Agents are the middlemen of show business. They represent talent, which is to say actors, writers, directors, producers, and other artists, and their job is to sell the services of their clients to buyers of talent—film and television producers, publishers, and entertainment promoters of all stripes. To best serve their clients, agents need to have access to information about the availability of scripts, the pictures in development, and the going prices being paid for talent—information that they can use to close deals. Agents even with college degrees have traditionally started out in the mail rooms of talent agencies learning the ropes before being given actual responsibilities. At William Morris and MCA, they were also required to abide by a conservative dress code.
Governed by state employment-agency laws and regulations and by agreements with Actors Equity and other talent guilds, agents are allowed to collect a fee for their services, usually 10 or 15 percent of their clients' earnings. In signing with an agency, the client authorizes the agency to represent him or her in all areas for a specified term, usually five or seven years, and to collect a fee from all sources of income. Agencies can be grouped into two categories, compound and independent. Compound agencies, such as William Morris (1899–1989), International Creative Management, and Creative Artists, are the largest in the business with offices in New York, Beverly Hills, and in European capitals. They represent a broad range of established talent, including Olympic stars and former US presidents, and are organized into departments representing different fields of entertainment. Independent agencies are much smaller. They typically specialize in representing a single type of client, such as writers or actors, and are more prone to solicit new and untried talent.
Once concerned mainly with getting the highest possible salary for their clients, agents have gradually taken an active role in shaping their clients' careers. Stars sometimes also retain managers or personal representatives to assume this function. Unlike agents, managers work on an exclusive basis and devote as much attention as possible to the individual and business needs of a star. And because managers are allowed to produce films and television shows with their stars and others, they can collect 15 percent or more of their clients' earnings.
Although agents have been much maligned by clients and producers alike, they perform a valid economic function within the sprawling, loose, and disjointed confines of show business. By separating the involved parties in the negotiation process, agents, first of all, enable buyers to deal with professionals on a business level for the services of artists or for literary rights. Secondly, they enable artists and buyers to concentrate on creative matters. Agencies have regularly raided one another for clients, sometimes using aggressive tactics. But the intense competition that exists among them invigorates the business.