Utah talent agencies tackle challenges of working in a small market
Nov 12, 2019 03:42PM
By Alison Brimley
Ariel Stratton and Joe Jacobsen film demo clips for their acting demo reels at the offices of Unique Talent in West Jordan (Cristie Anderson)
By Alison Brimley | [email protected]
The offices of Unique Talent aren’t glamorous.
On the second floor of a West Jordan office park, Unique is run out of just a couple of rooms. It’s a two-woman outfit: Cristie Anderson, founder and CEO, started the company just nine months ago, and booking agent Ariel Stratton is a working actor herself. Both are clearly energized and passionate about changing the landscape of the Utah film and modeling industry.
A talent agency connects actors and models with the filmmakers and photographers who want to cast them. And opportunities do come our way here in the crossroads of the west. Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack” and “High School Musical” (the series), and the Kevin Costner series “Yellowstone” are just a few of the current or recent made-in-Utah productions. And there’s always an abundance of commercials. But there are factors at work in Utah that make careers in modeling or movies uniquely challenging.
“Utah talent agencies unfortunately have a pretty bad rap right now,” Anderson says. She and other agency owners are setting out to change that.
Scarce work, ample fees
Anderson began her career in modeling in the 1990s and has acted as well. After becoming a mother, she began to work as a talent agent for a local company. Her experience there taught her that some things could—and needed to—be done better.
As a child, Ariel Stratton acted in California. She began pursuing a career in engineering as an adult but eventually returned to film. When she decided to get back on the acting scene in Utah, she went agency shopping and was disappointed by what she found.
“I did a lot of stuff growing up in California, so my standards are LA standards,” she says. “Utah does not have that standard by any means, because we’re a right-to-work state.”
Stratton noticed these differences when she started to read the contracts agents were offering.
“People’s contracts here are very different then they are in LA,” she said. “There’s not a lot of work compared to LA, so a lot of agents here have these obnoxious fees that are unheard of in LA.”
It’s the same problem that inspired David Layne, of Elevate Talent, to start his own agency. Layne also worked as an actor for years, but when the agency that represented him shut down, he and his fellow actors struggled to find representation.
“Half the agencies in Utah at that time were more interested in charging fees,” Layne said. “They sell the dream, but they don’t deliver the dream.”
Many of Layne’s friends at the time told him they thought he’d be a great agent, so he decided to go for it. That was four years ago. Today Layne represents 320 people. He says he’d cap that number at no more than 500 or 600.
“I’ve pledged that I will always remain small,” Layne said. “Other agencies have anywhere from 2,000 to 3,500 people that hardly ever get work. I represent people that really want to work.” For Layne, it’s essential that he knows everyone he represents and feels “that everybody has the opportunity to get cast.”
Typically, agencies take a cut of the pay that their actors or models make on a booking—usually about 15%, the rate Unique charges. But because Utah doesn’t have as many jobs available, some agencies struggle to profit on bookings alone.
“They [charge extra fees] to stay afloat,” Stratton says. “The problem with that is they just start bringing in more people every week, not focusing on the people they already have.”
And there’s the deluge of fees: signing fees, website fees, fees to update headshots. “I’ve even heard some charge a ‘social media fee,’” says Warren Workman, of Royal Talent. “What the crap is that?”
“It’s ridiculous to pay to be represented by someone who’s supposed to be working with you,” Stratton said.
The fact that none of these fees were built into her contracts is what initially impressed Stratton about Anderson. Though Stratton initially signed on as an actor, her passion for Anderson’s mission blossomed into a work relationship. Stratton brought her connections to Anderson and provided word-of-mouth advertising.
In the months they’ve worked together, Stratton and Anderson have become close. And they’ve used each other’s skills to help build their careers. “She can’t get rid of me,” Stratton says, and Anderson is quick with her comeback: “I don’t want to!”
Productions and shoots cast in Utah need racially diverse talent just as much as productions cast in bigger cities. But because the pool of actors isn’t as varied, this provides a challenge to agencies. In their eight months of existence, Unique has paid particular attention to that and has had success finding child actors of many backgrounds. The adult talent pool has diversified more slowly, but they’re working on it.
The lack of diversity Warren Workman saw in Utah talent was one of the forces that inspired him to begin his own agency. Workman, organizer of the Utah Film Festival, has been in the film industry for 15 years but opened his own agency just months ago. As a producer, he saw that most agencies had only “about five looks” that they could provide. He felt he could do something about that. His commitment to focus on diverse talent means that his agency will likely stay on the smaller side, but that’s what Royal aims for.
Because Utah’s market isn’t as vibrant as that of larger entertainment hubs, the jobs that are available often don’t pay enough to make a gig worth an actor’s or model’s time. Anderson is passionate about bringing more high-fashion modeling to Utah, but currently, modeling jobs are sparse.
Many models are desperate enough to take one of the abundant unpaid jobs advertised on Facebook.
“There are a lot of models, and they’re actually trained, but they’re working for free because they think the exposure is going to be good for their career,” Anderson said. “But really, the type of exposure they’re getting is not going to help them. It really drives the market down.”
Stratton jumps in. “It’s created this cycle, and it’s even bled over into the acting world, where people will undercut you or not pay you at all and because people show up for [unpaid jobs],” she said. “So, people continue to do it.”
Anderson is working to change that expectation. She encourages her models not to work for free, and Stratton reports it’s making a difference.
Workman finds low-paying jobs to be a major problem as well. Often, he gets a casting call for a commercial offering to pay an actor something like $50.
“I don’t even send my actors to that,” he said. It’s not worth their gas money, and for an agent who, like Workman, receives a 10% cut on his actors’ bookings, it’s certainly not worth his time.
Moving on up
These challenges aren’t unique to Utah so much as they are to any smaller market. That’s why Workman, Layne and Anderson all work to help their talent audition in cities such as Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Layne and Workman even have affiliated agents in major cities. That’s not something you’ll get from any agent.
“Other agencies seem to be afraid to let people audition in LA because they’re afraid they’re going to lose them,” Layne said. Losing talent means saying goodbye to the steady stream of fees they supply. For Anderson, the priority is to launch her actors’ careers—and if that means losing them to another agent in a better market, she’s happy to do it.
Travis Clark, an actor and model who’s been with Unique Talent since January, is new to the industry, but said he’s “aiming for the big leagues.” He wants to get out of Utah and feels that Anderson has been nothing but supportive. She’s helped him find auditions in LA, Vegas and more.
For all these agents, keeping a small talent pool is a key to upholding high standards. They’re confident that their commitment will help them rise to the top—if not in size, then in reputation.
“I don’t have the desire to necessarily get rich off of this,” Anderson said. “I have the desire to be well respected.”