By Brian Bowers
A talent agent can open up doors for actors and get them auditions and bookings that the vast majority of people never even hear about.
Don’t believe me?
Just ask Ethan.
Ethan was a teen actor who had signed up for an on-camera acting workshop I was teaching. He had some theatrical experience but hadn’t done any on-camera acting previously. But he was very talented and enthusiastic, and after the workshop, I invited him to meet with me at the talent agency I worked at to discuss representation.
We ended up signing Ethan, and within just a couple of months, we got him booked on a major supporting role in Spike TV’s The Kill Point, starring Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo.
This teen actor with almost no experience in front of a camera got booked on a major cable network TV show because he found the right agent.
Can you imagine the auditions and bookings you’d have access to if you signed with the right agency?
How different would your career (and your life) be?
It all starts with finding a great agent to represent you.
Where do you even find a talent agent?
And how do you know that they’re legit?
And not going to rip you off?
One of the best pieces of advice I will give to any actor starting out is to work with what is called a union-franchised agency (or agent).
There are several unions that you may deal with as an actor-SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) are the most common when it comes to working on camera. SAG and AFTRA used to be their own separate unions, but in 2012 the two merged to become SAG-AFTRA, one combined union to represent all actors for on-camera work.
There are pros and cons for actors who are a part of SAG-AFTRA.
The union guarantees that they get paid a certain minimum wage for any on-camera work they get booked on. They also guarantee certain working conditions, and offer actors health insurance, retirement, and other benefits.
However, once you join you can ONLY do union work on camera. If you live in one of the many, many smaller markets around the country that doesn’t have a lot of consistent work for union actors, this could be a huge drawback.
But the question of whether or you not you should join the union is a debate for another day.
The important thing for ANY actor to know is how unions work with talent agencies.
Benefits of working with a union-franchised agency
SAG-AFTRA issues franchises to qualified talent agencies that meet specific requirements.
These are called union-franchised agencies.
These agencies must apply, pay a free, and be approved by SAG-AFTRA in order to be able to represent union actors.
It does NOT mean that you need to join the union in order to work with these agencies.
In fact, for most actors living outside of a major market like LA or NYC, I usually recommend that you don’t join the union (but that’s a longer conversation for another time).
What it does mean is that these agencies are highly regulated by SAG-AFTRA, and have all agreed to certain conditions for ALL of their actors, union members or not.
These conditions include:
- the agency must make its income almost exclusively through commissions they receive when they get work for the actors they represent
- they cannot charge a fee for getting actors auditions
- the agency cannot be connected with an acting school or teach any classes or workshops as an agency
- there cannot be an in-house photographer or specific third party photographer that actors are required to use
- they can only charge actors 10% commission for SAG-AFTRA jobs (they can charge higher commission for non-union jobs, generally 15-20%)
Union-franchised agencies only get paid when they get work for their actors. They are generally a safe haven from the many scams out there designed to rip off unsuspecting actors.
Does this mean that non-franchised talent agencies can’t be trusted? Or that you shouldn’t sign with them?
Of course not.
There are a lot of very reputable non-franchised agencies out there that follow the same guidelines as the franchised agencies. They work hard to get work for the actors they represent, and they only have the best of intentions.
But finding out which of those non-franchised agencies are reputable and which ones are a scam is something that comes with a lot of experience working in that industry.
And there are many that appear to be legit UNTIL you start to work with them and end up wasting your time and your money.
So that is why I always recommend that actors try to work with a union-franchised agency when first starting out.
How to find a union-franchised talent agency
Finding a franchised agency near you is easy-go to SAG-AFTRA’s franchised agent page on their website at https://www.sagaftra.org/professionalrepresentatives and search for the agencies in the market closest to where you live.
Don’t be afraid to expand your search past just your local area-you could even check within a couple hour radius of where you live.
It may be harder to get to auditions in person, but there may be opportunities for you to self-tape your own auditions and submit them to the agency.
It’s much better to find the franchised agency that will be the best fit for you, and then figure out the logistics of how and when you’ll audition.
There may be many non-franchised agencies that are closer to where you live.
Many of them will be totally above board, and give you access to some of the same auditions and bookings that you’d get if you were signed to a franchised agency.
And there are some who will lie to you, treat you poorly, and cheat you out of hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Over time, you’ll be able to spot these fake agencies and scams from a mile away.
But until then, and especially when you’re just starting out in your career, I almost always recommend signing with a union-franchised agency.
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