Most below-the-line crew spends more time looking for their gigs instead of working on set; that's where an agent helps you find consistent work. When you have an agent, you can focus on your craft, not landing your next gig.
Mike Wagner chats with Tanya Musgrave and shares how he connects below the line crew to film & TV productions.
Listen to learn why you should consider having an agent, and what to look for.
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Tanya Musgrave (00:00):
Welcome to There to Here, an educational podcast where industry professionals talk nuts and bolts on how they got from there to here. On today's show, Mike Wagner talks about life as an agent, how to find one, what to look for, and whether or not to worry about changes as a result of coronavirus. As this is a new podcast, we're really wanting feedback. So go to media.colabinc.org to fill out the feedback survey and you'll be entered to win a $25 Amazon gift card. Congratulations to this week's winner, Kevin Christensen. We have more of these give out. So let us know your thoughts. From CoLab Inc, I'm Tanya Musgrave. And today I have Mike Wagner with us, a Below the Line agent for the Wagner Agency representing Below the Line crew for close to 20 years. Welcome.
Mike Wagner (00:42):
Good morning. Thank you for having me.
Tanya Musgrave (00:44):
How are you doing these days?
Mike Wagner (00:46):
It's becoming a little bit more difficult. I'm teaching my kid from home and I'm not getting a lot of support from the school. Just after seven weeks of this, it tends to wear on you.
Tanya Musgrave (00:58):
It's starting to get to you. Yeah
Mike Wagner (00:59):
Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Tanya Musgrave (01:01):
It's starting to get to a lot of us. Earlier this week, it was not good. Not good at all. Counseling is an awesome thing-
Mike Wagner (01:08):
You know [inaudible 00:01:10].
Tanya Musgrave (01:09):
Because I don't know what I would do.
Mike Wagner (01:12):
Yeah. Or just as soon as you speak to someone and you tell them what's going on with you, they're like, yeah, me too.
Tanya Musgrave (01:17):
Yeah. And then all of a sudden you don't feel as bad.
Mike Wagner (01:20):
No, I didn't. I mean, we had a brief conversation yesterday and we talked about that and I'm like, you know what? It's good to know that other people are struggling as well... Well, good to know in a sense that people are struggling, but it is difficult.
Tanya Musgrave (01:29):
We'll get into that. I do want to hear a lot, lot more about just like on the ground, how things are looking for you. But I feel like one of the classic origin stories out there kind of starts with, so I packed up my car and I went to LA and I got an agent. It's just kind of one of the things, not like... I'll be perfectly honest. I have never talked with an agent, like of any kind. I didn't know that crew even had an agent. So the majority of our listeners are nonunion Below the Line crew. And like, now that I've heard how people go and get an agent, I haven't heard the flip side of how one would get into being an agent. So what was it that drew you to that particular role?
Mike Wagner (02:18):
Well, I sort of have the classic story. I started in the mail room at 20th Century Fox. My aunt worked for Loretta Switt and they were doing Mash and she knew the gentleman that worked in the mail room, introduced me. I was able to get the job. You know, I had no idea. I came out here at 18, right after high school and just for the summer and never left. So I've got this great job. It was a lot of fun. I almost wish I would have stayed there another year because you meet so many people and you go into so many offices. And people, a lot of the secretaries are just to speak to you. You know, they just want someone to talk to, because they're just sitting there mostly all day by themselves, in these little offices.
Mike Wagner (03:06):
So you get to know a lot, and you get to meet a lot of people. I have some dear friends that I still deal with today that I met there. So that was a very nice experience. And then ended up going to work for a producer by the name of Keith Barish. And that was a lot of fun. I was very young at the time. I had this great company car. This Z28. I thought life was pretty damn good. And I was having a really great time.
Mike Wagner (03:31):
So I ended up working at this talent agency, working with actors from that. And I really didn't like it, it just didn't fit me. It wasn't going well and ended up at another agency that had a Below the Line department. And that's how I got into representing crew. I really liked it. I liked working with the producers and the production executives. It was pretty much straight, do you have an opening? Is there a position available? And if there is, we have some business to do. And if there's not, I'll check with you on the next project. So I liked the sort of nuts and bolts of it. It was a yes or no. I found it worked a little bit better for me.
Tanya Musgrave (04:18):
Yeah. Is there a project that you are particularly proud of? I love hearing stories. That's what I want to hear. I want to hear a story about an agent. I hear the other story. Like I got an agent and then I got this gig. I want to hear the story of the agent and how they got them the gig.
Mike Wagner (04:34):
I'll tell you something. It's very gratifying when you work really hard to get a client a meeting, especially when you get nos the first few times. And then it's a really great project and it all comes together. Yeah. It's very, very satisfying. You know, listen, there aren't a lot of first AD slots open. You have to really work hard to find those opportunities, because listen, the a director ultimately makes the choice. If the director's AD is available, that's who's getting the job. If that guy isn't available, then you've got a line of producers that know ADs that will probably want to put their 2 cents in. And then you'll have a DP who will say, hey, my friend's available. It's not easy to find these slots, especially on good shows.
Tanya Musgrave (05:20):
So pitch me like why should people, especially crew, why should they get an agent?
Mike Wagner (05:26):
Well, listen, there are a few reasons. One is that you're working a lot and you're always worried about your next job, right? You're always in and meeting people is not so easy. You know, when you're on a set 12 to 14 hours a day, it can be very helpful to some just meeting new people, knowing what's out there. You know, when I have a project to pitch to an AD, I need to know everything that they know about that project. I have them look into the project, see what sort of connections there might be to some of the other crew. I can do a lot of that groundwork for someone that they just don't have time to do.
Mike Wagner (06:02):
Right now, obviously there's no one to speak to about all this kind of stuff. But once things get cranked back up, there'll be plenty of calls to be made. And you know, some of my people will go back to their jobs. Some of them won't go back to their jobs. So it'll be interesting to see what happens at that point. So just having someone out there looking for you, trying to set you up with some new people to meet. You have to keep meeting new people. I know that a lot of... There are a lot of first ADs that can show stay on a show for several, several years. That's a really good payday and there's nothing wrong with that, but you don't meet anybody else. So when that show's over, you're sort of left with, oh my God, these are the only people I've worked with in the last 15 years.
Tanya Musgrave (06:46):
I either have to eat or go and meet new people. Which one am I going to do?
Mike Wagner (06:52):
Yeah. Right. You know, so it's a lot of work on their half. You know, when you find an agent that doesn't mean that your work is done. You always have to continue your contacts with people, keep your ear to the floor, see what's going on. And then a lot of times, you're able to call an agent with that information. Hey, I just heard about this, can you look into it? And it makes their life a little bit easier.
Tanya Musgrave (07:14):
So how would someone who's particularly non-union go about finding an agent?
Mike Wagner (07:19):
I'll tell you something. If you're non-union, I only represent union people. This is another world to me. There may be agencies out there that you can find. I'm not aware of any, frankly, that even though it might better serve you, but if you're non union, listen, it is what it is. It's not easy. And I've tried to help people in the past. I've had little success with non-union people making the jump and it almost always come from some sort of contact that they worked with the non-union that it also moved up.
Tanya Musgrave (07:59):
Perhaps with the understanding that they were trying to get into the union, like maybe getting their days or-
Mike Wagner (08:04):
Exactly right. I mean, that's what everybody has to do regardless of the union. And you've got to put it in your days.
Tanya Musgrave (08:09):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course. But I mean, I'm saying like if you chose to represent somebody who is non-union, would it kind of be under the understanding that they were at least trying to get into a guild or a union?
Mike Wagner (08:20):
Tanya Musgrave (08:22):
Mike Wagner (08:22):
Yeah. Listen, the non-union world is so foreign to me. It's almost like to me, I represent people in the one hour world, mostly, and mini series, sort of speak. So I don't really have people in the three camera world. So if somebody came to me and said, I'm a multi-camera first AD, I would barely know who to speak to because it's just not my world. It's a completely separate world.
Tanya Musgrave (08:50):
So extremely focused, then it's not just kind of a general, "Okay. Everybody below the line." It's a lot more specific.
Mike Wagner (08:58):
Tanya Musgrave (08:59):
All right. Yeah.
Mike Wagner (09:00):
Yeah. It can be. If I have a first AD that comes to me and says, I've only done three camera. Like I said, I could probably not be helpful to them. And I've had people come to me that are non-union. And frankly, I say I can't help you. I'm a one man operation. I'm very focused on my particular world and how you go about finding an agent, I don't know. I don't know any, that's the truth. I know the one thing though, take heart, you have to do what everybody else has to do. You have to work your ass off. You have to put your hours in. You had to make your contacts.
Tanya Musgrave (09:36):
It's not foreign to the people who are trying to get in there for sure.
Mike Wagner (09:40):
No, I mean, listen, if you're in this business, you know you have to do work your butt off. That's just the fact. You have to be aggressive.
Tanya Musgrave (09:47):
For the people who are looking for an agent, these people that they're already working hard, they're working towards going into a union or guild. What should they be vigilant of?
Mike Wagner (09:58):
I think that they would mostly want to have someone that they can reach on the phone and that will follow up for them. And that returns their calls and that shares information with them. If I hear of a show for a client, I will call them and say, this is everything I know, find out what you know, let's put something together. And you know, if an agent has, 60, 70 first ADs, it's hard to get the attention that you need, especially if you're not on the top tier of their client list. So I think you should be careful. Look for a personality that you like working with. Most of this business comes down to personality. When I have clients, two or three clients go into a meeting, or maybe they're not my clients. They're a random three people. It's mostly about personality, because they're all qualified, they're in the door.
Tanya Musgrave (10:51):
So how often is that for you, following up and keeping up with your clients?
Mike Wagner (10:55):
As often as I need to be. Listen, things happen in spurts here. They can happen right away or I can find out about a project and nothing's going to happen on that project. So I don't need to call... Are you talking about how often I should communicate with my clients?
Tanya Musgrave (11:08):
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So like is a week too long or is a month too long?
Mike Wagner (11:12):
I don't necessarily go a week without talking to a client who's not working.
Tanya Musgrave (11:17):
Mike Wagner (11:18):
Generally speaking, it's a couple times a week. And of course, it depends on time of the season and what's going on as well. There's a busy time and there's not a busy time. So as much information. I like to have a good relationship with my clients and we talk about a lot of things other than work. And you know, I don't have a lot of them. So we've become friends.
Tanya Musgrave (11:39):
Is that a typical question that you're able to... or like the potential clients are able to ask you? Like how many clients do you work with?
Mike Wagner (11:46):
Yeah. Fair question I think. I'm a one man operation. So am I representing 12 people? Or do I have 60 people? And that will reflect, I think, upon my representation, how much time does this person have for me?
Tanya Musgrave (12:01):
Of course. I had sent an article to you. It was the death and the rebirth of Hollywood. And we can put that in the show notes. And it was kind of talking about the new landscape of what Hollywood is going to look like. And maybe not necessarily because of this, the path was already started and this was the catalyst to make it happen and make it happen faster. But you know, this is going to change a lot for agencies and agents in general, especially with Hollywood maybe not even being the central part. Like Atlanta would come up or the places like Louisiana and New Mexico and that kind of thing. So for smaller cities, smaller cities and settings, I know people in Tennessee who are curious about agents as well. What would be your first point of advice for them, like Google or-
Mike Wagner (12:54):
Well, I would say this, I am not aware of any Below the Line agent in Atlanta, New Orleans, New Mexico, or any other place except New York. Atlanta, there may be just because of the production, but I'm sure some of the bigger agencies have affiliates or something like that. So, I mean, they're there. I mean, I don't know of an... And Nashville, there may be some agencies, but I'm not sure that there are.
Mike Wagner (13:24):
Most of my people work in those smaller cities, they go there.
Tanya Musgrave (13:27):
They go there, but they're based in LA?
Mike Wagner (13:30):
Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. They'll go there. I have a lot of people that work in Atlanta now. Right now, Atlanta, you know, it's a sort of a different animal. It has probably three or four crews deep, so they don't bring people. And when they do, they bring them from LA or New York or wherever they have to bring them from. I don't know that necessarily... There may be a local agency in Atlanta. There probably should be. I mean, there may be, I don't know, but my clients work all over and there's not like little agencies that I'm aware of that would be that beneficial. If you live in Atlanta and there's a local agency, jump on board, for sure. Anything that can help.
Tanya Musgrave (14:10):
What is something from your position can you see that has changed as a result? You know, like how has your industry changed?
Mike Wagner (14:19):
I think they'll just add safety measures and the show must go on. They'll have a couple more people on set, you know, watching over things, I guess, making sure that people are doing what they're supposed to be doing, but the crews may be a little bit smaller. You'll probably see less background people for a while, but eventually this is just going to pass. I don't necessarily see major changes.
Tanya Musgrave (14:44):
Yeah. I feel like a lot of the changes would be coming around mainly because of the change in industry of like streaming services more than COVID. I don't know. I had conversations with small business owners and with ADs and people who were part of the union, that kind of thing. And you know, there are changes that they can see happening, but there was also an opinion of this will have a relatively short tail because this hasn't happened for very long. It's been a few months and it's not necessarily-
Mike Wagner (15:13):
Yeah, there may be some changes from last pilot season, some of those pilots will be... They just won't happen at all. And some will just be ordered straight to series. And when that happens, people will go back to work. It'll take some time. Unfortunately, it's going to be sort of a trickle. Other states will open up I'm sure before California, which is not good, but that's just the way it's going to be. And once it does, in a year's time, things will be rolling right along just fine.
Tanya Musgrave (15:44):
Like the landscape of the industry is one thing. How is it for your business personally?
Mike Wagner (15:48):
Well, everyone's out of work. It's horrifying. I have a client who just had twins.
Tanya Musgrave (15:55):
Oh, my word.
Mike Wagner (15:57):
Yeah. So they everything has stopped. It affects us all I think in a lot of ways the same way. Thank God, my wife is working. She works for the veterans administration. So I'm teaching my child and I have the same story that most of my crew has. Most of my people have.
Tanya Musgrave (16:16):
That comes with its own challenges.
Mike Wagner (16:17):
Yeah. I mean, we're all dealing with sort of the same thing and it's depressing. And so it's affecting them. But you know, I chat with them now and again, other than a text and getting updates on dog training and puppy training, as I should say. And I asking how people's parents are doing mostly and stuff like that. You know, there's not a lot to discuss.
Tanya Musgrave (16:39):
Is there any way that anybody within the agency system is able to sustain themselves at this point?
Mike Wagner (16:47):
Well, at my level, if you're at the bigger agencies, you're still getting some pay. You will be just fine. At an AD level, they're struggling, absolutely struggling. This is going to... I think it's going to end up being like a four or five month break when it's all said and done, you know? Yeah. It's been very difficult.
Tanya Musgrave (17:13):
Dare I ask how PPP worked out for you?
Mike Wagner (17:17):
You know what? Honestly, I didn't apply.
Tanya Musgrave (17:19):
Mike Wagner (17:20):
No, I'll be all right.
Tanya Musgrave (17:22):
Mike Wagner (17:23):
You know, we'll be okay. And this won't go on for a lot longer. I prepare myself for emergencies.
Tanya Musgrave (17:32):
Well, I mean, literally in this kind of job, you have to. I mean, it's feast and famine constantly.
Mike Wagner (17:39):
So I should mention to you that I lost a client to COVID.
Tanya Musgrave (17:42):
Are you serious?
Mike Wagner (17:45):
First AD by the name of Larry Lerner. And as far as I know, he's the only first AD that has passed from this, from this whole community.
Tanya Musgrave (17:55):
Oh, actually passed?
Mike Wagner (17:57):
Tanya Musgrave (17:58):
Oh, I thought you meant like losing him as a client.
Mike Wagner (18:01):
Oh no. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. No, he died.
Tonya Musgrave (18:04):
Oh, my word.
Mike Wagner (18:05):
Yeah. He passed away. And I think he's the only one.
Tanya Musgrave (18:11):
Mike Wagner (18:12):
Because it's a very small community. And when he died, I got calls from people I haven't spoken to in a long time, the day, within hours.
Tanya Musgrave (18:22):
Oh, my word.
Mike Wagner (18:22):
So if anyone else had, I would know about it. So it was very sad. He was a real gentleman. A very nice man.
Tanya Musgrave (18:29):
Mike Wagner (18:29):
Yeah. It's affected me. It's affected a lot of people in a lot of ways.
Tanya Musgrave (18:35):
In particularly, lock down where you can't return to normal.
Mike Wagner (18:42):
No, it's not normal.
Tanya Musgrave (18:43):
Mike Wagner (18:45):
Nothing about it is normal. And people are like getting tired of it.
Tanya Musgrave (18:51):
And I'm so sorry to hear about him, moving. Is this something that is going to affect the jobs that you recommend? You know, like vetting whether or not a workplace is safe for your clients?
Mike Wagner (19:07):
Oh, I think if there's any question about safety, then they won't go there. The production itself, the studios would be held liable. You know, this is going to create a little bit of a monster because you let people go back to work. I mean, are you going to get sued if they get the virus, you know? There'll be some obstacles to overcome. So I don't know necessarily if it's a studio production, they'll go to any place that seems that it could be an issue at all.
Tanya Musgrave (19:38):
I am not entirely certain, like how much say an agent gets in this kind of thing on like recommending that they go and do something. Is it just you are making the connection and that's that and they can they make that decision?
Mike Wagner (19:54):
No, listen. I recommend people do things all the time and I understand every reason they don't want to. I have no issue with someone turning something down. They have their own personal reasons, but if I see it's a good project, I'll push them to do it. Absolutely. But ultimately, it's up to them.
Tanya Musgrave (20:12):
We're a small media company as well. And so when we're trying to figure out whether or not we're going to ramp up for production, because we're tiny, we're millions of dollars are not at stake by any means. But even then, our lawyer was just like, you have to be extremely careful because there could be an argument for duress where people would feel manipulated into going in. But I mean, you think about it. So many people being out of work for four or five months that you would think that they would be a little desperate.
Mike Wagner (20:40):
Well, you know something, the first ADs, these are all about safety.
Tanya Musgrave (20:43):
Mike Wagner (20:43):
They're responsible for everything. And if they feel a situation safe, most of them, most of them speak up right away. So if they're in a situation, that's thinking, "man, this is just not right," It's just not right. They can shut it down. And they will. So most of my clients would not go into a situation they thought was unsafe. And I don't see a lot of any of the studios really putting people in that position, not now anyway. Maybe let some time pass and things will loosen up a little bit I'm sure.
Tanya Musgrave (21:13):
I'm in a completely different situation where I'm like... because I was a freelance photographer for years. And then this was like the first full time job that I actually got. And you know, at first it felt like a ball and chain, because anybody in this business, you just need a little bit of that freedom. But I think of it and I'm just like, holy crap. That would have been me three years ago. Like I would be sunk. I would be in a car, packing up all of my stuff and going home and like staying in my parents' backyard because I wouldn't be able to do anything. Do you have any words of advice or thoughts that you'd have for people... Where should they go? How should they position themselves?
Mike Wagner (21:58):
Well, do you mean professionally or personally or words of advice?
Tanya Musgrave (22:02):
Mike Wagner (22:03):
Well, listen to this, this too shall pass. I mean, this won't go on for a lot longer. Our lives will be back to normal. Hopefully, none of my people had to learn the hard way that you need to prepare for these kinds of things financially, all the time shit happens. And you know, you don't want to get caught. You don't want to get caught because it can be devastating. And as far as I know so far, my people are okay.
Tanya Musgrave (22:30):
Mike Wagner (22:31):
You know, but just be prepared. That's all I can tell you, just be prepared because these kind of things happen. And you know what, first ADs know that. Their life is a bit of uncertainty because they don't have their next job lined up. Nothing is guaranteed. You know, they don't have the office to go to after their current gig.
Tanya Musgrave (22:50):
Mike Wagner (22:51):
Right. So they're always sort of in the mindset of be prepared, shit happens. I may not work. I may work. It's a lot of pressure, but that's what life is.
Tanya Musgrave (23:02):
I feel like it's an interesting position that you're in because there are a lot of people that they're usually the ones that want to be the one, like they want to be the star of the show, by being the connector. I think that's pretty cool.
Mike Wagner (23:18):
It is cool. And especially when it works out. Because a lot of times it doesn't. You go into this project with these great expectations and this person that you've been dying to work with. It doesn't always work out.
Tanya Musgrave (23:32):
So with the connections that you make, obviously you have to be pretty vigilant of the connections around you, but like who do you normally connect with? Is it producers? Is it directors or-
Mike Wagner (23:47):
The line producers.
Tanya Musgrave (23:48):
Mike Wagner (23:49):
Yeah. The people that are hiring the crew and production executives. But a lot of information that I get is directly from the producers. I hear about them jumping on a show. I simply get in touch with them, asking them what their crew needs might be. And then, we're off and running, but that's mostly who I deal with.
Tanya Musgrave (24:09):
Oh man. That's super cool.
Mike Wagner (24:10):
No, it is cool. And a lot of them are really, really great people. You know, I've had long relations. Oh, my God. I've had relationships with people who I've never met for so long since they've created the internet. Everything is email. I swear to God. And it's so easy and it's so convenient. I have very short questions to ask people, are you looking for a first AD?
Tanya Musgrave (24:31):
Yeah. That's it.
Mike Wagner (24:34):
And what they like about it too, is that I don't waste anybody's time. They're not wasting their time. It's not that we don't speak. It just makes our lives a lot easier. Because they're getting a ton of emails. I can't imagine the amount of people contacting a line producer on a series about an open position, whether it be a first AD, a production manager, a DP, right? They must be inundated with it. And that's part of something that they have to deal with, because they're in that position.
Tanya Musgrave (25:03):
I feel like that's probably the most opposite view that I had in my mind. I think of the agents as the ones who are like talking the ear off of producers and of their clients and be like, oh, yeah, you [inaudible 00:25:17].
Mike Wagner (25:18):
It's definitely a style thing. Really. I mean, a lot of people like doing that. I'm telling you, when you sign onto a project to be the line producer, you're off and running and there's a lot to do and you're getting a lot of calls. So everyone's life has become easier I think with quick communication.
Tanya Musgrave (25:36):
Okay. So how could people find you or an agent? Just Google agency.
Mike Wagner (25:43):
Yeah. Simple, Google it.
Tanya Musgrave (25:45):
Mike Wagner (25:47):
Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, just like everybody, that's how we find everybody now, isn't it?
Tanya Musgrave (25:52):
Yeah, yeah. I didn't know if there was a certain like super secret club that like, "oh, if you are a part of this, then hey, I know a really, really good agency," kind of thing.
Mike Wagner (26:02):
No, there are not a lot of agencies that represent Below the Line. A lot of the bigger ones do. There are a few.
Tanya Musgrave (26:11):
So what is it when a company... Would a company approach you and say like, "hey, we're putting together production for like this commercial? Could we contact you?"
Mike Wagner (26:24):
Tanya Musgrave (26:24):
"Is there anybody that you know?"
Mike Wagner (26:27):
Yeah, no. Do you mean, do I get calls directly from like producers looking for clients? Absolutely.
Tanya Musgrave (26:33):
Mike Wagner (26:35):
Oh, yeah. For sure. You know, most of my job is making phone calls and sending emails and gathering information. All my clients want to know is what's going on and who's involved with it. When you call your agent and they say, well, there's nothing going on, it's just concerning a little bit.
Tanya Musgrave (26:55):
Mike Wagner (26:57):
You have to have some information. The more information that you have, the better off your clients are going to be and your relationship with them will be.
Tanya Musgrave (27:08):
Well, I really appreciate your time that you've given your insight. This is really interesting talking to an agent for the first time.
Mike Wagner (27:16):
Well, I hope I was helpful. It's been a pleasure speaking with you as well.
Tanya Musgrave (27:20):
No, I appreciate it. So thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate your time. If you enjoy this interview, follow us right here and check out more episodes at colabinc.org. If you have comments or know someone who would be great guest on our show, send in your suggestions to Tanya@colabinc.org. Again, we're really wanting feedback. So go to media.colabinc.org, fill out this feedback survey and you'll be entered to win a $25 Amazon gift card. Again, we will see you next time. Thank you so much.