Awards Daily: Can you give a general overview of what you do?
Frank Balkin: Absolutely. I am a talent agent representing producers and production artisans in film and television. I specialize in series television. Our agency represents line producers, directors, directors of photography, costume designers, production designers, editors, second unit directors, and some visual effects producers. And I’ve been doing it for twenty-seven years.
AD: How do you go about approaching your clients?
FB: New clients come to us in a variety of ways. Sometimes we proactively call or email or text somebody if we saw something they worked on and we really liked their work. Or if it’s a producer we’ve negotiated with and we like talking to them over the phone, we will find out if they are happy with the representation. I typically check references. I do not ask a potential client for a list of references because he or she will give you a list of people pre-screened that they know will say good things. What I like to do is look at a resume and see someone who’s employed this person and was kind of stuck with them. I will give an example. A cinematographer who has done eight pilots with the same director, you do not call that director because that director obviously loves that cinematographer. But if I call the last line producer that they worked with that may have not had much choice and they say, oh, she’s fantastic, that means something.
We meet with clients in person wherever possible, obviously the last couple of years on Zoom. We like to know what their expectations are. Are they realistic in expecting next few jobs based on their resume and level of experience? I am sometimes curious to hear how they talk about their former agents. If they have been represented before, if it’s like the experience of going on a first date and they spend the whole evening ragging on their ex, I am much more impressed when I meet someone who says I’ve been with this agent five years, I think she works really hard but I’m just not getting that many interviews. That’s better than the person that spends thirty minutes talking about how their current agent sucks.
AD: Your agency has a lot of experience helping people after they win an award. How they navigate their new found prominence and avoiding the so-called awards curse. Do you know why that sort of curse comes about, or why people think it happens?
FB: I think it is more of an optics thing than reality. I think winning an award, a major award; we are talking about a national Emmy not a regional Emmy. We are talking placing at Sundance as opposed to a lesser-known festival. I don’t think awards nominations or wins ever hurt a person. I think sometimes there is an expectation that I just won the Emmy for best one hour drama, I should now have my pick of one hour dramas. It’s just a matter of how competitive the business is. It certainly enhances one’s resume to be able to say my peers selected my one hour drama the best in all of television for the last twelve months. It’s a huge resume thing but it’s not a panacea. Because we are in a very competitive business and it is possible when DP X, who just won the Emmy, sends his or her resume or their agent pitches them. Whatever the project is, someone on that project absolutely loves Bosch thinks Bosch is the best television show of the last decade, and wants that DP or absolutely has to have someone who worked on Game of Thrones three years ago. So it is always a resume enhancer. I don’t think it’s generally a curse as much as it didn’t have the expected effect so it looks like a curse.
AD: With helping someone navigate after winning an Emmy they may be already locked in for another season or want to stay with that show. Does your advice change on how you tell that person to move forward?
FB: It’s an excellent question, and I think the best answer I can give you is that we try very hard to regularly stay in contact with clients. I think one of the things that we try to do to distinguish ourselves is there are agents out there where it is all about the glory of the sign. They spend a lot of time trying to lock in a new client, And then they sign that person, book him or her on a TV series, and don’t call them again until it’s over. We tend to call, text, email, visit our clients throughout the project and the year. I think the best answer to your question is what do they want to do next? If the individual just won an Emmy for a show that he or she feels has A+ writing, acting and is creatively fulfilling for them, then there may not be a reason to walk away. If they kind of feel they have said what they can say about that show and it’s on their website, it’s on their IMDb, they will always have that as a credit, maybe they want to explore something different. So many factors come into play, sometimes it’s about if a project shoots in a certain place. Sometimes we have clients who, for personal reasons, want to stay in LA or New York or wherever they are based. Other times we have clients who are open to going anywhere in the world, it’s all about the script for them.
There’s a little bit of give and take in all of this, and it can change from year to year and sometimes it becomes very specific. We have had situations where a DP or production designer will go on location, however he or she is going to look very carefully at certain locations where they have a small number of crew for their department. Because, as one production designer client once said he was offered a job in New Orleans at a time where all the good New Orleans art departments were working, so he would probably have a less than A+ crew. He said, if I do this show and it looks like crap, no one is going to say I was forced to hire a local crew. They are going to say I am not a good production designer. So that’s a long-winded way of saying each situation is very, very specific. I think there are times when a client wins an Emmy and it makes total sense to stay on that project because they are still fulfilled, they are excited, and it is the best option on the table. There are other times where it is, like, wait a minute, this is my moment of heat, I want to explore something different.
AD: You have been doing this for over twenty years. How did you get into the field?
FB: That’s a longer story than you want, because it would probably consume the entire allotted time for this interview. To make it as concise as I can, I went to film school like many people in the business, and when I was there I never thought I was going to be an agent. I thought I would be someone who had an agent. I just thought of agents as businessmen and businesswomen and I thought of myself as an artist. I fell into my first agent job five years after film school on a total fluke. I’ve worked a bunch of entry level jobs, PA assistant and so forth. And I heard about an opening in a small agency for being an agent and I thought well, it gets me out of the assistants ranks into the executive ranks. I’ll do this for a couple of years but there’s no way I am going to enjoy this permanently. Sure enough when I got in within a couple of months I realized I was pretty good at it and actually enjoyed it. One thing I can tell you now that I didn’t know twenty-seven years ago, I’m the guy who likes economic stability.
Even in my twenties I would not have been good at being a freelance artist making a lot of money one year and not as much the next. Maybe no money the third year, then a lot of money the fourth year. Many of our clients are just built differently; they would get bored being in the same office for eight and a half years like I have. I like the stability of it and I find it incredibly fulfilling because I feel like I get to be involved in the industry that I’m so passionate about but with a job that’s fifty-two weeks a year. Personally I enjoy connecting people with other people. I love helping people build their business or their brand even outside of what I get paid to do. I have a dentist I love. I have sent people to her before. I work with a massage therapist. I’ve helped her build her business. This gives me joy. The fact that I get paid for it is a bonus.
AD: What advice would you give people who are interested in pursuing agent work?
FB: I think if someone wants to be an agent the simple answer is get a job at a talent agency. Whether it’s an assistant job, a mailroom job if those still exist, or reception. See how an agency works, see if it really is what interests you. What many people have found is that starting a job at a talent agency is fantastic no matter what you want to do in the entertainment business. Because it gives you a layout of the entertainment business. If you are intending to become a producer, if you are intending to become a studio executive, if you work at a production company, you get to know their projects intimately. If you work at a talent agency you can get a sense of how the whole town is laid out. So the answer is, if you want to be an agent, get a job at an agency, see if you like it.
I’m a big fan of giving 100% to any job even if you don’t want to be a receptionist. If that’s the job you’re getting paid to do, be the best receptionist of all time. In that job as a receptionist or whatever job I would get to know all the agents. I would grab every agent that I could and take them for coffee or lunch or even just sit in their office for ten minutes and pick their brain. Because you are going to get different answers from different people. Some people approach the job differently than other people, some people might even view the job differently. But that is the way to do it, to work in an agency and learn as much as possible.
AD: I’m certain you cannot give exact details, but in terms of someone who won an Emmy, can you give a success story on how you help someone navigate after their win?
FB: I don’t want to get super specific because I always worry if I talk about one client it’s kinda like a parent favoring one child and who knows how many clients might read this. What I will say winning an award does give you some heat and whenever a client has heat, whether it’s because their show is The Handmaid’s Tale and is just a phenomenon in and of itself, or they won an Emmy, or they’ve been nominated for an ASC award. When they have the luxury to choose projects we encourage them to be a little bit picky. The other thing that I would say goes hand-in-hand with that. I would advise this for anyone pursuing a job in the entertainment business or even any business, try to set aside a little money for a rainy day. That enables you to be a little choosier. Sometimes we have a situation where a client says, ‘I’d love to kick back and see what the best project is but I’ve got a mortgage, so if this project starts in three weeks I’m going to say yes to this.’ You are obviously in a stronger position when you can afford to say no, and sometimes the best move is you have three job offers and you’re not excited about any of them, so you can pass on all of them and trust the process, trust your career, and trust your reputation that’s something even better is right around the corner.
AD: Are there any final thoughts you want to leave our readers with?
FB: I think if you are passionate about filmmaking the best thing to realize is that you always bring your A-game to every job. Whenever I am talking at a film school I always tell the students if it’s a freebie for someone you don’t phone it in. You treat it like they’re paying you a million dollars. Because you never know when that producer two years from now has paying work for you, or is at a cocktail party and someone asks about you. The other thing is to embrace networking or schmoozing or whatever you want to call it as part of this job. Whether you are a DP, line producer, talent agent, or publicist, your job is constantly shaking hands, meeting new people, keeping your contacts fresh. Just embrace it. Like I said, I’ve been doing this for twenty-seven years. I went to a TV Academy thing a couple of weeks ago just to shake some hands and re-shake some old ones. Let it be fun, enjoy it, it’s a business full of really really smart men and women.
I have to say when COVID happened two and a half years ago, it seemed for all of us like it took forever for production to come back. Four or five months is not forever when you think about the variables involved in making a movie or TV show or commercial. I think we should all be freaking proud. I think the fact that we bounced out of it as quickly as we did says to you and says to me, even if everyone in this business is not a wonderful, kind human being most of them are smart and resourceful. That is what I would say about the networking; you’re going to go to a lot of events and meet a lot of smart people. People you can learn from. Just enjoy the process. I think if you enjoy the journey that would be the main thing I would recommend.
AD: I definitely saw that with the industry with COVID and the way the Emmys conducted their show. They were keeping people safe but still making certain to acknowledge the great shows out there.
FB: It has been a challenging time. I think for the line producers and unit managers COVID added forty percent more to their workload without giving them any more hours a day to do their jobs. So many people in our business from top to bottom have been heroes for two and a half years getting things back on their feet and keeping things going. Plus, by the way, I think we’re in a great era of television. I mean we were already in one prior to COVID, but the last fifteen to twenty years there’s been so much good television. The fact that we’ve kept that bar high, and have all sorts of TV shows showing people from different walks of life, different challenges, and educating all of us; I think we should be really proud.