Beware, Folks, there are sharks in the waters! We actors want to do this so badly that we are easy to take advantage of. We want to believe it when someone tell us that they're gonna "make you a Star", or that our child is "Soooo beautiful and talented",(they never say "I'm sorry, but your kid is dumb and ugly and has no talent.") or that "We have contacts", and so forth. Lately I've had a number of calls from actors and parents of would-be actors wanting to know if such-and-such "Agency" was worth the time and money they were being asked to spend. We've been over this before, but let me review a few things.
If you are approached by an agent (or approaching an agent!) the first thing you should do is ask to see their State of California Talent Agency License. Real agents must be licensed by the state, and there are certain things that they can and cannot legally do. Recently I received a letter written by the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement Licensing and Registration Unit. The following is a quote from that letter.
"...a talent agency may not refer an artist under contract to any person, firm or corporation in which the talent agency has direct or indirect financial interest for other services to be rendered to the artist. Services to be rendered include, but are not limited to, photography, audition tapes, demonstration reels or similar materials, business management, personal management, coaching, dramatic school, casting or talent brochures, agency-client directories, or other printing."
Some things to look for:
Our registration fee is only..." Real agents never charge a fee for anything! Agencies are in the business of representing talent. Their job is to help the artist find work, negotiate their contract, and follow up in case there is a problem with collections, etc. For this they earn a commission - 10% in the case of agents franchised by the performers unions (22 1/2% for print work,) 15-20% is usual for non-franchised agents. A casting company usually charges a small annual fee for registration. As long as it's under $50 it's usually okay, but check to see what credits they have.
"You need new pictures. We want you to use so-and-so as your photographer." An agent may refer you to two or three photographers that they feel are good, but if they insist on a particular photographer, they are probably getting a finders fee... in violation of their license.
"You aren't quite ready yet. You need to take our class in...." That one comes under the "coaching and dramatic school": phrase above. "For only $75 we will put you in our talent directory..." Again, a direct violation of their license. It's their JOB to promote their talent.
Now managers or talent management companies don't have to be licensed, and have no real rules and regulations to follow. Be very, very careful before signing any sort of contract with one of those, as you have very little recourse if something goes wrong. Stick with a licensed talent agency, preferably a franchised agency. The list is available from the Screen Actors Guild in San Francisco, or you can email and I'll send you one. Good luck to you all!