The Born Freelancer on Getting an Agent

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.


One of the questions I hear most frequently is “Do I need an agent?” and if so, “How do I find a good one?”

My experience with agents is completely within the episodic television industry and that is what I will speak about today. (For this kind of work an agent is pretty much an absolute necessity).

A lot of what I say will apply to finding agents representing other work categories too; some will not. The really good ones tend to specialize in a specific area of expertise that most appeals to them. So not every agent will be ideal for every freelancer.

What does an agent do?

It seems to me that a good agent should engage in three general areas of activity on your behalf. 

* Finding out about jobs. A good agent is constantly working the phones finding out about jobs before the news hits even online communities. Agents build up reputations with producers so that when they send a client to be interviewed the producer knows it is not a waste of their time.

* Negotiating contracts. Never sign anything you don’t understand. Never accept a contract  just because it is presented to you all printed up and ready to go. All contracts can be negotiated. A good agent will explain all the clauses, rewrite the poorly or ambivalently written ones and attempt to extract the maximum return for your labours.

* Support. This gets us into the area of subjectivity. They can help you build a series of jobs into a career, help with planning business strategies, etc. Now what kind of support required/offered will depend upon your needs as a client and their approach and abilities. I know of one agent who liked to “mother” her clients and treat them all as her wayward offspring. Her devoted clients loved this “warm and fuzzy” approach; it turned off an equal number of us. Finding the right fit is not easy but once you do you will know it.

What an agent does not do

Many writers without an agent think that an agent will actually get them work. Well, yes and no. That is, yes, a good agent will do everything in her/his power to facilitate the writer getting work. But it is still the writer who “gets” the work. Your words will still need to shine. You will still need to go to in person meetings (or do phone or Skype meetings) and sell yourself and your work.

Your agent will provide you with more opportunities and will help prepare you – but it will still be all up to you.

What do I pay an agent?

Never go with an agent who demands money up front. A really good agent will make their money from you after they have helped you make your first sale.

As to the actual compensation they receive – this ranges from 10 to 15 per cent with 10 per cent traditionally being the default. You can also negotiate your new relationship. For example, if you already have an ongoing relationship with a production house and don’t wish to have your newly acquired agent intervene in it, you might negotiate a contract with your agent that excludes that particular working partnership.

The money flow may surprise you. The production company pays you but the money goes first to your agent. They then take their commission and deduct any expenses incurred on your behalf and then cut you a check for the remainder. This is perfectly in order. But remember, come tax time, your agent works for you. You do not work for your agent. The cash flow sometimes confuses the tax man and you have to make this relationship very clear in all your returns.

How do I find an agent?.

Finding a good agent is probably as hard – or harder – than finding a good freelancing job.

First, prepare yourself.

Get all your produced and spec scripts professionally printed up and ready for inspection. Make sure you have an up-to-date resume, letters of support/reference from anyone in the business that you know or have worked with, DVDs of produced work, and finally, grit your teeth. This could take a while.

Contact an appropriate guild/union – in this case (episodic TV) it would be the WGC – and see if they have an approved list of recognized agents. 

Call each one of them. See if they are accepting new clients.

If not, ask them if they would look over your portfolio and give you their advice. Many a client has found an agent this way.

See if you can get a copy of the guild’s membership list and/or check their membership directory online.

Watch all the shows that you would like to work on. (Restrict yourself for now to made in Canada shows. Getting US representation to work on US shows is a whole other topic.) Note the writers who wrote those shows. Now look up their their names and note the names of their agents (listed on their contact profile).

You now have a list of agents representing writers doing the sort of work you want to do too. Concentrate on them and avoid agents who may not be as successful in the specific genre you wish to work in.

What if I can only get a “beginner” agent in a big agency?

This is often a much better situation to be in than you might imagine. A receptionist/beginner agent in a big agency who dreams of being a full time agent may be just the booster your career needs. As they work their way up the agent ladder, in theory they will take you upwards with them. Indeed, many such novice agents eventually spin off onto their own and will want to take you with them. 

But if a large agency is preparing to drop you in the hands of a receptionist/beginner agent who doesn’t appear to be all that motivated, move on. Things are unlikely to get much better. You’d be better off within a smaller more motivated agency.

But maybe you don’t want a “full time” agent, just an agent who will represent you when and if you get work in their specialized genre. In which case an agent who is less motivated but still connected within the industry might be enough for you. In the business they are usually called “back pocket” agents.

The big secret

Agents like to see that you are “current” and readily employable.

The biggest secret I can let you in on to finding a good agent is to go in with a current job already in hand. The bigger the better but any is better than none at all. It will increase your chances of getting that agent to represent you. (Having any number of scripts produced in the past will also help – but having a new current gig is probably the best ticket to landing a new agent). 

The takeway

Having a really good agent is the dream of many freelancers. However, most freelancers do not have one and not every freelancer needs one.

Finding a really good agent is like getting a job. You have to identify, target and then really sell yourself. The competition is stiff and the best agents can afford to be picky.

If you are diligent and very lucky and manage to find one that matches your professional needs and personality type, always remember to treat them well as trusted partners and confidantes in your freelancing career.


Posted on November 16, 2016 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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