The Difference Between an “Agent” and a “Manager”

Mike Ovitz plans to return to Hollywood as a “talent manager“. This is thought to be a big deal since Ovitz’s last Hollywood job was “talent agent“. What’s the difference between the two?

The difference is small and getting smaller.

Traditionally, every entertainer would hire an agent. The agent identified projects and negotiated contract terms. In return the agent pocketed 10 percent of the entertainer’s earnings. A few big stars also hired managers, who collected an additional 10 to 15 percent. Managers helped with matters ranging from confirming plane reservations to developing a long-range business plan.

In recent years, more Hollywood stars have engaged a manager in addition to an agent, and the manager has assumed some of the agent’s roles. For instance it was Leo’s manager–he doesn’t even have an agent–who convinced the director of Titanic to cast his client.

Why are managers gaining influence? One explanation is that, in the 1980s, “superagents” were overworked and could not give clients enough personal attention. So stars turned to their managers, who became increasingly influential–leading former “superagents” (like Mike Ovitz) to recast themselves as managers. The second advantage of managers is that they may work as producers. (Under California law, agents cannot produce their clients’ projects. This prevents the obvious conflict of a producer, who wants to lower total costs, also finding himself in charge of negotiating his client’s salary.) Many stars apparently prefer projects where they know the producer is on their side (and in their employ).

But agents aren’t likely to be put out of business altogether, since California law also prohibits managers from directly negotiating contracts for clients. This means that–so long as the law remains intact–every star must have an agent and a manager, or must retain a lawyer to negotiate contracts. But if agents as a group become less involved in shaping stars’ careers, and become pure contract negotiators, it’s possible that their “percentages” may fall as well or they’ll be replaced by lawyers. And if managers-cum-producers become very powerful, it’s conceivable that they’ll fast-talk their “clients” into entering bad contracts.

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