Agent or Manager? A Primer for Screenwriters
ScreenCraft recently published my blog on agents. As a former client of CAA, Gersh and others, I’ve been particularly well-positioned to write about this aspect of the industry. Take a look at that post linked above, if you have not already.
One of the questions I’m asked most frequently, relative to that article, is: “What’s better for me, an agent or manager … or both?”
The short answer is: “That depends on your career goals.”
Let’s discuss …
Questions that reps and writers should ask:
Ask yourself, “What are my goals in reference to my work? Do I want to sell a single script? Build a career? Set up a script with a network or studio and attach myself as a writer in the event of financing? Finance my indie script? Have someone who pitches for me and has my back? All of the above?”
Even this: “Is it worth my while to an agent or manager's 10-15% commission?”
I find there is certainly value with both, though presently I am unrepresented by choice, save for my attorney.
To the commission question: An interesting phenomenon I’ve been noticing of late is many agents — including my former agent from CAA — have left or are leaving their agencies and becoming managers. Further, I also know a handful of former television and studio execs who have either done the same, or are planning on it.
I’ve asked why. These are some responses I’ve received:
“I wanted more freedom.”
“It was time to get away from the stringency of the agency.”
“I don’t know if my company will survive financially because of Covid.”
“I want to work on projects I like personally, as opposed to what the network looks for.”
The common thread of these and other responses, however, hearkens to the first: There are agents and executives in this business who are simply dissatisfied or concerned about their own careers— for whatever the reason — and want to strike out on their own. The role of manager is a particularly entrepreneurial, creative and open-ended career.
VALUE PROPOSITION OF AGENTS VS. MANAGERS
I’ve had the fortune of dining with the agents and execs who gave me those answers such as the quotes above. In a more private setting over a meal, personal opinion and honesty tend to prevail as opposed to a company line.
Managers have a vested interest in your project. They have neither posted a bond nor are regulated as agents are (by the ATA — the Association of Talent Agents), and generally receive a 15% commission as opposed to the 10% of agents. A manager’s vested interest is they are able to attach themselves as producers, which agents cannot do. They become one of the team and charge a commission, but they also are generally able to take a producer credit, and are enabled to collect further compensation from the project's budget.
In my experience, I’ve found that managers are more interested in a client’s career path, while agents are interested in the sale. There are always exceptions, of course. In the case of CAA, WME and ICM, packaging fees are a substantial part of their business models and Public Enemy #1 in their ongoing dispute with the WGA.
An effective, well-rounded agent will negotiate contracts on your behalf, while managers will sometimes guide you towards an effective agent for that purpose. Managers are not allowed to negotiate on your behalf. Some more experienced writers retain both an agent and a manager.
I’ve long said all agents are not created equal. Neither are all managers, of course. A good agent, being an agent who is well-connected, can certainly help sell or set up your spec script. A not-so-good agent will wait for you to do the work, then dot a couple of ‘i’s’ on an agreement and collect their commission.
I’ve been there, though I have to say for clarity’s sake that statement is not representative of all agents.
The equivalent on the manager side is retaining management for a term — say one to two years — but quickly losing the interest of the manager in favor of a currently more sellable client. This happens with both agents and managers. The best advice I can give in this regard is to take as many meetings as you can, presently over Zoom or otherwise, and use your judgement as to with whom you have an easy rapport before you sign. Also, it's worth noting that it's fairly common for managers to simply represent you without a signed agreement. If you both have a good rapport, they simply trust that you'll be giving them their commission for work that they set up with you.
Then have a second meeting based on any lingering questions.
Do your due diligence, always. Has the representative actually sold or set up any projects recently? Are they new to the business? Who are their strongest relationships? Did they make a positive first impression?
A quick tip: Don’t trust anyone too quickly. Again, use your judgement but you can never be too cautious, as you will be signing an agreement with either an agent or manager for a decent period of time that no writer can afford to waste.
GENERAL FACTS AND ADVICE
- If an outside entity is looking for a writer, and you are open to writing assignments, typically said entity will contact a manager before an agent. As a writer-producer, I do the same. An agent will get into the nitty-gritty such as payments fairly quickly, while a producer typically reaches out first to a manager to explore possibilities.
- A manager will ultimately refer a (legitimate) producer to an agent if necessary, but will tend to work with the producer before and/or during that process.
- I’ve written in the past about being a small fish in a big pond when it comes to a large agency. The same can happen with large management companies. You need to determine what is best for your career-stage. A small agent or agency and/or small manager or management company may not have the ability to properly handle you if you are a writer of mid-level experience. General rule of thumb: The more experience the writer has, the more continually employed their client base should be.
- Don’t immediately disqualify reps of smaller client bases, as individualized attention can be a boon to a writer. Again, do diligence as to their capabilities, as sometimes so-called boutique companies excel in working closely with clients.
- If you are an early-stage writer, smaller and more nurturing representation can be an asset. Remember always, though, that you will still have to do your share of the work. Never allow any rep to completely dominate your career regardless of agent or manager; always communicate with them, and make calls and queries yourself if/when necessary.
There is no “superior” entity if you are determining whether to sign with an agent or manager. For newer writers I’d recommend the latter to guide your burgeoning career — many of whom can recommend an agent when the time is right. For those wishing to write and sell specs, a good agent can be most effective. For those mid to higher-level writers who want to staff on a television show or write studio features, both entities working in conjunction can be a huge asset.
Remember this, in all instances: Neither an agent nor manager earn money without their clients. You are the commodity.
As ever, I hope this helps …
Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning writer and producer, and partner in Council Tree Productions, a television development company. He writes and edits a publication for Medium, “Writing For Your Life,” which you can follow here.
Related ScreenCraft articles:
How to Get Representation for Your Writing (by ScreenCraft winner Anna Klassen)