How Does One Become an Agent?

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As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and produces on her own, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide.

In show business they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck, because now you know Priyanka!

I’m an assistant at a big agency. I’m hoping to get noticed enough to become an agent in our comedy group, but how can I beat out my competition? It seems like there are so many people in line to get promoted, it’s going to take forever.

–Julie M., Los Angeles

It’s not really a competition. It’s competitive, because the attrition rate is sky-high, but a lot of your peers are going to decide they actually want other things, and they will naturally find what they’re good at. it’s not like you’re running a race and some people are getting maimed, it’s like you’re running a race and some people decide they’re really good novelists, instead of distance runners. It’s a conveyor belt of talent, and if you stay on it, and work hard, and people like you, you’ll get to the end. I once asked a senior partner at UTA how he became a partner, and his honest answer was “I kept coming to work, and everyone else quit or got fired.” As for the long line of people in front of you to get promoted, it’s not always done in chronological order (or it shouldn’t be), it’s done according to departmental needs. Here are a few tips that might help you jump the line.

If you’re a good assistant, word gets around and you’ll get to a partner’s desk faster. However, I don’t know how to tell you to be a good assistant. I was objectively the worst assistant of all time (ask anyone), and it didn’t ruin my chances! All you really need is for your bosses to like you, so be acutely aware of what your boss needs, and fill that need. My boss at the time needed someone to keep her amused in a high stress job, and needed to be aware of material to share with her clients. I focused all of my energy on those things and diverted attention from things I was worse at, like scheduling, or phones. You are probably starting on a junior desk before you work for a someone who could determine your promotion, so your relationship with the boss who can promote you is a very specific, and needs to be sought and fostered. Work for someone with a track record of nurturing the careers of the assistants she likes.

Consume as much content as you can stomach. In the interest of efficiency, consume content you know that no one else is doing. No one cares if you’ve seen or read something everyone else has, but if you bring up a great new writer or a foreign film ripe for a remake, you’re providing a useful service. If you have an eye for people and/or material, you’re halfway to being promoted. So, what are your strengths? What do you better or more than anyone else, that you can apply to your job? Are you at comedy show every night, scoping out the scene? Do you read every piece of material you can get your hand on? Do you have en eye for foreign programming that could translate to American TV? Do more of what you already like, and dig deep. I remember going to a staff meeting right after I was promoted, and my mentor told me I had to bring up a brand new script or book in every meeting, and pitch it for specific clients. “But everything I read this week was bad” I said. Her response, after rolling her eyes at me, was “Then find something good.” Canvass your friends at other places — management companies especially — for emerging and unknown talent.

Now that you have a bunch of stuff to talk about, share it, and be systematic about it. Start with your boss. go through everything you read or saw in a week, pick out the things you like, and draft an email every Sunday with a short list of the things you liked, and which clients they could be right for. It’s as simple as “I think [client name] might like it, to star/produce/direct/write this as a movie/show/musical.”

Your boss is the first person you need to impress, and if she’s impressed (and not a jerk), they talk. After she’s on board, with her blessing, expand your emails to a handful of influential agents in all departments. If you encounter something that could be good for another agent, and you tell them about it, they’ll remember. It’s obviously insane to do this the first day you walk in the door, but after I had been at it for a while, and interacted with enough people, most people at the company were happy to pay attention to what I was reading.

I almost forgot to explain why you’re doing all this. It’s because when the partners sit down to figure out who they should promote, then everyone has already been tee’d up to say “Oh, Julie? I like her. Smart, good taste, team player. I’m on board.” I didn’t come up with this plan myself. I had a wonderful boss, who forced me to log facetime with every partner at our company, so that support would be near-unanimous when the time came. It felt unnatural and mortifying at times — I remember chasing an MP Lit partner into the elevator once, shouting my name, and shoving a book in her hand — but it worked.

Also, If your department has made it clear that no one is getting promoted for a while, think about switching to department that needs you. I never thought I’d end up representing actors, but a bunch of young actors in our department were about to be famous, the work was going to double, and the partners needed to promote someone who the clients knew and liked. And there I was, in the right place at the right time, with a stack of reading. In comedy, because so many clients are writer/performers, you end up being both a lit and talent agent anyway, so it hardly matters how you sneak in. Good luck!

Have a question about the comedy biz for Priyanka? Send your queries to thebusiness@splitsider.com or bug her on Twitter. No submissions of material, please! Priyanka can’t and won’t read any scripts, etc. sent to her.

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