I signed with a new commercial agency recently. I have a little bit of experience in the commercial game, but am no expert. Nonetheless, here are some things you should know if you want to get started.
(Note: My experience is mostly in LA. Other markets may have some different setups. New York agents, for example, allow actors to “freelance” with multiple agents. LA agents do not.)
For Commercials, You Need An Agent.
Don’t listen to the people that say you can just get an account on Actors Access and start submitting yourself. While this is technically true, you will be submitting on extremely low paying gigs. Unless you’re about to get thrown on the street, they’re not worth your time.
The REAL commercial gigs (i.e. union network national commericals) are all done through agents. Even the high paying non-union buyouts are submitted by agents.
“Wait, I don’t understand all these terms. Union? Network? National?”
The union is SAG-AFTRA, which covers all film and television actors. Network refers to network TV, which (usually) pays more than cable commercials. And national means, of course, that the commercial airs nationwide.
A buy-out is where you get paid a flat fee, instead of getting residual payments that add up the more the commercial pays.
But don’t worry about all that yet. Just know that trying to carve out a living doing commercials is next to impossible without an agent.
How Much Do Commercials Pay?
A lot. A non-union buyout can be several thousand dollars. And a network national can range from $30,000 to $100,000, depending on how long it airs.
And when you’re talking about top spokespeople, like Flo from Progressive or the Verizon guy? Millions.
The #1 Way To Get An Agent
A referral from a friend. Without a doubt. If you have a friend who is a WORKING commercial actor (i.e. he/she actually books work), then that person is invaluable in helping you get signed.
It’s as simple as them asking the agent if they’d like to meet with you. If the agency is interested, you’ll sit down and have a quick chat. If they’re interested, they’ll offer to sign you on the spot or call you in a day or two.
What If I Don’t Have A Referral?
This is less likely than you think. But if that is the case, you’ll have to self-submit. Most agencies will require a hardcopy resume and headshot, along with a cover letter. You will have to send them in the mail. DO NOT just drop by their office with an envelope.
A few will also allow you to email your submissions.
Backstage.com has some good posts about top commercial agencies—begin searching there. The agency websites will have the relevant info for submitting.
There’s no audition or anything like that. You’ll just meet with an agent (or two) and talk a bit about your background. I seriously thought my last meeting went TERRIBLY and that I blew it.
But then they offered to sign me the next day. So it just goes to show that it’s pointless to fret about the outcomes of things like this. You’ll either get a yes or a no. Either way, you move on with your life.
What Agents Care About
The #1 thing is “Do They Think You Can Make Them Money?”. Whether it’s your look, your training, your personality—they must believe that you can book work. In addition to that, you should have some performance background, some training, and good photos.
What Kind Of Training Should You Have?
Without a doubt, improv training is probably the most important. You don’t have to be a great actor to do commercials, but you will definitely have a leg up if you can improvise. Go to one of the top schools—-UCB, Second City, Groundlings, or iO West.
As far as commercial acting, Killian’s Workshop is easily the top commercial acting class in the city. I learned a ton in his class—very specific techniques that will dramatically improve your auditioning. Highly recommended.
And of course, regular scene study classes are also helpful.
What Else Should I Know?
Get good headshots. Have a flexible schedule so you can audition. Keep sharp with classes and workshops.