Job Title: Agent
The primary function of an agent is to secure work for, and develop the careers of, their clients. Many agents carve out a niche by specializing in representing only above-the-line or below-the-line clients. Some concentrate further by representing only writers and directors, producers, or actors. Agents are actively involved in soliciting work for their clients, making it necessary to have strong relationships throughout the industry, and to stay abreast of which deals are being made and which productions are getting the green light. Agents also negotiate fees and contractual obligations for their clients.
Since most entry-level office jobs in the film industry are assistant positions that require secretarial skills, agent Jonathan Furie suggests cultivating strong typing and computer skills. After graduating from college and before going to work in the William Morris Agency mail room, Furie says, “I took a six week intensive shorthand and typing course. I really prepared myself for when I did make it out of the mail room onto an agent's desk.” Agents and their assistants must be good communicators, have strong organizational skills, and always follow through.
Advice for Someone Seeking This Job
While a few obtain work as an assistant or secretary to an agent at a smaller talent agency, most agents begin in the mail room at one of the major agencies. While it may seem demoralizing for a college graduate to be delivering mail and running errands, the mail room is a rite of passage and provides an opportunity to learn the names of studio executives, directors, writers, producers, and others in influential positions in the industry. As an assistant, you'll have the opportunity to see how deals are negotiated and structured, and to make personal contacts. Many agencies require a bachelor's degree to get into the mail room or agent's training program.
Professional Profile: Jonathan Furie, President of Montana Artists Agency
Although he grew up in Beverly Hills with the film industry all around him, Jon Furie did not consider a job in the business until after college. He was first introduced to the possibility while working summers in a clothing store. Each year, William Morris Agency chairman Norman Brokow would bring his children to the store to purchase back-to-school clothing. One time, he asked if Furie had ever considered working in the film industry. Brokow handed him a business card and suggested that after he finished college, Furie might interview with the agency to start in the mail room.
“I put his card away and I really didn't think that much of it. I was going to school and studying psychology, child development, and abnormal behavior.” Furie had nearly graduated from UCLA when he realized that he did not want to continue on to get his Ph.D. in psychology. Uncertain as to what he wanted to do, he remembered the earlier conversation, found the card, and wrote Brokow a letter saying that he would be honored to interview with the William Morris Agency. He started in the mail room in 1984.
Furie was eventually promoted out of the mail room and onto a desk as an assistant to an agent. He left William Morris a year later to take an assistant position with the Jay Michael Bloom Agency, in the department that handled writers, where he remained for 13 months. Then it was on to United Artists for a year to work in the studio's film acquisition department, where he watched movies and made recommendations about films the studio should purchase and distribute. Furie's next move was to Twentieth Century Fox Films to work for then-president of production, Scott Rudin. Three months later he transferred to work for another production executive, serving as a combination executive assistant and development executive, charged with reading and making recommendations about which scripts the studio should purchase and put into development.
What do you like least about your job?
“The part I like least is having to make the call saying, ‘You came very close.’ Oftentimes, clients will interview for three or four jobs and not get one. The other part I like least is when clients are not working as much as they'd like to and you know that they've got a wife, kids, a mortgage, and they're having trouble making their monthly nut.”—Jonathan Furie
What do you love most about your job?
“What I love the most is the phone call from a buyer, meaning a studio executive, producer, or director, who says, ‘We want to hire your client.’ Then making the call to that client and saying, ? have good news for you today. ‘That's the most rewarding.”—Jonathan Furie
Fourteen months into his time at Fox, Furie was offered a job with independent film company Mainline Pictures, to acquire and develop screenplays. Eighteen months later, Mainline lost their funding and Furie was out of a job.
Furie had possession of a screenplay written by Noah Stern, which the writer wanted to direct. Deciding to produce the $3 million project himself, Furie enlisted Norman Lear's Act III Productions to back the first-time producer and writer/director. Thirteen months later Pyrates, starring Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgewick, was released.
The next project was Tainted Blood, a $2.5 million made-for-television movie, starring Raquel Welch. Furie's third film, True Crime with Alicia Silverstone, had only a $1.6 million budget.
“I did not have a true office; I worked out of my home. I did not have a secretary. I did not have a computer—I had an old IBM Selectric typewriter. I answered my own phone and typed my own letters. I did not have a development fund of money to option scripts or purchase material. All the projects I got were by convincing the writers I could get their movies made.”
Furie's producing fees were commensurate with the declining budgets of his films. He found himself at a crossroad four and a half years later, where he could either align himself with a bigger producer or become an agent. When he realized that what he liked most about making movies was putting the crew together, it became clear to him that agenting below-the-line artists was the right job for him to pursue.
Unable to find a position with an agency representing below-the-line clients, Furie took a job with a firm that wanted to expand into handling writers and directors, with the hope that he could later transition into the area he really wanted. After nine months, he was not only representing writers and directors, but also was participating in the below-the-line business. When he asked if he could move into that area, his boss informed him that there were no openings. So he put out the word that he was looking to move to another agency.
* “The job requires a lot of sensitivity to dealing with not just people's career success, but people's career lows, as well … I represent people who have chosen to be freelance artists. They don't know where their next job is. They could work for a year and then they could be sitting for three or six months without a job … Last year with the impending strikes—the potential writers’ and actors’ strike—they made a lot of films in the first half of the year, and they made very little product in the second half of the year. So it was a lot of conversations with clients, letting them know it was nothing they were doing wrong; the work wasn't there.”—Jonathan Furie
After being introduced to Montana Artists owner Carl Bressler, Furie was hired as a below-the-line agent, representing clients in those categories for film and television. Now with the firm for six years, Furie serves as president, overseeing a staff of 12 that includes other agents, assistants, and a business affairs executive, in addition to working as an agent.
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