Commercial talent agents: you will, by necessity, have to be in a working relationship with them. I use the term necessity because, without an agent, the voice-over artist has far less chance of success. Let’s begin by understanding what an agent actually is, and then examine the relationship between the actor and their agent.
Here’s what Merriam Webster offers as a definition:
- 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 <espionage> spy
- A business representative
As an aside: I know a few agents that fit the description for all of the above!
New York and Chicago have always been the advertising capitals of this country, and the world for that matter. The very first signs of real growth in advertising came back in the late 1930s and early 1940s when radio began to take hold. Before that, it was the print media that handled the advertisers’ desires to get their respective products better known. With the 1950s 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, at the beginning (the early days of TV), most legitimate actors shared the universal feeling that doing a television commercial was beneath them, prestige-wise. 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. Along with the advent of color, larger screens, and better sound, we were on our way.
The early 1960s brought with it the blossoming of the commercial talent agent. All it took was the magic word: residuals. 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 1960s, 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 benefits being enabled by the use of the human voice. Since the voice-over was part 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.
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 a climate that allowed for more days of outside location work. Coupled with the strength of our Hollywood community of viable talent, it insured an overabundance 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, lo 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 television displayed its unbelievable prosperity, so did the forgotten giant: radio.
Drive-time radio became an advertisers’ dreamland. With two working parents, as opposed to one single breadwinner, the number of automobiles at drive-time hours skyrocketed. Agents, across the board, all 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 benefit of television, it consumed products at a never before experienced volume.
From the beginning, agents began by representing a mere handful of actors and there were just a few actual commercial talent agents in existence compared to today. In today’s marketplace, Los Angeles, alone, has commercial talent agents too numerous to count; the number of agents in Los Angeles has grown into an audacious figure of well over one-hundred companies. That means agents running offices. The number of sub-agents they employ today is incalculable. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.
The union allows for each talent agency to have a company name and to hire sub-agents to work for them. They are all signatories of the Screen Actors Guild, SAG, and the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, AFTRA. And accordingly are restricted from any work done for any production company and or advertising agency who is not a signatory of said guilds. 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. (It varies.) In other words, these agents are contractually bound to submit or solicit union jobs for their actors.
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.
– A Little More History –
In the mid-1960s, one of the owners of a commercial talent agency decided that he was going to become an innovator. The agent purchased a small reel-to-reel tape recorder and a microphone. He then convinced an advertising agency producer that it would save them a great deal of money if they furnished the agent with a script of a current commercial that they were about to put out to audition. The agent explained to the producer that without cost to them, he would have some of his actors come in and read for the role in question and would then get it back to them. Within one year, that agent’s innovation became the standard practice for auditions conducted in Los Angeles. As time went by, the procedure became more and more sophisticated.
It was during the early 1970s that I, da harv, found myself between jobs. An actor had recommended me to a talent agency. The thought of becoming an agent was about as far removed from my life as any offer could be. The owner of the agency was Noel Rubaloff. He was one of the original commercial talent agents in the country. The name of the agency was “Abrams-Rubaloff & Associates”.
They had been formed in the 1960s when Universal Pictures was ordered to divest themselves of either their production company or their talent agency. When Universal opted in favor of remaining a production company, it meant that the actors they represented as agents had to be released. It also meant that their current agents were about to be out of work. One of them caught up in this debacle was Noel Rubaloff.
So there I was, sitting in front of what was then the most successful commercial talent agent in the business. He began by telling me how he had heard all about my skills as a production stage manager, as well as being aware of my teaching and directing credits. He went on to say how he couldn’t pay very much, but if I joined them I would be directing the biggest and most well-known names in the industry. In short, it was some of those well-known names that had complained about the lack of direction given to them when they came into the agency for an in-house audition. It was during my tenure at Abrams-Rubaloff that my innovative techniques as a director became an industry standard.
The Kalmenson Method© was born and developed during my seven years at Abrams-Rubaloff. It was also during this time period that I was on faculty at the University of Southern California, in their college of continuing education. Within three months of joining Noel and his gang, he called me into his office for a meeting. I remember his words: “I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but keep doing it!” He told me that he was planning to move to a larger facility and that if I was up for it; I could proceed to build a full-service recording facility to conduct auditions in.
At the time, that was unheard of. Most agents had a variety of inferior home recording equipment. None had anything resembling state-of-the-art. I was up for the challenge. Within a couple of months, we had moved to a full-blown mansion in the Los Feliz area. It was situated on three large lots. We were the talk of the industry. It was there, in that mansion, in what had been a large wine cellar, that yours truly was made a believer. Noel told me that he had the most impressive stable of actors in the industry, and he wasn’t kidding.
Through our doors marched most of the very same people that I had looked up to as the cream of our industry. I think I directed everybody but “King Kong”. And the way it was going, it wouldn’t have surprised me if one day Noel brought “Kong” in for an audition. Noel was a man of his word. I was told to build and not worry about the budget. That’s exactly what I did. And away we flew. Who knew! “The Shadow” does, or did, or do!