Craig Mizrahi on life behind the scenes as a Film and TV agent

Film and TV agent Craig Mizrahi provides Mandy News with an inspiring insight into life working as an agent and he shares his expertise and advice for anyone wanting to be represented or considering becoming an agent themselves.  

20th December 2018
/ By James Collins

Craig, please introduce yourself and tell us how you became an agent for TV and film?
Of course! My name is Craig Mizrahi and I come from New York, but I grew up in Florida, not around the entertainment industry in any way. I grew up with my father who worked in sales and my mother, who was very creative. She was a dancer, a singer and an actor, doing community theatre and things of that nature. So with those two parents, I had a head for business and a creative side and I wanted to figure out a way of combining the two.

After school, I decided to move out to Los Angeles. I immediately took to it because a friend of mine had recently moved there and suggested that I become an agent’s assistant, because that way you get to know who’s who in town, everything there is to know about the studios and the producers, directors and actors. You get a real good sense of what happens.

So I did that. I moved around to different agencies, being an assistant. The weird irony being that every time I tried my hand at a different agency, there seemed to be a lot of availability ‘below the line’. Sure enough I found a job at The Gersh Agency and I was an assistant there for about two years, working specifically below the line, getting to know the clients, really enjoying it. 

I had moved around a few other places: Paramount Studios for a short stint, the music business for a short time and a few other jobs but something kept drawing me back to below the line, and I think it was the people.

I got an invitation to become an agent at a a small boutique agency called Dattner Dispoto that only really represented cinematographers. I really enjoyed it. I stayed there for a couple of years. I really missed working with production designers, film editors, costume designers and line producers.

About 2005, I got a call from Innovative Artists, coincidentally one of those first companies I’d worked at when I said I was moving around from place to place. They remembered me. They rang me up and said, ‘Hey, you haven’t worked here in six years, you were a great assistant. We hear you’ve been doing great work. How do you feel about coming back over here as an agent?’ 

So, I joined and that was 13 years ago. I am still at that company. Now I get to work with all of those different categories. In fact, since my tenure there, I have helped expand our division, not just with the four main categories, which are traditionally cinematographers, production designers, costume and editing. But now it includes producers, production coordinators, visual FX professionals, ADs, and makeup artists, with these people in mind for anyone who comes shopping for anyone behind the camera.

So, talking about bringing in new people below the line, how do you think you role has changed over the years?
You know, my job title hasn’t changed. I’m still an agent and I feel that my role in the company has grown, in the sense that I think I’ve done good enough work for it to be recognised that if you want good second unit directors or production designers, then we’ll give them the freedom and the range to go ahead and starting making those calls. We’ll introduce some of those potential clients into our fold and make a go of it. We’ll try to represent 5, 6, 10, 12 great stunt coordinators or directors. So there’s a sense of trust that I’ve built over the years to be able to have a bit more freedom.

We are a really tight unit. The company has sixty agents. We have an office in New York but essentially, our division have six agents. So, technically, we are a smaller group, relative to the rest of the company. 

What does a good agent provide for their client, in layman’s terms?
There are several things that an agent can do. The most important is to provide a service whereby they are out there, exposing a person to the industry in a way that they want to be seen, perceived and marketed, to get them on the path of the kind of the projects that they’re most excited about doing.

If I have a client who comes to me and she or he is a cinematographer who has only shot three romantic comedies - they’re studio films, they’ve done well, but deep down they want to be doing darker dramas or thrillers. I’ll take that person and get them on the right path for the work they want to be doing, by talking to the right producers, pitching them, going through their work with a fine tooth comb to try and find actual footage that lends itself to the darker material that’s out there. 

Maybe putting together an addendum reel of some sort that can showcase that kind of work. Trying to find relationships that they’ve had in the past that can help us fight to get to those projects where we can say ‘No, no, this person can do this kind of work.’

Because it’s a collaborative medium that we’re working in. Agents can say, ‘I can deliver you the world’. But that’s nonsense. It’s a collaboration between the agent and the client, who does a lot of work. It’s about relationships from the past. All these things have to come together and then when we are able to get them in the room, we can really kick butt and they can sell themselves. 

Then, following that meeting, there are calls to check them out, check their references. But what I can do is create introductions to the kind of work and the kind of people that they want to be working with.

Another thing that agents can do well is obviously the deal-making part of it, the contracts, protecting the client in terms of how they’re going to be on the job, how they’ll be protected, who they’re going to be working with, what they need to focus on with certain producers, or directors. Helping them come away with great references, so they can feel really proud of the work.

Cast and crew who are out there looking for agents think that getting an agent is the most important thing they can do to get work, but perhaps they don’t realise that it’s not just about that but about the full spectrum of the things that agents do for their clients.

So at the agency where you are now, with such a large number of clients for the six agents, how do you go about looking for new talent? How do you sign people up?
I’m glad you asked that. The number one way we enjoy getting our clients is by client referrals. So, current clients will contact us and they will say, ‘Hey, my friend called me, looking for a new agent, are you guys interested?’ That’s how we get most of our clients. In two ways, it’s really great. Firstly, it’s not the usual business model of poaching clients, and it tells that we have clients who like us, so it’s a nicer way to do it. We know that the person is looking for a new agent, so we’re able to engage with them, knowing that it’s something that they’re interested in. 

We can have a true, honest conversation about what they’re looking for, about what they’re not getting and what we may, or may not be, able to provide, going forward. So that’s our number one way of getting clients, by clients being happy, introducing us. We’ve formed tight relationships with them over the years. Or people ring us and say, ‘Hey I was working with this person on a movie, you should call them, they’re looking for an agent.’

This will be my fifteenth year at Sundance. I go to Cameraimage in Poland, which is a film festival for cinematographers. It’s really a wonderful place. Last year was my first year and I’m going to go every single year. It’s really the only festival or marketplace where you can focus solely on the art and craft of cinematography. All the biggest cinematographers in the world gather together in this tiny town in the middle of the country, and it’s quite an incredible experience. I travel to all the festivals all around the world. I go to London about every six months, we’ll have to grab some tea next time I’m there! So I find myself in all these places and I’ll see a lot of work, a lot of films. I’ll be able to shake a lot of hands.

Sometimes I’ll go on a set visit to see a production designer client of mine, and I’ll be hanging with her and I’ll meet the DP, then a week later there’s an email in my inbox from the DP saying, ‘It was so great to meet you, would you be interested in having a conversation?’

For people out there, looking for representation, perhaps newer people on the scene, is it about work ethic in order to get noticed by people like yourself?
Yes, it’s interesting. There’s a motto that agents like to use: ‘You never need to go looking for an agent, because an agent will come find you.’ And that’s somewhat true! Our job as agents is always to be out there, looking for new talent. We always have our finger on the pulse of what’s out there in terms of films and who’s making them, so we’re always reaching out to who’s new and exciting on the scene so they don’t need to be reaching out to us. However, there will always be situations where people are up and coming who feel that an agent will be helpful to them. Obviously it can’t hurt for them to reach out. 

My recommendation’s always been if you’re going to reach out to a group of agents, try to initiate that conversation about something that creates a personal dialogue: ‘I see that you represent my friend, so and so…’ It’s a small industry, people know a lot of people. It’s two or three or four degrees of separation. So, if someone were to email me and say, ‘I see that you represent Sean Porter. I met him once and he and I had a great conversation. I heard all about the great work you’ve done for him, would you be interested in having coffee sometime?’ I’m definitely going to respond to that.

They key to it is this: there needs to be something that an agent can use as ammunition to help push them forward. You have to have something! An agent isn’t a miracle-worker. They’re going to make some introductions and do what they can because they have a passion for the work. There has to be something there that the person has done that has some life or weight to it so that the agent can go out into the world and sell in a way that makes sense. These relationships are helping a person get their foot in the door. 

There have been people whose work I’ve seen and thought was absolutely spectacular and I went ahead and had a meeting with them, and the meeting just didn’t gel, we didn’t click personality-wise. I’m not going to take that person on. It’s such a complex relationship because it involves your personal life and career. We get heavily involved in our clients’ personal lives. Part of what makes them happy may be being able to stay close to their family. How can I help do that if 90% of the feature films are being shot outside of Los Angeles and the family is inside Los Angeles? What do I do?

I have a client who is one of the most sought-after cinematographers in TV right now. I believe you actually interviewed him! His name is Armando Salas, he’s blowing up right now. He’s an amazing family man, he wants to be there for his family. We talk about the personal and the professional, how can he be close to his family while doing something creative? We were talking yesterday about a possible opportunity that’s come up in Los Angeles. There are a few high-end television projects that are shooting in LA, so we’re going to pursue that now with excitement and passion. He has the ability to do both. He can sleep in his own bed, kiss his children goodnight, whilst feeling really excited to go to work. It can become a very big problem in our industry.

So part of your role is to tailor the right role for the right people so that they feel comfortable and do the best work that they can?
That’s right! Some clients love to travel. They’re happily single, they travel the world and we cater to those folks too.

Do you have any additional advice to give to people who want to become agents, as well as people who are seeking representation?
I think we’ve talked a little about the ones who are looking for representation, but I would say: be patient, find little projects that you can do, be in feature films at film school or going to networking events, shaking hands, doing everything in your power to meet the right people, sending out emails to the people that you want to emulate. Then hopefully one of us agents will come find you. That’s my recommendation.

For people who want to become an agent… it’s a job that no one ever sets out to do! There’s no curriculum at film school for agenting, I think there should be. I think would-be agents have to home in on two different skillsets: sales and management. Holding the balance between them, if you feel that you have that ability. There are two separate styles: one is being a bit more assertive – the sales part. The other is managing people and making sure their needs are taken care of, making sure you can have long in-depth conversations about what’s going on in their lives right now… those are two typically different styles. You have to combine the two.

I have a young gentleman who just started with me as an assistant, who wants to become an agent. You know what he did? This is really interesting. He moved to LA about six months ago, and he didn’t know anybody. He would go to bars where he knew executives, or producers or agents would go. He would sit at a bar and strike up conversations with people, telling them what his ambitions were. He did this with a gentleman called Andrew, then Andrew contacted me because I was looking for an assistant at the time. Andrew said, ‘You should meet this guy, Luke. I had a conversation with him at a bar and I really enjoyed talking to him.’ So I now have Luke as my assistant. He has no previous experience in the industry, but he has good instincts, good common sense and he has a passion to become an agent. 

I think it’s really a matter of networking.

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