(Necessary, but not necessarily evil.)

* The “commercial talent agent;” you will by necessity have to be in a working relationship with them.
* Without an agent, the voice over artist has little chance of success (in Los Angeles).

It may be of interest if we begin by understanding what an agent actually is, and then examine the relationship between the actor and his or her agent.

Here’s what “Merriam-Webster” has to say:

* One that acts or exerts power

* A means or instrument by which a guiding intelligence achieves a result

* One who is authorized to act for or in the place of another:
a. Representative, emissary, or an official of a government
b. One engaged in undercover activities: spy
c. A business representative

As an aside: I know a few agents that fit the description for all of the above!

Each city has a slightly different approach to how business is conducted. Los Angeles, for a wide variety of reasons, remains uniquely singular. I guess what they say about us is true; we are different at this end of the country. Our town is geographically spread out. It isn’t like New York or Chicago, where a person can walk down the street of a certain location and be privy to just about every major player in the advertising game. Los Angeles stretches out over an area of more than one hundred miles. Then there are the outlying communities that support a myriad of advertising agencies.

New York and Chicago have always been the advertising capitals of this country, and the world for that matter.

A Little History:

The very first signs of significant change came back in the late thirties and early forties when radio began to take hold. Before that, it was the print media that handled the advertisers desire to get their respective products better-known.

All concerned, excluding the advertising agency producers, underestimated the enormity of an industry that was about to change the face of both the advertising business and the future of just about every kid who had the slightest inkling of becoming an actor.

But before we modern folks came along, there were:

Wine, Beer, and Cigarettes (a dream come true).

Every brand had a song, and every school kid could sing, and tell you the benefits of how mild a cigarette could be.

My favorite little cancer stick was “Lucky Strike.” After all, they didn’t “Have A Cough In A Carload.” The label on the pack attested to the fact they were toasted. Many of the old timers would actually discuss the attributes of the different brands of cigarettes. I do believe more doctors smoked “Luckies” than any other brand; at least that’s what they said on the radio.

The first era lasted for about fifteen years. Each radio show had an announcer who did the commercials, many of which were of two minutes duration. Then of course, the jingles; all sung with the benefit of a full big band behind them.

The Pace Picks Up:

With the fifties, and the advent of television, came the need for more and more actors. Up until that time period, such a thing as a commercial talent agent was non-existent. Actors had theatrical agents representing them. These same theatrical agents displayed little or no interest in the commercial field of representation.

As a matter of fact, in the early days (prestige wise) many legitimate actors shared the universal feelings that doing a television commercial was beneath them.

The early sixties brought with it the blossoming of the commercial talent agent. All it took was the magic word “residuals.”

(And in the event you are unaware of what the word residual means, you probably should not bother yourself with going any further in your pursuit of a career as a commercial actor.)

Seemingly from out of nowhere, agents began popping up all over the place. Many of them came into it because they were ex-actors who had failed.

(In the early sixties, you could have staged a pretty good musical comedy, with a cast made up of folks who had recently become agents.)

It was during these very early days that the field of voice over was actually established.

In the beginning, the main reason for the voice over was economics. It was easier to add an explanation tag or voice to the substance of the commercial body than to have the on-camera actors act out the motive or sell. In very short order, the production company along with the ad agency creative types latched on to the many plusses that were being enabled by use of the human voice. Since the voice over was part and parcel of the postproduction makeup, it enabled the production company to operate at the location of their choice in order to do the filming, while the necessary additional dialogue could be done at a later time.

Along with the advent of color, larger screens, and better sound, we were on our way.

Since the vast majority of location shots were staged outdoors, the California climate, especially Los Angeles, rapidly secured us as the geographical capital of the commercial production industry.

We had the climate that allowed for more days of outside location work, and coupled with the strength of our Hollywood community of viable talent, ensuring an over abundance of actors for the newly formed talent agencies to draw from. The advertising industry had no choice: If they wanted to film commercials without worrying about inclement weather, Los Angeles was the right place for them to be.

And while all this commercial filming was going on, low and behold our population was increasing simultaneously. Doubling and then tripling the number of people in our country, concurrently had the effect of pouring gasoline on a fire. The more it grew, the more growth potential was uncovered. As new industries were born, so too was the need to advertise them.

At the same time that television displayed its unbelievable prosperity, so too did the forgotten giant radio. Drive time radio became an advertiser’s dreamland. With two working parents as opposed to one single breadwinner, the number of automobiles at drive time hours skyrocketed. The agents all, across the board took on representing more actors to cover the demand. Many actors were now making a very handsome income by doing radio commercials.

While radio rarely afforded the residual plus of television, it consumed product at a never before experienced volume.

At the onset, agents began by representing a mere handful of actors. There were just a few actual commercial talent agents in existence, compared to today’s hard to believe enormity. In today’s marketplace (just Los Angeles proper), there are some thirty commercial talent agents (offices). That means agents running offices. The number of sub agents that they employ would probably be in the neighborhood of one hundred and fifty. The union allows for each agency to have a company name, and to hire sub agents to work for them. They are all signatories of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Radio and Television artists. And accordingly are restricted from any work done for any production company and or advertising agency who is not a signatory of said guilds. In other words: The agents should not be doing non-union jobs.

The agents contract with either of the guilds allows for a maximum of ten percent, as the factor to be used as the maximum percentage when calculating the agent’s remuneration.

Work that is derived under the auspices of SAG is subject to the ten percent being calculated on the actor’s gross earnings. Work derived by the actor under the auspices of AFTRA is subject to the ten percent being calculated as an add-on figure. Add-on meaning that whatever the actor’s fee would be for the commercial, an additional ten percent would be added on top.

Note: The ten percent figure that is understood and commonly used by most of the industry is also misconstrued as being a state regulation. Each state has its own rules and regulations as to the remuneration an agent or manager may charge as a percentage of the actors gross. The 10% figure is what is currently the agreement between the guilds and its signatory members (agents).

Editorially speaking… I feel in general the agents earn every cent they make. The business has changed and continues to change as you read this missive.

Actors and agents aren’t immune to the trials and tribulations of what our nation experiences both cyclically, and without warning.

But make no mistake; there have been a variety of mistakes, which were made by agents, actors and the guilds that, by the nature of things, cannot ever be corrected.

“Oftentimes, when a tide rises to a new and higher level, those who are in the water may not notice, especially if all they attempt to do is stay afloat.”

Work stoppages for any reason, including act of God, will, by their nature, become the cause and effect for unredeemable monetary and emotional loss.

As a guild member, an actor, agent, casting director and emotionally involved bystander who has experienced no less than three prolonged work stoppages, I declare myself worthy of my own personal journalistic comment:

Not working sucks!!!

The agents were of little or no help in any of the strike negotiations. They could, and should have been. Some had reasonable and viable possible solutions to each of the three sanctioned strikes.

During one of the strikes in particular I found myself wondering why SAG or AFTRA wasn’t bringing in or attempting to enlist the help of some of the industry heavy hitters to assist in the negotiations. (I also wondered where the big named celebrities were hiding out.)

“The Actor”
So strange is it, often actors went forth without friends.
“What manner of man,” People asked,
“Would dare to venture out.”
Seeking to be loved
Desperately traveling to foreign lands
Exposing and re-exposing themselves to the taunts of
Their patrons
Ever wanting only love and approval
Always hoping for people to understand.

“The Agent”
And one day
As our actor who no longer had the will to try
Disapproval had engulfed him
He found no energy left to cry.
On the horizon a buffer appeared
A new form of being
Lodged with personality
Charged with enthusiasm
Loving our actor
Never thinking of himself
Straining for our actors welfare
And asking only 10% for their share

By: hk

Admittedly, I never considered myself to be a good agent. At face value, and succinctly stated… here’s my background in a nutshell: Business and Theatre. I’ve been working with, and for actors most of my adult life. The predominance of my experience, and strength (if you will) tends to be on the creative side of my personal ledger. As a writer, I found it difficult to support my wife, my two children, or myself. As a casting director, animated feature film director, and educator, I have managed to gain more than a modicum of renown and respect.

The above assertions, are made by me, and are as subjective as you may will them to be.

Trying To Figure Out The Agent’s Position:

It has been twenty-five years since I was an agent. A lot has changed, and a lot has remained the same. The agents receive the same ten percent for securing the actor’s work (toil) and nothing else for whatever (trouble). Agents in general still work long and arduous hours. Agents still do a lot of handholding; some actors are needy; some actors are greedy; some actors are seedy; some actors are needy, seedy, and greedy all wrapped up in one presumptive package. These are the actors who bear the full responsibility for the increase in single malt scotch sales in the Los Angeles area.

Okay, the point is, and I’m sure you get it, I feel agents earn their money, and then some. I have zero complaint about how hard the commercial talent agents work. My question is: Why do they unnecessarily work so hard — especially the older, bigger, and more successful agents?

My problem has to do with numbers; specifically the number of actors who compete for each radio job.

The current problem is not one which just popped up. It began twenty-five years ago when the agents first decided how great it would be to offer the advertising agencies free auditions. The scripts were mailed to the agent; he or she would record their actors and send a tape of said audition back to the ad agency. In that era, a radio paid a total $200 + 10%,($20). I can remember distinctly asking the agent who was my boss what his thinking was. I mean, we were averaging ten to fifteen actors per commercial audition. It took about two and one half hours to conduct the audition. If one of our actors were selected as the winner, our cut would be $20. My exact comment to my boss was, “You can’t turn the electricity on for twenty bucks.”

At an agents’ association meeting, one of the most prominent agents took the floor when it was his turn, and stated without equivocation, “In-house auditions being conducted by us for radio commercials could be our ultimate downfall. We should stop doing in house auditions for radio commercials immediately. If the ad agencies want auditions, they should bring the actors into the advertising agencies and conduct them, themselves.” (Or hire a casting company.) He was voted down. His colleagues didn’t want to risk stimulating the ire of the ad agency producers. To this day, I doubt if any of the advertising people give much thought regarding the well-being of the working commercial voice over agents.

Not much has changed procedurally. Agents still conduct auditions for radio spots. But now we have two more culprits to deal with: online casting services or “banks,” and the actor with his or her own in-home recording studio facility.

As casting directors, we are privy to the inside workings of all the latest phenomena. We draw from an acting pool from all over the country. Today, national television spots, more often than not, means we are casting from acting pools originating in all of our major cities.

The numbers of actors auditioning for a radio commercial are often staggering and beyond belief.

What that notable agent professed, twenty-five years hence, has gathered such alarming momentum, that even his brash predictions seem mild today. He was correct then, when he called for his colleagues to stop doing in-house auditions for radio commercials. His assessment of the industry’s future was right on. It isn’t too late for change. Some things can still be benefited by reverting to the good old days.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *