Biz’s growth in talent prompts agents of change

Government responds by introducing new regs

SHANGHAI — Locating film talent in China used to be a question of personally visiting dozens of studios and acting schools. It required the right connections and at least a little luck: many actors were tied into complicated government contracts that kept them committed to performing for state-run drama troupes. All that has begun to change in the last couple of years, with the emergence of dozens of local talent agencies. But as the profession opens up, the government is introducing new regs to ensure that agents are properly qualified and trained.

“Five years ago, when I started doing this,” laughs Guan Jun, talent manager for EastLine Entertainment, “it was really just a question of knowing the right people, and putting them in touch. Now there is a lot more competition, and we all have to do training to keep our licenses.”

China’s Ministry of Culture estimates that close to one million people are employed in what they call “the culture market,” including the theater, film and art industries, generating roughly 13 billion yuan ($1.5 billion annually. Talent agencies representing them are a relatively new phenomenon however, and there are few industry standards as yet.

EastLine has seen a lot a talent come through its books; the agency reps around 2,000 actors and film crew members. But contracts are not exclusive in the majority of cases — the actors are free to find work for themselves, and to use the services of other agencies. Zhang Ziyi (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), Gao Yuan (“The Opium War”) and Jiang Hongbo (“Devils on the Doorstep”) have all been represented, then moved on when they hit the big time.

“We take a 20% cut of any work we can get for them,” says Guan, “but they are free to look elsewhere if they please. It’s not like in the West, except for a tiny minority of top agents who have small numbers of clients that they represent exclusively. And that makes it a less stable business for us.”

Dede Nickerson, head of co-productions and acquisitions for Miramax in China, is aware of the limitations of the agency system. “I rarely use local agents,” she says. “Right now, I am looking for around 1,000 extras for a film in Shanghai, but I will use local ADs and producers that I know have the right contacts to find them. This is something that people in the industry are aware of as a gap in the market.”

For the moment, the Ministry is trying to plug that gap with compulsory training and new regs that require agents to hold business licenses before they represent anyone. Guan Jun was part of the first batch of trainees last year.

“Much of what we learned was just good business practice, including finances, the legal aspects of agency work and marketing,” he says.

China’s institutes of higher education have also started to take note of the lack of professionally trained agents and arts managers in general. Last year, the first Cultural Agent course opened at the China Opera Institute. Other courses are set for this year.

“Without training and standards,” notes Guan, “it is hard to imagine how our industry can grow quickly. I am hoping that things will stabilize over the next couple of years.”

Studios on the look-out for talent would probably agree.