The Role Of A Below-The-Line Agent: An Interview With Maureen Toth
Working as a singer/songwriter has presented Maureen Toth (pictured) empathy when acting as an agent for BTL talent.
By: Marjorie Galas
Maureen Toth is familiar with the term “multi-threat.” An accomplished Los Angeles based singer/songwriter, Toth is also a lead agent at Eastern Talent Agency, a company devoted to below-the-line talent. Their roster includes talent such as Emmy-winning cinematographer Michael Slovis (Breaking Bad, CSI), Oscar-nominated and Eddie winning editor Kevin Tent (The Descendants, Nebraska) and Emmy nominated and Art Directors Guild winner Gary Kordan (Key & Peele, Just Add Magic). During her time at ETA, Toth has become an expert negotiator for her clients, not only in seeking out work for them, but securing fair treatment and pay on the respective job. She also guides them on next best steps once projects are completed, ensuring they maintain up-to-date reels, websites and supporting material.
Variety 411 recently had the opportunity to sneak a few questions into Toth’s extremely packed schedule. What follows below is an excerpt of her answers:
Variety 411: Besides talent, what are some of the core qualities you are looking for in the individuals you represent? This question may be of particular interest to those folks working with indies, commercials or web-based content that have great reels but haven’t taken on a highly visible project.
Maureen Toth: We want to be careful as an agency to council any artist on best timing for representation. We may love a person’s artistic expertise but if they are not somewhat marketable based on credits – the road could be a long one and result in them netting most of their work through their own contacts. If they are deciding to embark on the agent-client relationship where they are paying the agency on each job – it is good to be aware of what the Agent can do at a given time in your career. That said – if someone has talent and credits we think we can work with – the next thing we look for is personality and how they are relating to people in a room. This is vital for us as a group because so often the choice of one person over the other comes down to a connection or vibe in the interview. We are better (at) marketing folks who we resonate with and who we think will generally do well when meeting producers and executives.
V411: How do you protect their interest when you approach a negotiation, particularly one with a larger network or production company? Do you iron out some line items in advance with your clients, or do you wait to see what will be presented in negotiations?
MT: Negotiating well is definitely an art. It depends truly on each case. What stays consistent is judging each potential negotiation prior – so that you know how you are going to proceed toward the best result possible. You have to have very open and clear communication with the client so that you know their goals and priorities and those can differ from job to job. It is great to converse thoroughly with the client beforehand to both prep them for what to expect and get their ideas of best outcome. Then I ask myself based on former experience and all the nuances of this case, “What is the best approach?” Sometimes it is to just state what we want up front and not waiver and sometimes it is to see what they offer and then counter as needed. Sometimes it is not about the money at all, but other factors like time frame or credit or flexibility. It is the job of a good agent to know all of that and then go in with confidence on the right fronts. Larger companies tend to be easier to close deals with because I am aware of their various policies and procedures. They and I know roughly what to expect and then it is just agreeing on numbers and other smaller points. Ironically it is often the smaller jobs that can be challenging for various reasons. It can be that money is tight so you need to get creative on ways to offset that or they are not aware of industry standards in areas – so you have to explain those things and make sure they are included. We do work off of templates for each type of job so that all the line items are covered.
V411: How do you handle the negotiations of these new creative arenas that have very few business standards guidelines?
MT: We are seeing a lot of projects that are union but so small that everything is negotiable. In those cases you do your best to let them know what is industry standard and where you can give and adjust based on budget and the needs of that particular project. Usually folks are amenable if they want the level of talent we represent. We understand there are some inherent limitations. Then you just decide once you have the whole picture if it is a fit for the client.
V411: Do you find new technology is affecting your work as an agent, specifically with DPs and production designers that have become increasingly involved with VR or other new formats?
MT: We have seen an overall shift to digital throughout all mediums and there are always pros and cons to those shifts. Regarding VR; although there is a sense of that coming it hasn’t thoroughly reached the artists we represent in a very profound way yet. I anticipate some of the requirements for jobs will change but the overall work as an agent will remain similar.
V411: You have a musical background and perform as a vocalist. I would imagine being an agent drastically cuts into the time you could devote to performing. What inspired you to make this transition; going from a performer to, in effect, supporting those who “perform”, at least perform their craft for film and television?
MT: Interestingly enough, the two really developed together. I didn’t start as one and move to the other. I always had a love of music and singing and picked up the guitar in my 20s but I didn’t really start writing and performing in earnest until my 30s. By then I was already in the world of agenting. I think I would find doing music only daunting in the sense that you then have an enormous pressure to financially perform as well as do gratifying creative work. Because I don’t have that pressure it is truly a labor of love in all areas. It is not always easy of course, but it is always a choice. There is definite freedom in that, though it does limit my time. I am constantly trying to perfect the discipline needed to do both as well as possible. My work for others takes precedent, but I try to recognize my commitment to myself on a regular basis. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. It can feel like a tightrope walk, but I do sincerely enjoy both and feel my best when I am able to do both effectively.
V411: How has your experience in working in a creative discipline directly aided your role as an agent?
MT: As an Agent who supports other artists while also being an artist, I understand the enormity of the choice to make your craft your job. I also understand how people feel as freelance artists shopping for the next gig, how they feel about self-promotion and the inherent insecurities that come up in these areas. It is also so much easier to have someone else promoting your talents and I truly relate to that. I am fearless when it comes to supporting my clients but if I have to talk about my work as an artist, I can get uncharacteristically shy. I also have a great respect for what these folks do as artists and I am sincerely proud to be an advocate – especially for folks who don’t get the lion’s share of attention in the world of Hollywood.
V411: The clients at ETA have a long-standing relationship with your org. What do you attribute that dedication and loyalty to?
MT: I think it probably has to do with our ethos of representation as a company. We truly try to give all of our client’s the best service we possibly can and part of that is to genuinely care about how their careers unfold. We try to be accessible and informative and very honest in our approach. You can’t ever guarantee the way someone’s trajectory in the business will unfold but you can promise to do your best and then course correct as needed. I think clients really want a partner and we try to provide that. Also, we are a boutique company with a familial and friendly vibe. For folks who want that kind of experience, I think it works.
V411: What would you attribute your success at being a thriving business women in the entertainment field to?
MT: This industry, like many I would think, is very relationship-based and having solid relationship building is key to a thriving business. This involves being accessible, having integrity, being consistent and thoughtful and more. I personally strive towards those standards with my clients and staff who are all great people. I think women are strong in that area generally, though both men and women can obviously be good at it. I also think that knowing and accepting the areas that are not your strengths and outsourcing smartly can really help a business stay healthy. Many of the fantastic women that I know can recognize both their strengths and their limitations without letting their ego tangle those things up. This can be a great asset because it is always about team work ultimately. If you can be a leader without being dictatorial and engendering the best from your team, I think you are way ahead of the game. Companies really do their best work collectively so encouraging team work over competition makes sense.