1. Understand the Different Types of Representation
The first and most important step you need to take as a writer or director is to fully understand the differences between a lawyer, manager and agent before pursuing any of them to represent you.
Lawyers and agents both need to have licenses to run their businesses, so it’s important to look those up online and make sure your prospective agent or lawyer is complying with the appropriate state guidelines. Managers are not licensed, which is why managers are also able to act as producers on projects and are allowed to base their commission on their contribution to the work. A manager’s commission rate will usually fall between 10%-20%, whereas an agent will often charge around 10% and a lawyer can choose to bill hourly or take a commission of around 5%.
A manager, however, can’t submit you for jobs the way an agent can; their role in your career will be more advisory and developmental. “Managers are more specialized in content areas, largely because they often produce or develop that content. They don’t need the infrastructure of a big firm and can stay within a curated book of clients,” explains Ramo. “The facilitation of things is generally done by the talent manager. They offer in-depth development advice and guidance. If you and your manager can’t have a real conversation about your scripts rights or your project or your passion and you don’t feel aligned in that, that’s probably not the best fit.”
On the other hand, lawyers are more useful when it comes to negotiating other business related details for their clients, a task which doesn’t require the same depth of alignment as a relationship with a manager. Lawyers are responsible for “making sure that the writer can go to the premiere and have travel paid for and have the ability to be on set. There’s so many things, as a writer [and a director] that if the talent attorney doesn’t ask for and doesn’t advocate for, you’re just not going to get,” says Ramo. “That’s really an attribute and worth the percentage that the lawyer is paid because they’re looking out for you in a way where they understand the market and they know how much they can push a deal.”
Finally, an agent’s role will fall somewhere between that of a manager and lawyer, where they are able to connect clients to potential jobs using their own industry connections and will offer consistent support and guidance on whether or not a writer or director is getting a good deal from a studio. From there, they will hand off the details of the contract to a lawyer. “The lawyer will kind of want the endorsement of the agent and then get into the nitty gritty,” Ramos explains. “You can’t expect a lawyer to be an agent or an agent to be a lawyer. As a lawyer, I’m not going to necessarily find you that great next job on the Disney+ movie because the agent is ingrained in those opportunities. I’m making sure, since I know for a fact that the last five Disney+ deals have offered this very specific type of streaming bonus, that we need to make sure you get that conversion on your back end. So it all kind of has to work together.”
2. Treat This Like Any Other Relationship
Finding any type of representation is all about your alignment of values, of goals and of vision. There are a million different directions you can take your career at a given time, and finding people who understand the trajectory that works best for you is the entire point of building a support team in the first place.
With that in mind, how do you go about finding someone who feels like the right fit for you? Like many aspects of working in the entertainment industry, it often comes down to networking. “IMDB is great. You may have common projects you’ve worked on or talent you may know. Check around and see what the reputational asset of this person is. There’s a big difference between the reputational assets of the management firm or the law firm and the individual, so you need to do your homework and ask around and find out about it,” Ramo explains.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to go for the first person that knocks on your door. Everyone who could potentially be on your team should be thoroughly vetted. “If somebody is really pursuing you, let’s see what references they have. Oftentimes the way you build your reps is, you’ll start with an agent or you’ll start with a lawyer and they’ll make recommendations of managers or agents for you to work with,” Ramos notes, advising “To some extent, there’s some due diligence there. It’s somebody that they work with, it’s coming from a referral source. You just have to be cognizant that there’s an agenda and an inner working that predates you. It’s not all bad, but you can’t be naive to that construct.”
You also need to remember to advocate for yourself to be sure your team is looking out for your best interests. “Don’t be afraid to ask. I have a couple clients who will talk to many different people about a deal—friends, mentors, colleagues, etc.—and they have a very strong viewpoint coming from a bunch of voices. You should not fear asking the questions,” emphasizes Ramo.
Additionally, and especially for artists from historically marginalized backgrounds, “[You need] a collective consciousness of an institutional problem that deserves questioning. It’s about ensuring that there’s equality and questioning and allowing someone with a diverse or minority voice to push the envelope and to have a better opportunity that they otherwise would not have had, and if your rep is not acknowledging or conscious of that, you won’t feel it superficially, but it will intrinsically affect your dealmaking.”
Even if you’ve built a team that works for you at a certain point in your career, there may come a time when you need to make a change. “Just as divorce is common, representation does sometimes break up and rebuild with different constructs, and that’s OK,” says Ramo. “There is a difference between what you need today and what you may need five years from now, and some relationships last forever and some don’t.”
3. Never Underestimate the Importance of Communication
“Ambiguity is nobody’s friend,” advises moderator Rebecca Sun.
Most relationships with managers and agents are known as “handshake relationships,” which means an artist should not be locked into contracts with their representatives; in fact, an agent or manager requesting that you sign a contract, especially one that locks you into working with them for a predetermined amount of time, is considered a huge red flag. However, clearly documenting and expressing your needs to your support team through continual conversations and emails is critical. Details like a representative’s commission rate and a clear definition of what your rep is expected to do for your career always need to be agreed upon as early as possible.
Again referring to the relationships as a marriage, Ramo explains, “As an emerging writer/director, you’re better off documenting your relationships. It’s like a prenup. You know how you relate to each other, you know what you owe each other and then, if you are going to exit out of that relationship, it’s all clear on paper.”
Things might get a little trickier if you as the writer are also part of the producing team that wants to see the film come to light. “You have to understand that the biggest point of conflict is what happens if things don’t go as planned, because the writer’s agenda is very different from the company’s agenda,” says Ramo. “You need to disassociate from that and do that deal separately, so you can walk away knowing you made the best deal for yourself, still being reasonable, still being understanding that you want to want to be a good partner, but not to the detriment of a bad deal.” In other words, you as a writer need to be a writer first and foremost and make sure your needs are not being overlooked at any point during the process.