Talent Agencies Closing Offices Permanently?

With the entertainment industry indefinitely idled what future remains for talent representation offices?

As COVID-19 continues to destabilize life and business, will talent representation offices of the near-dormant entertainment industry indefinitely close their office space? Mirroring a swath of corporate America?

Surveying 517 IT decision makers from various industries, S & P Global Market Research discovered 67% polled expect the new norm of work-from-home to extend for the foreseeable future or remain permanent. Corporate America discovered employees working from home raised productivity rates. Some advantageous companies realized a path for survival in a diminished economy. Eliminate expenditures, and some staff, by eliminating part or all of the company’s brick-and-mortar presence.

A talent agency’s brick-and-mortar presence is largely funded by commission received from the agency’s working clients–mainly actors. But Broadway and regional theater remains shuttered until 2021, possibly 2022. TV and film production is curtailed. The majority of talent agencies are small businesses. Each with a handful of employees representing 50 – 150 actors. The larger, corporate-like, representation firms of CAA (Creative Artists Agency), ICM (International Creative Management), William Morris-Endeavor, and alike with global offices, extend representation beyond box-office stars and tabloid celebrities. The representation titans individually covet a vast and varied client roster that likely includes: estates of past clients, television news hosts/commentators, on-camera guests/experts (politicians, medical professionals, scientists, academics, activists), authors, journalists, athletes, musicians, tastemakers, speakers, designers (fashion, lifestyle, digital, production), models, artists, reality stars, screen writers, playwrights, producers, directors, choreographers, casting directors, production personnel, plus numerous stage and screen productions of past, present, and future. These bespoke behemoths continue to collect revenue from investments, royalties, production deals, commissions, client estates, and above and below line residuals. The average talent agency has none or few of these income cushions. As the revenue stream remains dry for the small business talent agency will they be permitted a similar survival tactic—abandon office space indefinitely—as have a growing number of U.S. companies large (Google) and small (Health Roster)?

Two potential roadblocks to talent agencies abandoning office space.

1. In New York, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs issues a license to a talent agency to operate as an “employment agency.” For a talent agency to be granted a license the agency must adhere to Article 11 of New York General Business Law, Article 11, Section 174 which states there must be a “public office” “used exclusively as an employment agency and for no other purpose.”

2. Actor unions require a franchised talent agency to have an office that conforms to multiple parameters.

The two, major, U.S. actors’ unions SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), and AEA (Actors’ Equity Association) determined—and continue—rules enforced for the physical presence of a talent agency’s office. Depending on the talent agency’s union affiliation(s), and/or the region/city that the agency is located the guidelines vary. One rule remains constant: a union-franchised talent agency must have an office accessible to clients for visitation. Further defined by both unions to include an actor’s ability to pick-up scripts, audition material, and for the actor to drop-off headshots and related marketing assets at their agent’s office. The latter guideline is a twentieth century antique. Twenty-first century headshots, scripts, audition sides, and an actor’s video clips or reels are routinely exchanged digitally online by actor-to-representation-to-casting. But analogue mandates for where talent representation must have office space remain. In New York City an actors’ union once dictated that a talent agency had to be within the boundaries of particular blocks within the theater district so as to be of convenience to actors. Those boundaries have been lifted. But a New York City talent agency must still remain within Manhattan’s historically, skyrocketing, real estate market. A crashing market presently as Manhattan based businesses fold or flee.

In an industry not presently industrious at producing revenue from union-based employment talent agencies have furloughed, or laid-off, staff. Employees working from home during government stay-at-home mandates. But for most agencies there remains office rent due. There may be no office rent due of a talent manager or casting director. Neither entity is governed by actor unions, or if based in NY–New York State Business Law Article 11, Section 174. Their professions were among the first to work-from-home shortly after the digital revolution impersonalized the representation and casting process via email, self-tape, e-casting, and auditions/meetings via video platforms like Zoom. The digital revolution, and COVID-19 pandemic, has altered and questions our analogue perception of business: is a brick-and-mortar construct required to conduct the entirety of every business?

A talent agency finding affordable real estate that’ll be approved by actors’ unions, and if in New York meet state standards, has been a longstanding fiscal nightmare for these small businesses. An agency survives on 10% of what their working clients make. The number of working clients at any one time is usually a slim percentage of an agency’s roster. In some pricey real estate markets, a talent agency in order to fiscally survive, will often move chasing lower rent. Or like a growing number of agencies dissolve their franchise(s), and became management companies for which there is no actors’ union real estate mandate.

The majority of union, and non-union actors, with representation via a franchised talent agency are represented by a small business talent agency. Work for actors will resume in some form. Even when that happens, talent agencies currently working remotely will continue to be governed by actors’ unions, or by state/city ordinances, to occupy obsolete office space. But how many of the small business talent agencies can survive until then? How many agencies make the move to management? How many actors will find themselves without an agent?

Coming Next Week…

A New World For Actors Post-COVID
From guest columnist, Douglas Taurel.

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About Paul Russell – Paul Russell Casting

Paul Russell has been in the entertainment industry for over forty years as an award-winning casting director, director and the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business. He’s cast for 20th Century Fox, HBO, Broadway, and regional theater. Featured in American Theatre Magazine, Paul has directed premiers, and at the Tony-award recognized Barter Theatre. He teaches master classes at university BFA and MFA actor training programs, and privately online with actors globally. Paul began his career in entertainment as a successful working actor. Visit Paul & Paul Russell Casting @ PaulRussell.net.