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Smaller Agencies Filling Their Roles

Apr 25, 2005  •  Post A Comment

This season more than ever, networks have been keen to fill their pilots with actors who are easily recognizable to a wide swath of viewers. For agents who represent on-screen talent, this has meant new opportunities in terms of casting well-known actors who are thought of as film stars.

But with Brenda Blethyn, David Arquette, Tom Berenger, Robert Culp, Ellen Burstyn, Anne Heche and Melanie Griffith all agreeing to series regular work, there is also a downside: Television journeymen and journeywomen have fewer roles to choose from.

However, the current trend in casting has not frozen out all lower-profile performers. Rather, it has meant the talent agents who represent them have to be on their best game.

One of the keys is finding new opportunities. Besides the push for name actors, this pilot season is marked by a wider range of roles, particularly for women.

And in a world filled with more studio co-productions and concerns about the most subtle details of pilots, agents have had to be more patient. While their client may not be the first choice of a network or studio, agents with smaller, more selective lists of clients are taking advantage of the agility their size affords them to help make their actor the final choice.

Ro Diamond, a partner in the four-agent firm SDB Partners, said despite the heightened chase for name actors, her job has remained essentially the same-she has to build relationships with casting executives and ultimately bring them quality talent that can do the role.

“It really is knowing who you are selling,” she said. “We have the respect of the casting director. We don’t waste their time. So if I call and I feel passionate, I’m going to get my clients seen.”

An agent for almost two decades, Ms. Diamond used to feel the anxiety and uncertainty common among agents as pilot casting drew near. But no longer.

“I got crazed at the beginning of every pilot season up until two years ago,” Ms. Diamond said, “and then I realized I don’t have who they want in the beginning. Everybody has their wish list, and I’ve always had those wonderful, good, solid actors. So it starts out test after test after test, and then as it gets later into the season it always gets better.”

Ms. Diamond, like many others in the talent business, recognizes that while larger agencies that also represent the majority of showrunners and pilot directors have additional leverage in getting their talent the best pilots, midsize and boutique agencies continue to have a place in the frenetic swap meet that is pilot casting season.

Midsize talent firms like The Gersh Agency, Innovative Artists and Metropolitan, as well as boutique outfits like Ms. Diamond’s SDB and SMS Talent, have stayed competitive, thanks in part to being able to concentrate their energy and expertise on their targeted client lists.

Ms. Diamond has a number of established clients, including “Six Feet Under’s” James Cromwell and “Desperate Housewives'” Ricardo Antonio Chavira and Brenda Strong. This season, despite the big-name mania, she negotiated a deal for Paul Blackthorne on J.J. Abrams’ pilot “Pros and Cons” for ABC. Mr. Blackthorne, a U.K. native, had a multiple-episode arc on “24” last season but has only a handful of television credits to his name.

But Ms. Diamond’s successes aren’t just with newcomers. She also scored a series regular gig for veteran television performer Luis Avalos, best known to Generation X audiences as part of PBS’s “The Electric Company” ensemble, on NBC’s comedy pilot “Early Bird.”

In terms of the renewed interest in actresses of a certain age, Ms. Diamond credits a specific show.

“What was exciting this year, although everybody agrees this was a tough pilot season, was that the success of ‘Desperate Housewives’ really opened up the age, and there were finally adult roles. Of course, everyone tries to copy everyone else, but there was very little for the teenagers this year.”

Bob Gersh, president of The Gersh Agency, also said the “Housewives” factor is a true casting phenomenon.

“That has increased the roles,” he said, for strong female actors. Gersh represents Jeri Ryan, who is starring in CBS’s drama pilot “Commuters,” and Jennifer Finnigan, who is a lead in another CBS drama project, “American Crime.”

In the world of half-hours, Mr. Gersh pointed to his client Ana Feris, who scored the lead in the NBC comedy “Blue Skies,” as well as client Janeane Garofalo, who is starring in the Las Vegas-based comedy “All In” as a single mom who is also a professional poker player.

“There are definitely some terrific roles on the comedy side,” he said.

But depending on an agent’s client list, he or she is likely to seize opportunities based on different trends. While Mr. Gersh has tapped into the opening up of the upper end of the age range, Donna Massetti, an agent at SMS Talent, said she has seen new chances for younger actors this year.

“This seemed to be a year of young people again,” Ms. Massetti said. “Most of our clients who got pilots were in their 20s or early 30s.”

Ms. Massetti’s five-agent firm represents “Frasier” veteran David Hyde Pierce, “Law & Order: SVU’s” Dann Florek, “CSI’s” Paul Guilfoyle, “Deadwood’s” Jeffrey Jones and “Desperate Housewives'” James Denton and Doug Savant. This pilot season SMS negotiated a deal for Peter Dinklage, 35, who starred in the 2003 feature “The Station Agent,” to play the lead in ABC’s comedy pilot “Testing Bob,” about an unmotivated teacher of gifted children. Ms. Massetti’s agency also got client Lizette Carrion, 33, a series regular role in FX’s summer war drama “Over There.”

Mr. Gersh also said despite the new female focus, pilot casting “is somewhat about the same. There is still that unbelievable demand for that 30s leading guy, and even better that he has a sense of humor too. That’s what everybody wants.”

The Gersh Agency, unlike SMS Talent and SDB Partners, has literary agents and can package pilots around its stable of directors and writers. The talent division, with 14 agents in Los Angeles and nine in New York, remains Gersh’s largest department.

Mr. Gersh pointed to his agency’s New York office as a competitive advantage in terms of talent.

“They have been extremely successful in developing these really talented theater actors who have come out of New York,” he said of his East Coast agents. “Most of the big companies have sort of backed away from the New York market or have a very small presence in the talent area. And that’s an area we really believe in.”

The desire by actors with a film resume to explore TV isn’t just based on improved scripts and more compelling roles, Ms. Massetti said.

“There are less films being made,” she said. “When Donald Sutherland is doing a TV pilot, you say, ‘What happened to the movies he should be doing?'”

And with Mr. Sutherland and others contemplating television roles, reliable TV veterans on Ms. Massetti’s client list such as Michael Gross and Patrick Duffy find themselves up for fewer gigs.

“Even they may not be as established as networks want,” Ms. Massetti said.

Mr. Gersh said he is puzzled by the networks’ interest in actors with recognizable names, because the history of television is loaded with top-rated shows that created stars, rather than shows that found huge audiences because viewers were already familiar with the series leads.

“When you look at television over the last 10 years, the great majority of successful shows were not star-driven, from ‘Friends’ to ‘Will & Grace’ to ‘ER’ to ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ to ‘Lost’ to ‘Grey’s Anatomy,'” Mr. Gersh said. “The great preponderance of those shows did not have megastars that made the shows work. There are some exceptions, but certainly the majority of them fall into this category.”

Ms. Massetti agreed, noting that plenty of expensive pilots have made it to air with a big-name talent as the lead, only to be off the air in a matter of weeks.

“Does it guarantee success if so
meone who is a marquee name does a pilot?” she asked. “We can all say no. Bette Midler couldn’t get a series to work. It’s just in people’s heads; they think people will tune in if there’s a name. ‘CSI,’ it’s really about the cleverness of the procedural roles. No one is tuning in because they remember Bill Petersen from movies.”

Ms. Massetti also pointed out that network casting executives have to be as careful as development executives in terms of innovation. Although it is easy in television to fall into the habit of copying already successful formats to mine guaranteed success, the need to come up with something new-which includes new faces-is still vitally important to the industry, even if it’s not in fashion.

“I came out here from New York in 1990,” she said. “Television was wide open to almost anyone. People at casting agencies were calling saying, ‘Who’s new? Who should I know?’ That rarely happens now.”