There's an old joke about the relationship between Hollywood writers and their agents: a veteran screenwriter comes home to find police and fire trucks crowding the street. As he scrambles out of his car, he sees that there's nothing left of his house but a pile of black dust and smoking embers.
Stricken, he asks the officer in charge what happened. The cop shakes his head and says, "Well, it looks like your agent came to your house, murdered your entire family, took all your valuables, then burned the place to the ground."
To which the writer responds, with an astonished smile, "My agent came to my house?"
A telling joke. As a former Hollywood screenwriter myself, and now a psychotherapist who works with creative people in the entertainment industry, I'm very familiar with the complicated, symbiotic connection between "the talent" and their agents.
There are few relationships as shrouded in myth, half-truths and just plain misconceptions as that between a creative person and his or her agent. Moreover, what makes any discussion of agents so difficult is that, in my view, the most important aspects of that relationship have almost nothing to do with the agent, and everything to do with the artist.
So, before talking about what every writer, actor or director needs to recognize as his or her own contribution to the sometimes puzzling, often painful relationship between artist and agent, let's list some sobering facts:
First, your agent is not your parent. It's not the agent's job to encourage, support or validate your creative ambitions, insofar as they reflect your inner need to be loved and cherished. Such needs were your birthright, and, hopefully, were given to you in your childhood. If, however, they were not, it's not your agent's job to pick up the slack.
And, lastly, while your agent may indeed admire your talent, and share with you lofty creative and financial goals, he or she is not obligated to care about them as much as you do. In fact, no one cares about your career as much as you do. Which means the burden of worrying about your artistic aspirations, income, reputation in the field, and level of personal and professional satisfaction rests entirely on your shoulders.
These three points aside, what every creative person needs to understand is that the very nature of the artist's position in society contributes to the asymmetry of the relationship between artist and agent.
The moment an artist offers his or her work for evaluation to the marketplace---whether to a film producer, TV network, or casting director---that artist is instantly placed in a vulnerable position, similar to that of child to care-giver. Since the marketplace is often experienced as holding the power to validate one's work, it has the ability to mirror back to the artist either affirming or debilitating messages about the artist's worth.
When dealing with an agent---a person equally embedded in the machinery of the marketplace---the artist's vulnerabilities often lead him or her to exaggerate the agent's opinion; to place an unrealistic burden on the relationship with an agent, in terms of its providing solace and support; or to use, as a child does, the agent's responses as a mechanism for emotional self-regulation.
The reality is, the artist-agent relationship can't handle such burdens. The artist expects too much in the way of esteem-building, validation and empathy. Which means that every unreturned phone call by the agent, every less-than-ecstatic response to a new piece of work or proposed project, every real or imagined shift in vocal tonality during a conversation is experienced by the creative person as an injury to his or her self-worth.
The wise artist understands this, if only theoretically, and should at least strive to keep his or her relationship with an agent in context. Hopefully it will lessen the blows, whatever they are and whenever they come.
Because, to be candid, there's something I've come to believe after 24 years in practice working with creative types: consciously or not, most people come to Hollywood in search of an approving parent. And it's the worst place in the world to find one.