The “Big Lebowski” fan quit his job at a San Francisco Bay Area bank where he made six figures out of college. He earned an MBA and then went in a different direction than his classmates – at age 31, he wrote a letter for a set of roles at the Gersh Agency.
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“The idea of walking into a mailroom and starting from the bottom was hard to swallow,” said Noriega, now a partner at Los Angeles-based talent and literary agency Verve. “At the same time, if I went through that transition and went back to school to do something I was really passionate about, looking at spreadsheets just wasn’t the same.
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Although the talent representation business has been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, getting a job as an agent is still one of the most sought-after positions in Hollywood. We spoke to Noriega and other experts for advice on what you need to know about entering the profession.
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Noriega’s life-changing decision followed the traditional path many people take to become a talent agent. It’s a job often described as Hollywood’s matchmaker, matching talent for projects, brokering deals and advocating vigorously on behalf of clients.
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Key qualities of a successful agent include a strong work ethic, sophisticated cultural tastes, passion for their clients and patience. It may take years for you to become a professional and reap the financial benefits.
“We’re looking for people who have a great work ethic,” said Noriega, who also heads Verve’s television division. “We want people who carry themselves honestly. People with great taste. But more importantly, we want people who love the business. People who clearly have passion. You Can teach people how to close deals and land clients. But you need a foundation of work ethic, a positive attitude and passion.
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Noriega, like many agents before him, began printing and binding scripts out of the mailroom. He had no connection to the industry and wondered if he was going to be cast in the real-life version of the HBO series “Entourage.”
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The fast-paced life of an agency is not for everyone. The traditional career path to becoming a talent agent—first as a postal clerk, then as an assistant, then as a coordinator, and finally as an agent—often has long hours and starts with low pay. are
The cost of living in LA can be expensive. To support himself, Noriega relied on his wife, who worked at a tech company, to help him pursue his dreams. Others choose to live with their parents.
After a month or two in the mailroom, Noriega became an assistant at Bayard Maybank, making phone calls, setting up meetings and reading scripts.
He was preparing for an atmosphere similar to that depicted in “Entourage” where Ari Gold is screaming and everyone is anxious and ready.
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Although he says such agents do exist, Noriega was relieved that Maybank did not operate that way. Noriega said Maybank was down to earth, loved reading movies and scripts, and acted with passion, enthusiasm and positivity – not fear and aggression.
“So it was, ‘Oh, well, you can be like that as an agent,'” said Noriega, who became Verio’s agent in 2013. “You don’t have to be like crazy.”
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To begin with, there are many different types of agents. For example, at the Beverly Hills-based talent agency WME, agents can work in many fields, including music, television, sports, film and comedy.
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Elizabeth Wachtel’s passion for storytelling led her to become a literary packaging agent at WME. Wachtel grew up in Los Angeles reading and watching the Harry Potter novels and movies. He now spends his weekends reading books that could be adapted into Hollywood movies and TV shows.
“My 15-year-old self would have thought it was the best job ever,” said Wachtel, 33. “I was a really shy kid and didn’t really come out of my shell until I discovered theater and started telling stories.”
Two years ago, Wachtel was a coordinator and agent intern at WME when department heads asked her to read a book proposal for Finding the Mother Tree, a memoir by forest ecologist Susan Simard. He concluded that his story could be turned into a Hollywood film. Since becoming an agent in 2019, she has been marketing the book and in March was instrumental in closing a movie deal for the book starring critically acclaimed actress Amy Adams.
“I had a role in the process — sort of a matchmaker,” Wachtel said. “It’s the kind of thing that makes me smile when I wake up in the morning and gets me out the door.”
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At Verve, a typical day for an agent includes a staff meeting, and is then broken down into three different parts. Noriega said if an agent is responsible for covering a particular network, they talk to executives and get the latest information. Agents also spend time vetting and then signing clients, prospecting and identifying new clients they want to do business with.
“Depending on where you are in your career, you’ll spend more time in one bucket than the other,” said Noriega, who works 60 hours a week.
Agents in Hollywood have one big responsibility – to help talent find work. Only licensed agents can purchase works in California.
“You direct people’s careers,” Noriega said. “If you make a mistake, if you miss something, no one will get a job. It’s how people pay their mortgages and how they send their kids to school, and so you have to recognize that it’s a responsibility that you have and respect that. Behave.”
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Agents earn a base salary and bonuses based on their performance and commissions from the deals they close for clients, so part of their success depends on the success of the talent they represent.
The payoff can be great. Base salaries can start in the five-figure range, but many senior agents earn seven-figure salaries.
Amid rapid change in the media industry, talent agencies are under increasing pressure to raise capital for growth. The rise of streaming and the expected decline of packaged TV, combined with the aftermath of the Writers Guild of America’s long-running boycott, have hurt talent agencies, some of which have laid off workers.
The rise of streaming platforms has brought about major changes in the industry. As television seasons grew shorter, agents had to work harder to find work for their clients.
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The way people are entertained has also evolved in areas like podcasts and short 15-second videos on social media. Agents need to keep their pulse on the latest trends and know how to make money for their clients.
Agencies are also facing cultural changes as Hollywood avoids the #MeToo movement’s treatment of women and calls for workplaces to rid themselves of bullying. The police killing of George Floyd last year also forced entertainment companies to confront their lack of diversity.
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Some agencies have reputations as predominantly white, male workplaces and are stepping up recruiting efforts to diversify their ranks.
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Some agents said it’s important to push back on the anxiety people have that they have to be the youngest and the fastest and immediately list their clients when they become an agent. Noriega said it’s important to take the time to develop these skills because they take years to learn.
“It’s a small town and you build your reputation. That will determine how your career goes,” Noriega said. “You can start signing clients, but you don’t really know what you’re doing right now. If you mess up, if you make a mistake, it can come back to haunt you.
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