Rep the Stars: How To Become a Talent Agent
- Mediabistro.com , 01/21/2010

You check PerezHilton.com more often than your email and can name all the attendees at the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys, but the thought of mounting the stage yourself induces clammy hands and panic attacks.

For the entertainment obsessed but camera-shy media pro, a career as a talent agent may be the perfect fit thanks to shared skills. But this life isn't for the faint of heart: The profession requires a whirlwind social calendar, aggressive networking, and an ability to cultivate, package, and promote talented clients in the worlds of television, music, film, writing, and more. We spoke to three agents, who represent some of the top names in entertainment, about how they got their start and what to expect from this challenging but rewarding field.

Work the Phones and Build Relationships

Being a talent agent "is all about building relationships," said Olivia Metzger, who spent 18 years working her way from college intern at NBC Universal to the company's vice president of talent recruitment and development. In 2009, Metzger moved to Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the world's largest talent agencies, where she represents on-air personalities, news talent, and hosts. "So much in this business is word of mouth. When I'm not on the phone, I'm sitting across the table from somebody brainstorming."

David Saunders, who heads the Feature Literary Department of the APA Talent & Literary Agency, began his career on the marketing side of Universal Studios and used connections with industry big-wigs like director Sydney Pollack to transition. "Half of our job is discovering really gifted people. The other half is telling people who can actually buy scripts and hire writers how much we love a client and why we think they, in particular, are right for an assignment. Or why we think their script is well-suited for a producer or studio."

Like Metzger, Saunders' days are spent in constant contact with others -- checking in with colleagues and clients, like James Bond screenwriter and Vanity Fair contributor Bruce Feirstein; sussing out potential talent; and talking with studio executives to follow up on scripts, learn about upcoming projects, and promote his clients. At night, there are screenings and events to attend, and piles of scripts to read through early mornings and weekends. "It's a lot like college -- there's a lot of homework," he said.

You're On Call 24/7

"There's no such thing as a nine-to-five day," said Elizabeth Sobol, managing director of IMG Artists' North and South America division, who personally manages Itzhak Perlman, Grammy-nominated Cuban group Tiempo Liebre, and violin-toting heartthrob Joshua Bell, among others. "It's like having children -- you can't just step away and say, 'I think I'll not be a parent for a couple days.'"

Sobol began as an intern at Hamlen Management 30 years ago, when it was just two people in a basement apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and returned to the company five years later, when it was acquired by IMG, a sports company.

But even for veterans, the industry's constant demands can feel exhausting. Bell, for example, plays 220 concerts per year, all of which Sobol helps arrange. Add to that the media deals, recording sessions, public relations pushes, and television appearances, and you'll begin to see just how much she and other talent agents juggle.

Get Ahead of the Newsmakers (and Newsbreakers)

For editors and writers, the instincts needed to uncover a pitch-perfect story could also help you find fresh-faced talent as an agent.

Sobol, for example, discovered Bell, 20 years ago: "I remember hearing Joshua Bell when he was 14, and you felt you were being transported," she said. "There are five gazillion musicians out there who are absolute masters at what they do technically. But what I'm looking for, on top of that, is the wow factor: goose bumps, the sense of epiphany," she said.

Metzger has a knack for early discoveries, as well. She brought on Natalie Morales, then an anchor for a local news station in Hartford, Conn., to fill in for talent on a CNBC program -- and the rest is history: "She was on the air for, I think, four minutes and Kevin Magee who is now running FOX Business [Network] walked into my office and said, 'Who is she? She's going to be a superstar.'" said Metzger of Morales, now co-anchor and national correspondent for NBC's Today.

Metzger also spends time cultivating the next generation of stars, like Alex Perez, now a reporter for Chicago-based NBC5 News: "I called him the day he got to the station in El Paso, straight out of college from Chicago," she said. She kept in touch with him through the year he spent as a reporter at KVIA-TV in El Paso, Texas, and helped him segue to the NBC Chicago team in 2005.

"It was about identifying him young and knowing that he had the brains and the curiosity and the DNA to do this right," she said. And after a year of trust-building, Metzger knew that "there was nowhere else he was going to work" other than NBC.

Don't Be Afraid to Start from the Bottom

Saunders feels his job is an excellent choice for bookworms: "Anybody who is interested in the written word, anyone who loves reading and likes novels would enjoy being a literary agent," he said. But passion isn't everything, he cautions -- you have to be willing to build your Rolodex:

"You can't just come to an agency without having contacts already, so you really do have to start out as an assistant," which involves answering phones, typing letters, and managing the hectic and ever-changing schedules of more senior agents.

And in Saunders' line of work, this also involves moving where the action is. "For feature agents, there's no shortcut -- you have to get on a plane and move to L.A," he said. "I made the decision to leave my family behind in New York because so much of it is being here and socializing, meeting friends of friends, or becoming an assistant somewhere, just to get to know people. As a writer, yes, you probably could live somewhere else, once you're established. But your reps need to be here and be in constant contact with the buyers."

Use Your Storytelling Ability, but Pitch Wisely

Nevertheless, emphasizing common skill sets and connections may help you break in, perhaps even on a higher level: "A place like CAA prides themselves on having agents who are experts in their field. If you were writing for the newspaper and you suddenly wanted to come in and do music, that might be a stretch. But if you're a writer and you want to come in to work with writers, I would argue that if you found a way to get in the right room with the right people, that might be impressive enough to open the door," said Metzger.

"At the end of the day, one of the things we all have in common is just a natural curiosity, a passion for hearing what people have to say," said Metzger. "I think that producers and writers could transition to this because their job is to understand people's voices and how to get these voices across to an audience."

An ability to understand your clients' stories and ambitions can help close a sale: "When I hear executives say, 'Oh, we can't hire this person,' I say, 'Let me just take five minutes of your time and break this person down for you -- this is where they came from, this how they wound up where they are, let me tell you what their end goal is.'"

While Metzger is sympathetic to the painstaking process of pitching ("I can spend an hour over a four-sentence email"), she emphasizes that understanding your audience is key: "If I'm pitching John Doe to TubeTV, I'm not necessarily pitching him the same way to Sundance. You've got to do your homework -- that's what's going to give you the edge."

"You're staking your reputation on this person's talent," said Saunders. "You want to be the person who calls up and says, 'Remember when I introduced you to this person who became a superstar? Well, I think I've found the next one.'"

Immerse Yourself in All Media

To snatch up fresh talent, Metzger, Saunders, and Sobol insist that an "ear to the ground" philosophy is key -- something that story-hunting editors and writers are certainly familiar with. Metzger flips and clicks through publications like mediabistro.com, Variety, The Huffington Post, TheWrap, Mediaweek, and Politico, and checks in regularly with the National Association of Black Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, and The National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

She also goes well off the beaten track: "We're spending a lot of time trying to find voices in unconventional places -- any down time my assistant has is spent going through magazines and blogs and radio shows to see if there aren't people there who we should be talking to."

Similarly, Saunders reads The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, the Los Angeles Times' Calendar and Business sections, and finds talent amidst the finalists for the Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting and other award groups. But it's notorious industry blogger Nikki Finke whom he describes as "definitive."

Flaunting your Twitter, Web design, blogging, and Facebook know-how can also get you ahead: "When I hired my assistant, I hired her not because of her previous experience taking care of artists and artist liaisons; I hired her because of her skills with social media," said Sobol. "Understanding these tools and how to use them is something that we desperately need."

Staying on top of the evolving arts scene is important, too, and Sobol regularly checks the New York Times Arts section ("It's an absolute must"), as well as Musical America and Inside Arts, the bi-monthly publication of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

But no matter how good you are at garnering a Twitter following, some specialist knowledge is a must: "You have to know the difference between Shostakovich and Schubert," Sobol said.

Audrey Tempelsman is a New York-based freelance writer and former Dwell editor whose work has been featured in The New York Times and other publications. To view selections of her writing, please visit: AudreyTempelsman.com.

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