In an age where self-promotion is the norm and many look for a direct way to success through social media, there’s still immense value in having a person on your side who knows how to navigate the industry. We speak to four agents about how their role has changed – and what’s on the horizon.
Theatre agent George Lane is part of the fabric of New York. In the business for almost four decades, the 67-year-old regularly hashes out deals at a corner table in Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern, about 20 blocks south of his Chrysler Building office at Creative Artists Agency (caa), where he’s been working since 2013. Known for driving a hard bargain, he represents everyone from Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker to directors Leigh Silverman and Jerry Zaks (the latter worked on the production of Mrs Doubtfire running on Broadway). Unsurprisinly he understands the scene intricately. Best place to start a musical? Easy: La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. Best client-list ratio? No problem: “Fifty per cent A-list, 25 per cent B-list entering into A-list – and 25 per cent r&d.” And there’s more…
“I was born an orphan and adopted. I spent my first five years in Brooklyn and then was part of the great suburban push to Long Island. I then lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for a couple of years. I wanted to work in entertainment but couldn’t find a job so I worked in politics, and actually got a winner in Hugh Carey, who was governor of New York. It was amazing but I needed something with more of a moral centre, so I went into showbusiness.
I started in the mail room at William Morris. It wasn’t theatre that drove me; my parents loved theatre but they didn’t really take us much as children, nor did I show great interest. But I quickly got to see that it was a place of great collaboration. That was both among the agents and externally, with the actors, the writers, the composers, the lyricists, the directors and the producers – and it was quintessentially New York. I became an agent within four years.
When a writer gives you a script you really are charting a course: in the case of a play, it’s 18 months until you get that first production; or, for a musical, three to five years. Once you become a seasoned agent you’re working with a group of clients and you know what they’re capable of; new talent tends to begin with a recommendation. I’m very comfortable with candidly cold-calling; if I see something amazing I go directly to that person if I don’t know them.
The agent is always the go-between: between the talent and the audience but also between the talent and the producer. A big contribution is: ‘I think this producer is really right for you, not only for this play but I sense a string of things happening.’ You’re really relying on your agent to know who’s making the decisions and then to execute your deals.
So many projects are based on movies now. When I began in this business it was really about stage to screen – the balance has swung. Normally studios and film producers have a certain number of rights, so in order to take a movie and make it a play or a musical you have to acquire them. Usually the rights are jointly held by the screenwriter and the producer or the studio. So that’s why so many studios have gotten into this business: because they say, ‘We already have the rights anyway – why are we licensing to people? We should do it ourselves.’ Take a big hit like Moulin Rouge: 20th Century Fox has certain rights; Baz Luhrmann has certain rights. Carmen Pavlovic from Global Creatures, the producer, spent seven years putting them all together.
For the individual, theatre is a place where you struggle to make a living but you can make a killing. It’s a struggle to make a living as a playwright but the full exploration and exploitation of the rights is highly remunerative. We have eight agents in the department and we’re constantly on the road and working with talent in the UK, in LA, in the provinces, in New York – elevating their work, putting it together and reconfiguring it in a way that brings opportunities and financial rewards. We’re proud of that. I represent artists and I look to value-up their rights. If it weren’t for them we wouldn’t have a business – so that’s where I stand.”
Janet Carol Norton is co-head of the television production department at icm Partners. For more than 20 years she has represented producers, line producers, production executives and producer-directors working on scripted television, both in the US and abroad. Her roster of clients includes professionals who have worked on shows such as Homeland, Stranger Things, Veep, How to Get Away with Murder, The Big Bang Theory and The Man in the High Castle. She also serves on the board of governors of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which each year presents the Primetime Emmy awards, honouring the best television in the US. Here she gives us a recap of her career and an idea of things to come.
“A good agent doesn’t let you in on the magic of what happens behind the scenes or how a client gets a job or an interview. A client gets the culmination of years of trust that you build with the community you’re selling to. Buyers are looking to us to have a curated list of who they need. And a client might not see that the reason they got an audition or a script read was due to their agent’s relationship with the buyer.
It’s my job to introduce television producers to the community, get them work, finesse the interview process, negotiate the job and set them up as best I can. Most deals are struck via a combination of email and phone calls, whereas it used to be done almost exclusively over the phone and lunch. Formats have changed over the years too: there are fewer and shorter seasons. In the past, producers would do a pilot and you’d wait to see if it would get picked up; now it tends to go straight into the series, which means there’s much more preparation in getting it right straight away.
The blending of film and television has impacted our work in a good way: there used to be a feeling of being pigeon-holed but now it doesn’t matter. It gives talent more opportunity and now I have an agenda to get producers paid differently. In TV, producers have an episodical quote, meaning you go into the negotiation agreeing on a fee per episode. But film producers have a weekly quote and because the business of television now is more like film, that should change – the work often involves fewer episodes over a longer period of time. If TV is filmed like the movies, that should be reflected in the pay.
When I started, nearly 20 years ago, I saw a brick wall for women, especially in directing and producing. I had people laugh on the phone when I’d suggest they should add a female producer or editor to their production. That has changed. In our agency, shortly after the Harvey Weinstein scandal, we pledged to have an equal number of men and women on staff by 2020. I now have people calling me to specifically ask about the female directors or producers I represent and that’s really exciting.
This is a business where leadership wants everybody to succeed. Because if you succeed then the client succeeds – and everyone around you succeeds too.”
Olivia Mayolle founded Paris-based talent agency Rose in 2007. She represents photographers, stylists, set designers, art directors and composers. Though she came from a communications background she chose to start her career in photo-editing with an internship at Vogue, before moving on to work for various Parisian photography agencies. Of the decision to bring together her own pool of snappers, she says, “I no longer wanted to sell artists who didn’t completely match my taste.”
“I’ve always struggled to put into words what draws me to an artist. I need to like the personality – of them as individuals and of their work. And there needs to be a certain elegance in what they do. I get approached by photographers whose work would do well commercially but if their aesthetic doesn’t match my sensibility, it’s a no. The decision is simple: yes or no. Being demanding is key for maintaining quality.
There used to be famous photographers whose work everyone was familiar with; this doesn’t exist anymore. The industry is so fast-paced, with artists coming and disappearing again within two years. As a reaction I’m building long-term relationships with the talent I represent, helping them develop careers. We function like a family, where all artists know each other and no one is in competition. Some people have been with me since I founded Rose 12 years ago, joining me when they only had a few photos in their portfolio. It’s great to follow their evolution over time, even if it means that it will take a couple of years until their work starts to sell. It’s little steps at first but there’s always a thin glass ceiling that you manage to break eventually. It just requires patience. At the end of the day the role of the agent is also a pedagogical one: we have to make clients understand that work of a certain level deserves a decent salary.
Think about the amount of content we see every day, in magazines or on Instagram. How much of it do we remember? There remains space for quality, work that is well crafted and people who understand the importance of giving it time. More and more artists are returning to non-digital ways of working: shooting film and developing their own photographs. Print is making a comeback too. I represent a publisher of artist books, rvb Books, which has recently exhibited at fairs such as Offprint and Paris Photo. It all moves in cycles but a desire for quality will always exist.
I decided to branch out beyond photography, taking on people working in fields such as set design and music for fashion campaigns. They are all interlinked so the move was a smooth one for me – plus it allows me to offer clients a full palette of artists. I’m proud to have started my own agency that exists in this form now. After all these years my favourite thing about my job remains the daily contact I get to have with my artists. It’s a relationship built on trust and affection. I know them inside out but, believe me, they know me just as well.”
Bernie Cho is president of dfsb Kollective, a music distributor and agency founded a decade ago in Seoul. It represents some of the biggest names in K-pop, from Jay Park to Drunken Tiger, and was one of the first South Korean agencies to sign direct deals with iTunes. Cho splits his time between LA and Seoul. At a time when sex and drug scandals have rocked the once squeaky-clean industry, he tells us how K-pop can bounce back – and how physical sales of CDs and records may yet prove to be the way forward.
“Korean music becoming a worldwide phenomenon goes beyond the eye candy of the videos or the ear candy of the melodies. It’s to do with the industry’s business model. Many top Korean music companies are part-agency, part-management, part-label. They are fully stacked: they do everything from acting as producers to concert promoters. We handle the merchandising and licensing part of artists’ careers too. Top Korean music companies are not only doing well in the music charts: they are also excelling on the stock market. K-pop wouldn’t be a global phenomenon without this innovative model that merges strategies from East and West.
There was always pressure to look for the next big thing in the boy-band or girl-band space but our job has been made more complicated by the rise of audition-based TV shows. The discovery and development of talent suddenly became all the more compressed: instead of years it now takes months. The pressure to be discovered, trained and – most importantly – succeed has reached a new level. With talent shows the role of a company’s artists and repertoire [a&r] flipped from the industry to the fans. The industry is getting hyper-competitive and this puts a lot of stress on everyone. We’ve begun to see a few cracks in the system. The current scandals [superstar Seungri was accused of procuring drugs and prostitutes for his club in Gangnam; singer Sulli was recently found dead in a suspected suicide] are reflective of the pressure these artists face. It’s a cathartic moment and it’s forced people to rethink their value system.
What’s also proven disruptive is the surge of new social media – we are constantly thinking about our strategy. The new Facebook is Instagram; the new Twitter is Tik Tok [a short-video app]. We are constantly on our toes, trying to predict the next big platform.
There are a range of revenue streams that we have to exploit to maintain success. We can’t just recruit artists on the basis of how much they can record and sell: we need to understand what will help them generate revenue from alternative streams, be it live performance, film or TV. As digitally advanced as Korea is today, we’ve seen a resurgence of physical music too: Korea is the fastest-growing physical-music market in the world. When K-pop fans buy a CD they’re not just buying music but also merchandise. When I started my agency we were big on download and streaming; now we are more focused on physical music than ever.”