Getting "Signed" -- What does that really mean?
Dan Grant, Publisher
I know several agencies don't like me writing this. In fact, this is a re-write following several agency objections (some more well-founded than others) to the article that originally occupied this page.
The reason some agencies don't like me writing this is because most require their models to sign contracts, and though sometimes necessary, I'm about to tell you why I'm not a fan.
Modelling contracts are generally sheets of legally binding paper that offer the agency ridiculous amounts of control, but guarantee the model nothing.
I understand why new models find it exciting to be offered a contract. Nearly everyone that walks into an open call gets rejected, so when an agency does say yes it can seem like a pretty big deal. Unfortunately there are too many agents that use your heightened emotional state to get you to sign right away, before you see what the competition can offer. In fact some will stoop pretty low to get you locked in. "We have a casting for you right now," they'll tell you. Yeah sure, just sign your next three years away and you have a chance to be seen by a client that is likely seeing every other agencies' models as well.
Generally what models are asked to sign is a list of terms the agency has generically drafted (before ever having met the model) to ensure both parties agree to conditions the model is expected to uphold. Often it starts with "I [MODEL], hereby engage you, [AGENCY], as my exclusive agent to blah, blah, blah..." as though the model was the one who came up with the terms!
Models are often required to agree to:
All of these points are reasonable demands on the part of the agency. Truly. However, I would feel a lot better about contracts if they also included provisions that held the agencies more accountable.
There's nothing to say they will send you to a minimum number of castings each month, that they will promote you to a certain number (or calibre) or agencies overseas or even try to place you with an agency in Canada's other markets (and any Toronto agency that says they can effectively promote you in Montréal is delusional, unless you're already a top model).
- pay for comp cards, web fees, courier costs and other expenses related to the model's promotion. Almost all of these charges will be accounted without consulting the model
- not alter their image without consulting the agency first. Want to change your hair, get a tattoo, get a piercing, eat a second piece of cake... that could be an issue
- conduct themselves in a manner that doesn't negatively impact the agency. If you make an ass of yourself at a casting, industry events, twitter or anywhere else clients might possibly be, it could be reason for dismissal
- not seek out other representation while under contract. Even if you're unhappy, you're not allowed to check out other options while under contract
- allow the agency to control management in all fields. Often this means the agency wants to control on-screen, stage and even singing options, even when it's clearly outside their field of expertise
- allow the agency to pick which other agencies will promote the model in other markets. You're relying on their expertise to make the best placement for you
I get that it would be difficult to hold the agency to any kind of performance measures, because so much of their promotion is based on your availability. But in the absence of agency accountability it's only reasonable that a model should be allowed to leave a contract if they don't feel comfortable with the work their agency is (or isn't) doing.
I've known agencies to force models – under threat of legal action – to wait out the duration of their contract (which can be as long as five years) before allowing them to seek new representation. In such a time-limited career, where models are expected to live a life so completely outside a normal teenage existence, it pisses me off so much that there are adults who will kill a young person's opportunity out of sheer pettiness. I cannot stress this enough: If you're going to sign with an agency that insists on a contract, you absolutely need to know your escape route before you sign.
But suppose the agency you like best is the one with the restrictive contract. What then? Negotiate. You're well within your rights to ask to have objectionable terms changed, but only if you do so before you sign. Ask to have a line added to the contract that allows you to leave with 60 days notice. If they refuse, probe them for a good reason, since nearly every other agency doesn't insist on more than two months.
The fact is some agencies don't even require contracts. If the bookers value your loyalty it's in their best interests to take your career seriously. If you're not happy, you're welcome to leave so long as you aren't owing money.
When are contracts necessary?
Other than those cases, I really can't think of a good reason for a Canadian agency to try to restrict a model's marketability. Remember, contracts are legal documents that need to be taken seriously. No one should ever force you to sign anything so important on the spot. If they do, it's likely because they know better opportunities await you elsewhere, so it's worth your time to explore those options.
- If you are the winner of a model search, often the prize is a modelling contract worth thousands of dollars. The agency doesn't just hand you a stack of cash, though. They make the money back in bookings that you complete under their management. In this case a contract is necessary to ensure the agency has sufficient opportunity to complete those bookings.
- If the agency has spent real dollars – not just their time and effort – on your development (flights, accommodations, personal trainers, orthodontics, etc), then they also should have the right to insist you not put their invested capital to work for another agency. Only after you have repaid any outstanding debts should you be allowed to move.