One Of Our Agents Is Missing

One Of Our Agents Is Missing

If the industry’s most sort after producers and directors are in as high demand as ever, why are their rates being screwed down to an all time low? This week Moray thinks he’s had a eureka moment. Is it time to break a few balls and bring back the agent?

“I am struggling to understand why we have an anomaly over directors’ rates that would make no sense to a market economist. Commissioning executives are increasingly involved in the choice of directors for higher-profile, higher budget, productions. Commissioning letters of agreement are being sent out which specify not just the budget and on-screen talent, but increasingly also the named director.

The directors and P/Ds whom commissioners know that they want for their productions belong to a relatively small group, probably less than sixty people making factual and factual entertainment programmes. These few directors are in the lucky position that all the terrestrial and larger digital channels are competing with each other to employ them for their grander factual projects, and those directors can largely pick and choose what they want to work on. They need never be out of work.

The same can be said for an even smaller group of entertainment producers who make live, or as-live, big studio productions. And yet this is the anomaly: these directors’ rates are being nailed-down to historically low levels by their potential employers, although the employers are in competition with each other. The word is that the BBC is now sticking to a rate-card for directors and producer/directors which leaves no room for negotiation, however exalted the reputation of the director.

For production managers and executives, and their employers who set the production budgets – keeping a cap on those directors’ fees can’t last. As long as there are more productions waiting for that small band of super-popular directors than they have time to work on, then there will be an inflationary pressure on their fees.

This will also be good for the much larger group of very good professional directors who can make great programmes, but who don’t have the same aura of desirable cachet as the commissioners’ favourites. It will create pressure to raise their fees too.

How will all this happen? Someone will start to represent the super-directors, and exercise the value inherent in their scarcity by negotiating their rates up. I do not know who that someone will be, but it won’t be me.

I can already hear the production executives saying that fee inflation won’t happen, because they can’t pay any more than the budget has allocated. But if the commissioner insists on a particular director, then they will have to find a way to afford it in order to fulfil the commission. There is more wiggle-room in a production budget, even now, than one imagines.

Ten years ago, the ProductionBase had not yet gone online, and some readers may remember that it was not subscription-based but took an 8% cut from any work that its members found through the PB. At the same time, the PB offered its members a free negotiation of their rates on those jobs by an experienced production manager. It is fair to say that the production companies enjoyed negotiating freelancers’ rates with another production manager about as much as they would like drinking a cup of cold vomit.

However, no freelancer ever lost a PB contract because they had it negotiated on their behalf, and they never failed to get their fee increased by between 10-15%, so they came out ahead even taking into account the PB’s 8% (tax-deductible) cut. If you doubt that the budget flexibility still exists, why not ask another friendly production manager to negotiate your next contract for you? But pay them something in return, because they will have earned it for you within a phone call or two.

Setting up that agency to represent the uber-directors is not for the faint-hearted. It will be a very labour-intensive operation to keep tabs on who is working where, and to keep promoting your clients. Whoever does this will need to take a percentage of all of their clients’ income, rather than just being a job finder on their behalf, and in return will have to guarantee that they can push up their rates, keep their clients credibility at the highest level possible, and probably co-ordinate their work schedules too.

Whoever does it will need to be steeped in television production culture already, know all the players involved, and have the personal credibility to carry it off. They will also need to get the large part of those sought-after clients on their service right from the start. When a production can’t have the favoured director because of unavailability, then the agent will be in a position to offer a comparable alternative director. From this new power base, the agent will alter in the production company’s view from one of an expensive parasite to an essential service.

It’s not just the favoured circle of big-name directors who would gain from agency representation of this sort. Even with the attempted imposition of rate-cards for directors, the top of the range directors would be out of the financial reach of rate-carded productions, and the large number of excellent other directors would find that their own rates would be pushed up in order to provide a respectable scale of fees leading up to those of the golden few.

Will some directors become wealthy? I don’t think so. Even after all this, none of the broadcast television directors will reach the kind of rates earned by their commercials and feature film counterparts.

Will there be one agency of this sort, or several? I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out! See if I’m wrong…”