the outside. At first, you’re given the more challenging clients, the ones that are harder to get jobs for. You scour the town to try to find them work because, as an agent, you’re responsible for putting food on their tables. Now, my job is to help clients navigate the studio system, to figure out what television or movie projects that they want to do, to help them get the jobs, and also educate them as to how the business works and how they can best position themselves to get jobs.
Randi: Danny, why does somebody need an agent?
Danny Robinson: As weird as that sounds to say, it’s really the truth because, as Jenny said, our job is to pay their bills. Every time I talk to an artist and look at an act that we represent, my first thought is, I’m responsible ‑‑ I mean, their talent is ultimately responsible, but our purpose and our job is to find them the best deals we can, find them work, give them the option, so they can feed their families and buy their homes. I would venture to say all of us think this way. We’re taking on their livelihood, and we have to take that seriously.
Randi: So, Mark, what’s a typical day for you?
Mark Scroggs: The day starts early. I’ll look at my Blackberry right when I wake up. There’s always something, because a lot of what I do is on the East Coast too. And when I get to the office, I catch up and check e‑mails, go through the trades and breakdowns.
Randi: A breakdown is a description of every character that’s in a T.V. show. It breaks down the characters. It’ll say, “A male who’s 25 and crazy, strung out on heroin all the time and has a weird twitch.” And then Mark will be like, I’ve got five clients for that.
Mark: I want to catch up on the last things I dealt with the night before and anything for the East Coast, especially, because they go to lunch. Then, I start making calls about the projects on the breakdowns. I follow up on somebody who may be going back into test. A lot of it, if there aren’t meetings with staff or with clients, involves just doing calls and keeping up with the breakdowns.
Randi: Today, all everybody cares about the box office, right? Why is that? And what does it mean that somebody can’t open a film? How does that work for your clients as far as who you want to have for different projects?
Jenny: A lot of what drives what we call the domestic box office, the box office performance within the United States, is what we call Middle America, okay? Whether or not a movie opens strong is not what people in California or New York think because we don’t make up that much of the total gross U.S. box office. And these days, it’s becoming more and more about the subject matter more so than the stars.
It won’t be fair for me to start naming names of people who don’t open movies, but actors that we consider to be ”movie stars” in genres that people in Middle America don’t necessarily want to see them in, they don’t open the movies. I think who’s in them makes a difference, but I don’t think people say, “Julia Roberts is in this movie. I’m definitively going.” Look at CAPTAIN AMERICA. The box office numbers were tremendous. Is Chris Evans a movie star? I don’t think so. Not yet. People went, more than likely, because they were a fan of the comic or thought the trailer looked cool their friends told them about it.
I think there are probably only three or four actors that really open movies these days. You know that if you got Will Smith in a movie, more than likely, he’s going to open it. Or Leonardo Dicaprio. So for me, the definition of what a ”movie star” is has changed drastically because of this.
Randi: Danny, why don’t you speak to them about the impact of new media these days? What has changed in your perspective? Are people not going to be going to the movies anymore?
Danny: Well, people still, thank God, they still go to the movies. I don’t think that will ever change. The numbers are going to go up and down depending on the things happening in the world – wars, economy, things like that, but for going out to films or going out to shows whether it’s a musician, actor, or comedian, that will never change because people like leaving their house. People have a need for live experiences.
What new media has changed, I think, is the immediacy of things and the way people get it. They’re still going to go out and see a movie. They’re still going to watch the special on HBO or Showtime. But they will then rent it or buy it ‑‑ it’s so cheap to buy now ‑‑ and download it. It’s the afterlife in our business that has changed dramatically. Used to be, if you liked a movie, you went back to the theater three or four times. Well now, in the first few weeks, the only ones that you get real repeat business from are kids because the rest of us will go see it once and then get it on the DVD or download it or whatever it may be.
Randi: Mark, what, as a rep, do you find challenging in making your clients’ deals now to make sure you’re covering these streams of income?
Mark: You’ve got to just make sure your client is not abused. In the television deals, they would buy a certain amount of online work. For NBC shows, they’ll do promotions like “Go to NBC.com to watch this,” and it was part of the deals. But a couple of years ago, they were really taking advantage of it. You just have to really watch over it and make sure the unions watch over it, too.
[Editor’s note: At this point, one of the panelists mentioned “Entourage,” which happened multiple times during the evening because of the subject matter of the show and because one of the main characters is a talent agent famously modeled after one of the heads of William Morris Endeavor, Jenny’s agency.]
Danny: The only problem with “Entourage,” it’s a greatly written show and the actors are all wonderful and it’s great, but my here’s my problem with that show: It started off as a story about four friends. It was supposed to be a show about friendship and no matter what happens, you’re friends are your friends and you stick with them through thick and thin, and that’s a brilliant ‑‑ that’s a great concept. What it has morphed into is everything that I don’t like, and I wouldn’t venture to say my friends here will agree, everything that is negative about our industry.
It glorifies the parties, the drugs, the going after women, and the crap that goes on in the agent’s and actor’s offices behind the scenes. Yes, a lot of it is dead on, a lot of it is funny, but it puts it in such a bad light. Now they’re doing it because they want people to watch, but it drives me crazy because –-
Mark: That’s not what I do. But my relatives in Virginia think that’s what I do.
Randi: With all the channels and outlets out there, how do you keep track of all of these different options and decide what’s the right way for your clients to go?
Mark: It’s completely different now. Everything that we used to do for a film or television or an album or whatever has completely changed. You have to, because there is so much out there, we have many more options for our artists to perform in. The bad news is, now it’s a dog fight to get eyeballs on you. The network you’re on helps a bit. The writer who creates it or directs it, that helps a bit. The artist, if it’s Steve Carell or a name people want to see, that helps, but still, you are fighting. You’ve got your major networks and cable, then you’ve got the Internet where this (gestures to the room) could be a show tomorrow.
Danny: There are networks out there you’ve never heard of and people are watching. New media’s doubled and soared. It’s just like technology. Like you said, we used to communicate through the mail when we were young agents. We didn’t have to worry about what was going on with our clients until we got into the office or when we got a call on our landline at home. Now, you wake up in the morning and the first thing you look at is your phone.
Mark: Or it’s on the news.
Danny: Exactly. (Laughing.) There’s so much information out there and so many options. That’s wonderful for the viewing public. The downside is, artists are scratching and crawling to get noticed. It’s really all about getting noticed. In the early days when I started working with comedians, all it took was a ”Tonight Show” shot. If you did well with Johnny Carson, you weren’t a star, but you were on your way. The club owners would be calling for you, people would recognize you on the streets. I knew we had way too many television shows and way too many networks when, a number of years ago, a manager called me and said, “I’d like you to see my client, Joe Blow.” I told him to send me a tape of the guy. The tape they sent me to see if I would want to represent this guy was ”The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, and I’m like, seriously? This is to get me excited? That used to be what made you.
Randi: How do you have conversations with your clients about, this movie is not really a good movie, but you’re going to have to do all of this press? Do some of them ever just say, “I’m not doing it”?
Jenny: I have a couple of clients that work really hard, they work really hard to promote a movie, but there are certain things that they’re not willing to do. I have one client who’s not willing to Facebook or tweet. I think it’s less about the amount that you’re doing and more about what it is specifically that you’re doing. I think that’s incredibly important. Otherwise, you’re spinning your wheels. When I get these lists from the publicists about the 9 million newspapers and stuff that they’re going to talk to, I ask why they want my client to do all of these and tell me what the reach is. That’s really what I want to know, because doing publicity is hard. You’re answering the same questions over and over and over again and trying to freshen it up while sitting in a small, hot room with lights glaring down on you and every interview you’re trying to do your best like it’s the first one you’ve done of the day.
Randi: Do you think that the audience and fans of celebrities, movie stars, TV stars, do you think that they have a different sense of entitlement to the talent now? Like, “I know you better because of Facebook and Twitter”?
Danny: Yeah. In the old days, I mean way before any of us, there used to be mystique. Basically a publicist’s job was to keep the press away and keep the stories out of the paper. Now, it’s the complete opposite. There are stars – and not just the Paris Hiltons of the world – there are actually legitimate actors who have their publicists leak when they’re going to go have dinner somewhere or when they’re taking their kid to a movie or whatever it might be. There is no, literally, almost no mystique.
Randi: Mark, does this make your job harder or easier as an agent these days?
Mark: It’s a little harder cause a lot of times, when they’re doing stuff on their own. I know with tweeting, it’s trying to not give away plot points. And people will tell stuff about themselves. They’ll volunteer stuff. So we have to educate people to know what’s right and what’s not.
Jenny: It’s overexposure. We all saw what happened, years ago, to Kate Moss. Somebody took a picture of her snorting a line of cocaine. She was doing it in the privacy of a recording studio and, not that she should have been doing it, but she lost all her endorsement deals. Gone. She had no control over the woman she thought was a friend who took the picture and sold it to every major publication.
Randi: And that happened with the Olympic swimmer.
Danny: Yeah. Michael Phelps.
Randi: So as an agent, would you be inclined to say that a lot of your job is hand‑holding or do you like to push that off on the manager? When I was a manager, I had the handholding. I got the calls from jail, I got all that.
Jenny: I think ‑‑ honestly, I think it’s both. I think it just depends on the client.
Mark: Some clients take more than others.
Danny: Sometimes it’s like mom and dad. Or good cop and bad cop. The dad in me comes out sometimes and I don’t realize it. I’m like, I’m talking to my client like they’re 13. But sometimes that’s what you have to do.
Randi: Do you feel that because of how media has changed, with all of this immediacy, overexposure, all that, do you think that you have a bigger responsibility to protect your client than you ever did?
Danny: Yeah. There’s way more to it to anticipate. As Jenny said, half our day is anticipating what’s going to happen, and the other half of it is, no matter what you do to protect, because of technology, people can find things out. It’s crazy.
Randi: Mark, you mentioned something earlier about how even though their stuff is posted, it doesn’t mean it’s accurate.
Mark: Right. Right. We were just talking about IMDB and how it’s usually about 80 percent accurate, but a lot of times, there are things that are just not put in right for certain people. They put birthdays down wrong and put people’s heads on other bodies and things. There’s just so much of it now, or just taking advantage of people, using clips of people and putting it on something else in some Youtube video and you’re like, what is this?
Danny: One of the things I have to deal with working in comedy is personal appearance. The up side of the internet is that I can see things on people immediately. The bad news is that some people out there, they take almost everything they do and then they put it on Youtube or whatever. And if I’m trying to get someone – a producer, concert promoter, big night clubber in Vegas – to take someone seriously and say this person would be good in your project or event. It’s sometimes challenging.
And ninety-nine percent of the time, corporate engagements have to be clean. Now, if you go into a club, you can get a little dirty here and there, but when you’re going to do a corporate gig, you have to be clean. We put together special tapes for corporate or church shows. You know that’s what they need to see and that’s where they need to hire their artists. If your client is putting every set they do online ‑‑ talking about getting girls and taking them back to their house, they’re not going to get that job. The Internet is like a tattoo. It never goes away.
Randi: I want to ask about what it takes to be an agent or a rep. And at what point in your career, or was there a point in your career, where you felt you knew what you were doing?
Jenny: I think it changes. There are moments every day where I’m like, okay, I got this, and then five minutes later, I’ll get a call and I’m like, “What the…?” But I think that’s sort of what keeps us going. My sister-in-law lives in Idaho. She calls me and she’s like, “You sit in your office and you talk on the phone all day long and they pay you all this money.” I said, “Are you kidding me? You think that’s what I do for a living?”
Danny: (Laughing.) It’s “Entourage.”
Jenny: I think it’s what keeps it exciting, you know. It’s sort of like you’re taking a class and you have a professor who’s throwing different things at you. Sometimes, they’re totally out of left field, and then sometimes they’re straight down the middle, curve balls, fast balls, whatever they are, and that’s what keeps it exciting. I get to learn new things from people that I would never imagine learning things.
Randi: So what makes you look at a talent and go, that guy’s going to be a star?
Jenny: It’s experience, obviously.
Mark: You just have to watch a lot. It’s like reading scripts. You see or watch a lot and you just filter through some of it. You have to go with your gut instinct. Sometimes you’re going to be wrong. Sometimes you’re going to be really wrong. Sometimes you’re going to be right, and maybe it’s later. A lot of times with comics, it takes a long time for them to develop who they are and all that. You just have to go with what you like ‑‑ if you really believe in someone, that’s the main thing.
Danny: Well I think any of us that stays in the business long enough, you can’t stay in our business and be wrong all the time. (Laughing.) Danny: You build your reputation by how many times you’ll stand on a table and say, you got to watch this guy or gal. Yes, we’re going to be wrong now and again, but if you’re right more than you’re wrong and you hit it out of the park a few times, people are going to listen to you, as they should.
That’s how we all learned, by watching agents and managers before us, seeing how they did it. It’s gut. That’s part of what builds reputation as an agent is they have an eye. It’s like a director has an eye or if you were a record executive in the old days, you could sit in a club and see a guy with a guitar in the corner and go, that’s a star. And sometimes, you’re the only person who believes.
Randi: Would you sign a Snooki?
Jenny: I don’t know. I mean ‑- I think, if I had seen something that he or she had done that inspired me, yeah. I took on an actor, I won’t name names, but I took on an actor about two and a half years ago that had a tremendous amount of success and then made some really bad choices that I can’t say I would have necessarily not recommended he do, it’s just bad luck, and then was known to be difficult or had a bad reputation. He was firing agents left and right and I got a call and I said well, I’d like to talk to him.
He came in my office and I said, “Hey listen, here’s the deal… I think you’re super talented, I have a feeling you could probably get back in, but it’s going to be a lot of hard work and people out there, they’re not rooting for you and you’re going to have to go back to ground zero.” I’ve got to say, we just made a really substantial deal for him to be on a television show that I think will put him right back on the map, I’m hoping. I couldn’t have done it alone. He had to be there right there with me, and I’ve got to tell you something, those conversations are brutal where they’re used to taking offers for millions of dollars. You’re like, “Hey buddy, you’ve got to go and wait for this casting director because she really doesn’t like you because you really pissed her off a year and a half ago. You got to go read for her.” It just depends if they’re game. I believed in him and I think he felt that, and he’s not quite back there, but we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress and I’m really proud of him.
Danny: To answer your question, would we sign an Snooki, that’s, again, 10 years ago, we had departments in my company, and I know both Jenny and Mark had the same, that are part of our industry now mainly because of multimedia. It’s so funny. In the early, early days, if you had a sex tape that got out, it killed your career. Now, it’s launched careers. There are whole departments, we don’t have to deal with them except now and again, but it is part of our industries. For better or worse, there is a lot of money and the public likes the Snooki’s of the world.
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