Agents vs. Managers: What’s the Difference, and Which One Do I Need??

Entering the world of professional acting can feel a little like stepping through the proverbial looking glass: suddenly, you’ve been thrust into a fast-paced, highly competitive arena with its own rules, procedures, and terminology.  Even if you acted in community productions or in school (actually, especially if you did), you’re likely to find that making a living as a professional actor is a whole different ballgame. For one thing, it is simply not enough to be stunningly talented. This may come as a genuine surprise to some—after all, isn’t Hollywood known for its gifted thespians and high-profile award shows doling out shiny prizes to the best of the best?—but the truth is, in this business, your ability to effectively promote yourself and manage your career is every bit as important as what you’re able to do once the spotlight is on or the camera starts rolling. In fact, you might even say that successful career management is the prerequisite to acting. After all, you can’t wow the audience with your performance until you get cast in the show!

Fortunately, the task of career management and promotion isn’t one you’ll have to do entirely yourself, forever.  This is where agents and managers come in.  (An important disclaimer, right up front: Please don’t fall into the trap of believing that an agent or manager will do all of the promotional and business work for you, leaving you with nothing to do but sit back and wait for the phone to ring. As a savvy actor, you will continue to hustle to promote yourself, stay abreast of industry news and happenings, and seek out new projects. An agent or manager is undoubtedly a valuable tool to have in your arsenal, but simply having representation will never replace the hard work you must personally exert in order to propel your career forward!)

Now that we have that out of the way, you may be wondering what exactly it is that agents and managers do, how to distinguish between the two, and which one you might need. Let’s look at some of the key things that make these two jobs different:

1. Agents are licensed by the state. Managers generally are not. Admittedly, this leaves a bit more wiggle room on the manager side—looser regulations opens the door to everything from underqualified managers to genuine scam artists. But plenty more managers are upstanding, hardworking, and totally professional. So, like anything else pertaining to your acting career, make sure you do your homework when submitting to, interviewing with, and ultimately deciding on any agent or manager for representation. 

2.  Agents are paid 10% commission on the work that you book. Managers are typically paid up to 15%.

3. Agents’ main job is helping you book work.  They are very involved with the submission process—pitching you for roles and working to get you seen by the necessary casting directors—and also, once work is booked, the negotiation process- where they will work for you to get the best pay, billing, etc. Managers are more involved with helping guide your career. They can take more time to work with you on your materials (headshot, résumé, reel, website), counsel and advise you in regards to career plans (including assisting you with finding an agent), and help hone your image and type.

And probably most importantly, for actors in the early stages of their career:

4. Agents typically take interest and sign you on once you have proven yourself as a commodity in the industry. Managers are more willing to take a chance on you based on your potential. For this reason, you may find it easier in the beginning to snag the attention of a manager over an agent.

So which of the two—agent or manager—should you be targeting for representation? A lot of the answer to this question will depend on where you are in your career. Of course, there will always be exceptions to every rule, but generally: If you are a working actor with at least a handful of good, solid, professional credits, then it may be time for you to look into finding an agent. If you’re a little further behind this, have gathered as much experience as you can, but are finding that you’ve reached the limit of what you can book all on your own, then a manager may be your next logical step. If you are just starting out, and have very few credits to your name, you likely have work to do before seeking representation at all. This is not a bad thing—in this internet age, there is plenty of work for which you can submit yourself, in order to build up your résumé and gain valuable experience and industry contacts.

Furthermore, it’s important to take this time to refine your image and brand, hone and sharpen your skills as an actor, and generally get yourself together before you seek to raise the bar by signing with an agent or manager. Remember: the work you put into your career now—the quality of the foundation laid at the beginning—directly affects your success later on. Focus your energy on building the best, most marketable version of yourself, and you’re more likely to attract the agent and/or manager that is the best possible fit for you, to help nurture and launch your career to the next exciting level.

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Elizabeth Elizabeth Sekora is an actress and classically trained soprano living in Los Angeles. She has 24 years of experience in theatre, film, opera, television, and voiceover work, and holds a Bachelor of Music degree from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. www.elizabethsekora.com.

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