My first Los Angeles commercial agent came by way of a targeted mailing. In December 2006 I had purchased the latest issue of Ross Reports, now called Call Sheet, and I highlighted commercial agents that took on new non-union clients, then sent them a headshot, resume and cover letter.
By January of 2006, I opted to give 3 months notice to terminate my full-time job at the optical company, and was fortuitous to be offered a weekend only position. Well, that meant I needed to get the ball rolling on my acting career, which was the reason I had moved to LA. The same day that I gave notice to my boss I had received a call from a model agency to schedule a meeting. They said they had received my picture in December. Wha??? I hadn’t sent my pictures to a modeling agency. I didn’t want to be a model, ergo, I graciously informed them that I was not looking for a modeling agent and was declining the meeting. Well, it turned out they had just developed a commercial department and was building their roster. I accepted the meeting but my emotions were conflicted, I was excited and panicked at the same time. Excited for obvious reasons, but panicked because now I had to begin my acting journey, and I was a terrified.
The week leading up to the meeting I had researched the modeling agency as much as I could. The owner was female, yay, she had been featured on The Tyra Banks show for exposing fraudulent modeling agency practices. Watching that interview gave me a feel of her essence, she struck me as kindhearted and compassionate. The office was next door to The Ivy, a restaurant acclaimed for its celebrity patrons, where big Hollywood deals were negotiated over lunch. It is considered prime real estate in Beverly Hills, and therefore I deduced the agency must have been doing well.
When I walk into an office, that I could possibly be represented by, I take in every element. The office was pristine, and had a luxury boutique feel. Dark wood floors, beautiful orchids, scented candles, airy and bright. While I waited, a young guy walked in to drop off his unsolicited pictures, the agents in the office took care to speak to him with respect while they imparted that he would not be a fit for them, instead of shunning him they shared a list of other agencies he’d most likely be best suited for. The atmosphere of the office is important to me because it speaks volumes to the character of the establishment and how they treat people.
The commercial agent met me in the common area, she was dressed casually, had a kind smile on her face and was easy-going. She was not the owner that I’d watched on the Tyra Banks show, but she possessed the same demeanor. We talked for about 30 minutes that ended with an invite for me to come aboard. They didn’t operate under contract because the philosophy of their office was, if either party didn’t want to continue the relationship, it didn’t make sense to wait out a contract. I let her know that I would take the weekend to make a decision, and departed feeling good about the meeting. Or so I thought.
The entire weekend I went back and forth in my head about joining this agency. I was a yes, then I was a no, and back and forth like a pendulum. When the weekend ended and I had to give my answer. I called the mild-mannered agent, and asked for a few more days to decide. She asked me if there was anything specific that was causing my apprehension. I don’t really remember what I said, but my commitment to contract issues must have been prevalent because she reminded me that other than a check release I would not be signing a contract. Oh yeah, that’s right, I’d forgotten that part of the deal and I agreed to join their roster.
It was a marvelous agent – actor relationship. She was able to get me in to audition for a lot of notable commercial casting directors. I even booked my first SAG commercial and earned a Taft-Hartley waiver that gave me carte blanche to join the union, which I didn’t do right away. I had a high booking ratio, but since I was working non-union contracts, I was growing tired of the constant contract switcheroo. To shed some light, I’ll explain what typically occurs. When an actor books a non-union commercial job, it’s for a buy-out, meaning, the producers of the commercial and the actor’s agent agree to a term, of say, 3 years to run the commercial for an undetermined amount of times, for about $5000. The terms would be agreed upon before the actor accepted the job. The contract, in most instances, is given to the actor as soon as they arrive to the set and before their first shot of the day. If the actor wasn’t contract savvy, they’d sign the contract that would have the terms as agreed, thinking they were in the clear. Unfortunately, buried in all of the legalese would be the term “In Perpetuity.” If the actor didn’t read the contract thoroughly and “In Perpetuity” was in that contract that they signed, they would have given the producers the permission to forego the agreed terms, and run that commercial for longer than 3 years, anywhere in the universe, forever and ever giving the actor a perpetual conflict for that product. The problem with that is, let’s say that I signed a non-union “In Perpetuity” contract for an unknown skin care company, then 6 years later, I book a job under a SAG contract for a renowned global skin care company. If I had forgotten, or didn’t know that I had an “In Perp” commercial sitting on the shelf somewhere, and the unknown non-union commercial begins running again while the SAG renowned cosmetic commercial is running, I can be sued for the cost of the renowned commercial’s production costs, which is easily in the high millions. Now, say I do remember I have an non-union “In Perp” commercial sitting on the shelf somewhere, and I inform the renowned cosmetic company at the time of the booking, they can choose to not hire me. The SAG contracts holds me exclusive to the contract, with no conflicts, for the full run of the spot, until it is released. Either way, that is a lot of money left on the table.
The contract switcheroo was becoming the new normal. Because I had learned that term long before I began booking, and I have a mother who always told me to read everything I signed, I was gracious to catch the term every time, but I must admit, it made me resent the producers, because it showed bad faith. Whenever that would occur, I would kindly inform the poor P.A., who was just a middle man, that I needed to call my agent before signing the contract. And let me tell you, I was always prepared to walk off the set and forfeit the booking if the terms weren’t corrected. I would make that call to my agent, and she would call production and Handle It, this was way before Scandal. A few of my major requirements when choosing an agent is, that they be pleasantly pushy, fierce negotiators and concerned with protecting my best interest. My commercial agent was all of those things.
I’m substantiating the history to inform the relationship I had with the agent I would have to one day terminate. The final non-union commercial I worked on had pulled the contract switcheroo and I was fed up with this practice. There were several actors on the set, we all had the same contracts and I was the only one to tell the P.A. I needed to call my agent before signing. There was a lot of back and forth between me and the producer, mind you the producer never came over to address me, everything was being relayed by this poor young P.A. The gentleman who was playing my husband asked me what he was missing, I informed him that the contract said “In Perpetuity”, and his response was, “what could it really hurt?” I guffawed and said incredulously, A lot! Everything worked out… well, kinda, and we shot the commercial. That contract came back to bite me 6 years later, but that’s another blog post.
This was now late 2007. That last job left such a bad taste in my mouth and I decided, on my own, after weighing all of the pros and cons, that I was going to join the actor’s union. I had the money in full, went down to the office, paid for my membership and became a proud new SAG member. I gotta tell you though, I was pretty disappointed that there was no confetti or balloons or even a lollipop that said WELCOME TO SCREEN ACTORS GUILD. The rigmarole of becoming eligible and then saving $2700 to join was a tremendous feat and I wanted a smidgen of pomp to celebrate.
I went directly home to email my great agent of my exciting news. She was to take me out of the non-union pool immediately. I had finally joined the big river of SAG and I was ready to book national commercials and make real money. Unfortunately, she didn’t share my enthusiasm. It hadn’t even occurred to me that she wouldn’t be as excited as I was. Her response was, she wished that I’d consulted her first because I was now going to miss out on all of the non-union opportunities. That the Screen Actors Guild TV contracts were expiring in 2008 and the possibility of a strike was imminent. When I read that email, I was struck with sudden fear and anxiety. I was questioning my decision. Oh No, I thought, did I make the wrong decision? And on the turn of a dime, I went from being afraid and angst ridden to PISSED OFF! After all, I had thought long and hard about my choice to join SAG. I had taken the strike into consideration and I was okay with the possibility of it. I knew that I’d be entering a larger pool of veteran actors who had been booking union jobs longer than I and that my work ethic was going to need bolstering. I was resolved in my choice to the join the union and this person, who I thought was Team Tiwana was now on the opposite side of the fence. Since I was angry and emotional, I decided to take thirty minutes to cool off before I responded back to her.
Once I became levelheaded, I responded to her email. It was the most grown-up professional email I had ever sent at that point in my career. It said something along the lines of me being disappointed that she felt I had made a bad decision to join SAG. How I had thought long and hard about joining. How disconcerted I had become with being a non-union actor and dealing with the constant frustration of the contract switcheroo, needless to say, the low money buy-outs. That I was grateful to have been able to book those non-union commercials because they afforded me experience and confidence in my craft. I reminded her of my reason for moving to LA, it was to be a film and TV actor who worked often and earned a living from it. That I had long-term goals for myself and if that meant I would have to endure a strike to earn better working wages and conditions for myself and my peers, so be it. That I had a grand vision and was looking at the big picture, and in order to be a professional actor and who earned wages worthy of my work, I needed to be SAG. That I needed an agent who believed in me and supported my decisions. After sending the email I had already come to terms that she might release me, surprisingly not, she apologized and agreed with me. I felt relieved but the little voice in my head said that it was time for me to leave that agency. That I had outgrown her, and her vision wasn’t as broad as mine. Imagine if I had sought her approval prior to joining the union, she would have talked me out of it.
If you’re familiar with the state of the entertainment industry during 2008, you can recall the writer’s strike went into effect, followed by the SAG stalemate. Hollywood was dealing with dire times, everyone was affected, especially this newly minted SAG member. But, I didn’t regret my decision, in fact it was reinforced even more so, I was a part of something that fought for better wages and conditions for actors.
At this juncture, I had been in the commercial audition world heavily as a non-union actor. I had more knowledge and resources under my belt, than when I first began. I had been composing a list of commercial agencies whose names I’d see often on sign in sheets or whom my peers spoke of highly. I chose 5 of those agencies, ranked them based on reputation and esteem, sent them my headshot, resume and a cover letter stating my successes since moving to LA. The first agency on the list called me and said, not now, but to stay in touch. The third agency on the list called me in for meeting, this June will make 7 years that I’ve been signed with them, and they’ve proved to be number 1 for me.