So you did it! You finally got an agent! Someone who believes in your work. Someone who has the connections to get you more and better work, and someone who has the business sense to get you the best deal and most money for gigs. Congrats!
Then your biggest fears start to come true. Your agent stops taking your phone calls. You go months with no auditions or bookings. You meet other talent who have been waiting to get paid for gigs from months ago. All of the sudden, your stardom dreams are turning into a nightmare! What have you done? Did you sign a deal with the devil?
Fortunately in most cases, it is possible to get out of your agency contract. Here are a few things to look for when you’re trying to break ties with your agent or agency. They may not apply to everyone’s particular situation, but they are a good starting point.
1. Did you sign a contract?
It sounds obvious, but remember that if you didn’t sign a contract, you may not be legally obligated to stay with your agent. If you did not sign a formal contract, your best bet is to just give your agent a nice professional phone call to let him know that the relationship is just not working out. Be careful though–if you agreed in an email or other written form to certain provisions, those may be then considered contractual obligations. On the flip side, if your agent agreed to certain duties in that email and is not living up to his obligations, he may be breaking that contract. In this case, seek the help of a qualified contract lawyer to clarify who is legally obligated to do what.
2. Are you actually dealing with an agent or a manager?
Look carefully at the wording in your contract. It may not seem like a big deal, but there is a huge difference from a legal standpoint between an agent and a manager. Agents are regulated by state and sometimes federal laws, but managers are not. Managers are not legally allowed to procure work and negotiate contract on behalf of an artist. If you have signed a contract with a manager who is promising to do these things, the entire contract may be null and void.
3. Is your agency properly licensed?
Actual agents and agencies require extensive licensing which varies from state to state. Many states require that talent agencies register as an employment agency, or require a special talent agency license. Other states require that the agency be bonded. The Association of Talent Agencies (ATA) has a list of agency licensing requirements by state, which you can find here. The ATA itself was created to monitor and regulate the talent and literary agency industry. If you question your agency’s licensing, contact the ATA through their website at www.agentassociation.com. They may be able to clarify the requirements, and point you in the right direction if your agency is in violation. If your agency is not properly licensed, you may be able to break your contract with no legal repercussions.
4. Is there a termination clause in your contract?
Most legitimate contracts will provide a clause so either party can terminate the agreement if things aren’t working out. If you signed a contract that does not have one, contact a lawyer immediately to look into the matter. In most cases, your contact is for a specific length of time–one year for instance. If your contact does not automatically renew, the worst case scenario would be that you just don’t sign a new contract once the year expires. If the contract automatically renews itself (meaning, you only have to sign it once, not every year) then you’re usually required to send written notice if you wish to terminate it. This should always be done via certified mail so you have a receipt that the notice was delivered. This will protect you from disputes as to whether or not notice was given. Be careful though–many self-renewing contracts have a window in which you have to send a termination notice. For example, you may have to send written notice no more than sixty days prior to the anniversary date of your contract. If you miss that window, you may be legally obligated to live out another year of your contract.
Fortunately, most legitimate agencies will do their best to keep the talent happy. If the relationship is not working out for both parties, they may be OK with terminating the contract before the term has expired. Just remember that if they do agree to end things before the contract is up, you need to get it in writing or you’ll still be legally obligated to the contract.
Backdoors for union contracts
If your agency is giving you a hard time about leaving you may still have some other recourses. Here a just a few more contractual items that may give you reason to legally break your contract. These apply specifically to AFTRA agency contracts, but the principles may apply in your state as well. Always seek the advise of a qualified contract lawyer in your state if you have questions about these.
1. Is your agent actively seeking work for you?
If you’re an AFTRA member working with your franchised agency, you may request a written list of all of the jobs and auditions you have been submitted for up to once a month. If the list is empty or only has a few things on it, this may give you just cause to break your contract. Remember that an agent is legally obligated to attempt to procure work for you by any legitimate means. Even if you’re not a union member, if the agent is not attempting to find you work then they may be violating their state regulations.
2. Did your agent make you go to one photographer, or acting coach?
It is a common and often illegal practice for an agent to get kickbacks from a photographer or acting school for talent referrals. Even if they strongly recommend one particular photographer or coach, AFTRA franchised agents need to supply a list of qualified candidates to their talent. If you are forced to go to one person they are in violation of their AFTRA franchise agreement. Even if you’re dealing with a non-franchised agency your should still have a choice. If you think your agency may be getting some kickbacks, contact your state Department of Labor right away so they can investigate it. If they are in violation you may not be legally bound by your contract.
3. Is it a revolving door of employees at your agency?
AFTRA franchising agreements require something called “Continuity of Management”. Basically, the agency needs to keep a low turnover rate. If more than half of the employees your agency has listed with AFTRA are no longer with the agency, you may have legal grounds to terminate your contract. There may be similar clauses at the state level–check with your attorney to find out.
Remember the rule of thumb is to check with a lawyer who specializes in contract law to get the specifics for your state. But in most cases, the agency contracts are there to protect the talent just as much as the agency. The bottom line is that if your agent is not doing their job, you need to cancel your contract and find someone who will.