"John: What's the difference between an agent and a manager? You say you have both. Does a writer need a manager?"
I'm not about to tell anyone what percentages of their income they need to give up to work in Hollywood. I'll just tell you my experience. Take what you find useful.
In California, there is actually a legal difference between being a manager and an agent. One is forbidden from being both a manager and an agent. The bare-bones difference between the two, as defined by my manager of 14 years, Will Mercer:
"A manager is legally forbidden from procuring work for his client. Agents are bound by SAG rules and some pretty heavy regulations. Your first contract with an agent can be no longer than one year, renewable at no more than three year terms after that ... They can't charge more than %10 commission."
(I'm sure Craig at Artful Writer could lay out all the specifics far better than I. He's a whiz at the fine-print stuff. And big congrats on the movie, Craig!)
My definition, when sober:
"An agent helps your CAREER. A manager helps YOUR career."
My definition, when drunk:
"You call your agent when you need work. You call your manager when you have a dead hooker in the bathtub of your Kentucky motel room."
Now, agencies in Hollywood are franchises. To dip into Freakonomics a moment, their entire value comes from an information inequality. Their job is to know who needs what work done, and to also know who is available for that work. They are powerful networking bases. They trade on knowing what others do not. ("Where did you hear James Cameron is directing Aquaman?") When my agency (insert evil booming laughter here) CAA is informed that a project of level X needs humans to accomplish it, they can whip out various level X writers, directors, producers, actors, to vie for the job. We writers, directors, etc., are far too busy actually making shit to know about every opportunity that comes down the pike. The agency's business is to know these things. By doing good jobs of brokering that information to desirable talent, they can then aid the studios, in a beautifully symbiotic relationship, in acquiring the interest of said talent. They will endeavor (whoops, forgot, not allowed to use that word) to put as many humans from their agency onto the same project -- juggling the relationships and value of said talent in a truly byzantine yet lyrical manner called packaging.
So within the current system, one of the benefits of being a CAA client is that CAA has many other desirable clients. When a studio approaches CAA to gain the services of say, a director, this in theory gives me an inside track on getting the writing gig. Maybe the agency hooks the director and I up for a casual chat, so the director (having fallen for my pitch and waifish charms) will be inclined to toss me out as his writer of choice while meeting the studio: or perhaps we've already met, been hooked up a few times by the agents during the course of client maintenance meetings. Or maybe I just know about the gig a week earlier than everybody else, and can get my better-developed pitch out there just a smidge faster.
There are dozens of variations. I'm occasionally called in to meet with young directors who have ideas for movies but no idea of what an actual script outside of "Buy this car!" looks like. I'll be sent books represented (or even just tracked) by the literary department with the first run at adapting them. I meet with newbie writers all the time to help them in developing their ideas. When a project currently being written or directed by another client goes awry, I may get the ninth-inning reliever call.
Within the system itself is your own, individual agent. I have one for television, one for film. There's such a vast volume of information to be mastered in Hollywood production right now, that division is par for the course. My agent's job is to know my swing. What I'm good at, what I like to do -- what executives like me, and who I pissed off just that one time too many. Agents regularly attend meetings where info-dumps of projects occur. Their job is to look at it and say "My lad John's good for that." Or, if I've got something already in the development pike "That script's one of ours, keep an eye on it." For more powerful clients, they will put out that the client's looking for X, and what's out there that we can bring him?
My agents will sing my praises and downplay my failings. They will yell at executives or coo softly, as needed. They are the ones calling and asking where the goddam money for that rewrite is.
When I was pitching GF, it was my TV agent who knew another client had a deal for production at the studio, and we could partner up, solving several economic issues. Couldn't have done it without him.
For this prodigious amount of career wrangling, they take a paltry %10 of your income.
So what do you need a manager for?
Let's take my agents. I can honestly say they've been absolutely brilliant bastards for me for my entire Hollywood career. They've fought for me, hustled for me, listened to my rants and educated themselves about alternate media, covered my ass when I needed the extra week -- they've maximized every dime's worth of whatever talent I have. I will be with both of them until I retire. I'm damn lucky to have them. Although I must say, UTA does send a lovely fruit basket.
But they, and every other agent in Hollywood, have many other clients. Many. I have heard estimates that most agents at large companies carry 40-60 clients. If an agent spent just five minutes on the phone with each client every day, it would eat up around 5 HOURS A DAY. Never mind their actual job of hunting down network and studio execs, producers, reading scripts and coverage, etc.
Also, the brutal truth is, in an agency of any size, there will be a slightly higher-earning/more valuable client in competition with you for the same job. Or, there will be a slightly cheaper, easier-to-sell client in competition with you.
No matter how good the company, the agency's agenda comes first. And, God bless them, they will lie to your face about that.
This is what a manager's for. There are a lot of ways of putting this, but ... your manager's got your back. Your manager's agenda is your agenda. I've watched Will, with all good humor, call bullshit on his clients' agents, and have the agents cop to it. He maintains the same contacts, tracks the same info the agencies do -- but does it all with a much narrower focus in mind.
Will is fairly atypical; he is, in my opinion, the best manager in LA. Period. But I'll try to illustrate through example. Back when I was writing on Cosby, Will heard that Sony was looking to develop an animated Jackie Chan show. I'd never written animation. Never had any interest in writing animation. But Will knew I was a Chan freak. He called me, I lost my shit. He called the Sony execs he knew, they were receptive. He contacted my agent at the time -- who understandably had no idea about my specific interest in Jackie Chan films -- to set the meeting.
And the agency hesitated. Not at all unjustifiably -- this, after all, was an animated show. I was bucking for producer in my third year at Cosby and looking at a development deal worth, well, what development deals used to be worth in those days. The fee for writing and developing the Jackie Chan animated show was barely better than I'd make doing a couple corporate one-nighters as a stand-up. Considering the time it would take to develop the show, write the pilot, write the show bible and then plot out the first season, it was a ferociously inefficient use of my time.
Will would not be put off. He knew working with a Jackie was a dream project of mine. He pressed on, and made the meetings happen.
Jackie Chan Adventures, of course, wound up breaking some big-ass ground for Kid's WB. It's run 5 years and 90-odd episodes (we did one bonus 39 ep run for the weekday afternoon strip). My tiny "per episode" fee for creating the show turned out to be ... productive. I'll be the first to say, all I did was create the characters, write the pilot and set the show up with Duane Capezzi and young Dave Slack. They carried on all the heavy lifting for the next five years as I moved on to other projects.
But the fallout was prodigious. Besides the unexpected monetary bump, my work experience with Jackie (and, oddly, the doomed Mage movie) led me to a rewrite gig on Rush Hour 2 and the first draft of Rush Hour 3. My job on both led to other, bigger projects. Culturally, I'm quite sure nothing I'll ever do will match the impact of that show. I hadn't seen my nephew in five years -- the first thing he and his little sister asked when they met me was whether Jade was a real girl.
All because Will paid attention while I ranted about the latest bootlegs I'd picked up on Times Square.
When I have an idea for a project, my manager's the guy I give the first pass to. "Is it TV? Is it a movie? Is it a miniseries? Who do you need to have an annoying lunch with? Where do you want to be five years from now, and what do we need to do right now to get on that path?" Managers are now the guys who read all the drafts of the script. Managers know when to give notes. They know when not to give notes, because you love that goddam bit, and there's no use being the one to try to kill it just yet. They're one more phone call, one more set of extended relationships at your service, one more thread in the web. What, another person calling to get you work is going to hurt you somehow?
Will manages some stand-ups -- he's the one who listens to their stories, helps them craft those stories into a viable show pitch, and then hones that pitch before presenting it to the agencies (and then on to the networks). I've had ideas for projects that my agents, well, have done their job on -- they've told me which ones are marketable, which ones need to wait a while. My manager keeps poking me about the ones that are put on the shelf, keeping them alive, helping me find the angle that'll get it sold. A good manager doesn't just advise you on what jobs to take; he also tells you what jobs to say no to. Often, when you're skint, the manager's will-power is the only thing keeping you from taking the gig you'll regret. An agent will pitch you for the gig, and if you're not hired move on. The manager will crack open the seams of projects and companies, finding the weird little job-match to hook you up. The manager's job is to often see that the low-paying gig is a possible high-paying gig in disguise.
(This is all, remember, because I have the best manager in Hollywood. To say your mileage will vary is a fucking understatement. Will also does talent-management-type duties which most writers just won't get from their managers.)
Now, as Will's explained it, all that used to be the agent's job. But as agencies became information brokers and packaging companies, managers assumed those duties.
What does this mean for you? It's a bit tricky. Management companies vary in size of boutique tiny to corporate size. (Personally, I think once a management company hits a certain size they can;t help but shift to "our agenda first" mode, but that's me).
Agent-hives can also swing between the small-yet-useful to the mega-malls of talent dotting Wilshire. If you're scrambling for your first representation, then I know, you want -- hell, need -- to jump at the first people who respond to your work. But to me, the trick here is to really, really be pro-active about your relationship with your representation. If someone want to act as your agent or manager, ask to meet in their office. Ask about their other clients. ASK TO TALK TO OTHER CLIENTS. If the person gets huffy, then don't do it. I talk to prospective clients for both my manager and agent all the time.
Most importantly, discuss what specific short-term goals you have, and what the possible game plan is for achieving them in this person's eyes. This is good. You want to show -- and only in Hollywood do I have to point out the value of this -- you are an active partner in developing your own damn career. If the very hot agent at the very big agency isn't actually going to put any effort into pushing you, then, well, you're just deadweight for a year. Some agent with a plan at a smaller agency is a better idea.
For me, having a manager -- the right manager -- is the single reason I'm doing reasonably well in Hollywood. I can present only anecdotal evidece; but when drinking with other writers, and bitching about rough surfaces in the career, I usually find myself shrugging and saying "my manager helped me out with that." If you find someone who you like and trust enough, who appears to be able to help you in concrete ways achieve your goals, then I say don't choke on the extra 5% commission. It's 5% of more income than you'd have without them. On the other hand, if you don't feel you need that extra input, then soldier on with just the agent. Most writers do.
For both agents and managers, set concrete goals for the near-future. Review the progress. Consider how/if this person's made your life easier. Listen, kids, the dirty little secret -- and I know this is hard for you spec-monkeys, chasing your first rep -- but the dirty little secret to remember is that these people ... work for you. Oh, it's always a chuckle and an eye roll when I mention this at CAA, but it's the truth. (Actually, at CAA they taser me and then lock me in the Shame Place. But that's CAA) Even as you strive to do the best creative work you can, make sure you actively put together the best team, with the best chemistry, you can.
As always, this is vocation and avocation. The better the suited-humans you're partnered with, the more you can focus on the creative stuff -- confident the nasty paperwork is being tackled and the next opportunity lined up by your team-mates.