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Going Academic - Behind the Scenes in an Actors' Agency

An actor's agent does not step into the spotlight; he or she is a figure in the shadows, buoying and navigating many dazzling careers. But what does shedding light on the figure of the agent tell us about films and film stars?

An actor's agent does not step into the spotlight; he or she is a figure in the shadows, buoying and navigating many dazzling careers. But what does shedding light on the figure of the agent tell us about films and film stars? In this series, I have described my experiences working in actors' agencies, explaining how actors are managed behind the scenes of show business. I've written about three elements of artist management: starting out, casting, and the actor-agent relationship. In this post, I reflect on how my experiences working in the entertainment industry fuel my academic interest in the production and consumption of media, and I explain why the figure of the agent should be given more attention in the study of film and television.

Before pursuing postgraduate studies, I toyed with a career in film and television production. I wanted to be creative and to work in an industry whose end product I was passionate about. But after trying to find my feet with various jobs in the media industry, I soon realised that I was much more passionate about, and better suited to being an analytic consumer of film and television. As an academic, I deconstruct a finished product in order to understand how it affects us, the public audience, and me personally as a spectator. This aim of scholarship is bolstered by my awareness of how a finished product has been constructed in the first place. But it is a continued fascination with the finished product which fuels my passion for film. I love to be seduced by an actor's convincing performance, by a story beautifully told. Having seen close-up how the cogs of filmmaking are intricately set in motion, I have all the more admiration for the people who manage to pull off making a successful film, for those who paper over all the cracks and create the finished product which might absorb me, haunt me, reduce me to tears, or have me reeling with laughter.

My experiences working in the media industry - at actors' agencies in particular - provided me with an understanding of the complexity of filmmaking from the very beginning stages of pre-production when a project might be little more than an idea in a one-line email. I see film stars from two opposite perspectives. In an even more mundane way than gossip columns can provide, I see them as normal (albeit beautiful and talented) people going about their day jobs; and at the same time as the iconic images which tower above me on the sides of buses, at the cinema, and in the intimacy of my living room television.

In a bittersweet way, some of the gloss surrounding stars has been lost to me. Considering actors from both opposite ends of the production-consumption process has been invaluable, as it provides an additional deconstructing view of the people on screen. My consumption of media images is tempered by the recognition that a talented actor has to work at being a star and must possess an exemplary work-ethic as well as inordinate amounts of passion and charm. Furthermore, he or she requires the support of a strong management team, without which an actor cannot succeed professionally.

Agents are not named in film credits, and they are very rarely named in press coverage. Occasionally, I have seen a familiar face lurking in the background of red-carpet interviews. But I see the influence of agents, sometimes in the career progression of certain actors who might take on a series of similar roles, or follow the path of another actor whom is represented by the same agent. When watching films, I often see several actors in one cast who are represented by a single agent or agency, and I wonder if this is due to the particular success or personal taste of an agent, or a chumminess between actors' agency and casting agent (who are mentioned in film credits).

It follows that I struggle with the notion of the film's director as the auteur, not least because I am sharply aware of the many hands on deck which build a film long before a director has been assigned to a project. I wouldn't go so far as to say that an agent leaves an authorial trace in a film. But I do suggest that an agent leaves a trace on many an actor, as an agent can influence elements such as an actor's choice of roles, his or her look and style, and the relationship with the press and public. I would also argue that academic analysis of stardom, especially if considering an actor's career over time, should give adequate thought to the role of the agent - nameless and invisible to the public, but creating and steering stars onto our screens.

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