First of all, what’s the difference between signing and freelancing? The simplistic answer is freelancing is like dating and signing is like getting married. If you’re still looking for the right “mate” then freelancing is probably the best thing for you. If you think you’ve found the right “person” and want to settle down then you should sign.
So what are the benefits? If you freelance you’ll probably have more exposure because you’ll have more auditions. If you’re signed you may not have as many auditions — initially. Every casting director has his/her favorite agents. So unless you are signed with one of the top five talent agencies — the ones that get all the audition calls — you will only be seen by casting directors your agency has a relationship with.
A plus of being signed is that your agency will be focused on the big picture of your career. (And yes, there are some jobs you shouldn’t do.) If you freelance those agents will only have the short game in mind — they’re simply trying to get you “this” job and aren’t concerned about your long-term goals.
If you freelance you have to constantly update the agencies you’re working with so they’ll know what your current commercial conflicts are and/or what network shows you’ve already done this season. If you’re signed your agents will already have that information. There is nothing more disheartening for a freelance agent, after hustling to get you an audition, to discover you already have a commercial running for a competing product. You have wasted their time and they won’t be happy.
If you’re signed your agent has a vested interest in your career so when you’re doing that “experimental showcase” in a not-so-nice theatre in the East Village they will go see it. If you’re freelancing, probably not.
If you’re signed and your agent is bi-coastal and you want to “try out the scene” in LA (or NYC) you’ll already have representation. And if your agency isn’t bi-coastal they will help you find representation wherever it is you’re headed. If you’re freelancing it is unlikely that those agents will extend themselves for you.
Another perk of being signed is your agency will negotiate for you. Freelancers won’t. It’s the big picture thing again. And let me tell you the only thing sweeter than getting paid for doing what we do is getting paid double scale with double scale residuals. Oh, yeah, that’ll put a smile on your face.
So, do you sign or do you freelance?
That was a quandary I faced early in my career. Here’s how it went down. Shortly after arriving in New York I had a meeting with J. Michael Bloom. At the time he owned the biggest commercial agency in New York.
My initial interview didn’t go well but shortly afterward I had the good fortune to meet Barbara Blomberg. Some friends of hers were producing an off-Broadway show I had been cast in and she was helping out by selling cookies at intermission. What I didn’t know, what none of the actors knew, was that Barbara was the head of casting for the advertising giant B.B.D. & O. And no, I’m not making this up.
After the play opened Barbara called several of the agents she worked with and told them, “There are three guys in this show I think you should see,” All the agents came and they started sending me out. I booked the first two jobs I went out on. Then I booked a couple more and a couple more after that.
Once the word got out that I was booking, other agencies called wanting to work with me. They sent me out and I booked even more work. Several of these agencies asked me to sign and while I felt they are all good I had made up my mind to sign with J. Michael Bloom. But, and probably arrogantly, I had also decided I wasn’t going to call him, I wanted him to call me.
I freelanced for the next two years and because eight different agencies were sending me out I got a lot of exposure. Often (I learned this through the grapevine) a freelancer would call to submit me and the casting director would tell them, “Oh, John’s already been submitted.”
This worked to my advantage in two ways: it prompted the agent who tried to submit to get my name in sooner and if by chance the casting director didn’t know me he was likely to hear my name two or three or more times that day. This would pique his curiosity. If I had a good audition then, when that casting director put out the calls for his next job, he would tell the first agent he called, “I want to see John Swain on this.” And when casting directors are requesting you…well, what could be sweeter than that?
So, to sign or not to sign? That is the question…you may have to answer one day. Whichever way you go, I hope it works out for you.
PS — J. Michael did call and I signed and we worked together for many years.
Coming up – May 28th, our next free industry workshop featuring Brette Goldstein. Invitations will go out at 12 noon on Tuesday May 26th. Hope to see you there.