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December 15, 2010

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Agent wannabes get into the act

CHINESE young people are riveted to show business and many who can't make it on stage themselves want to get close to the stars. Some are taking course to become talent agents, reports Xu Wei.

As China's entertainment industry explodes with talent shows and opportunities, one of the latest hot professions these days is talent agent - even if it means starting at the bottom as a gopher - go for this, go for that.

There's a great need for qualified professional agents, and there are relatively few around. Many young people want to get in on the act - they're taking courses, joining entertainment agencies and freelancing as agents.

Agents, they say, can make or break a star, and some are responsible for trashy publicity and gossip, as well as vulgar performances and behind-the-scenes sleaze. Some set a higher tone. Most established stars have a constellation of agents, assistant agents and helps. Those starting out might have just one person making contacts, promoting, scheduling, arranging shows, booking hotels and travel, and planning events.

But an agent's work requires considerable skills, to say nothing of contacts. It takes people skills, public relations, marketing, knowledge of the entertainment business and relevant laws, such as contract law, and negotiating skills - to name a few.

And it takes attention to detail, the nitty-gritty minutia that makes a stage event happen and generates publicity.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University now has an agent training center that offers a number of courses and at the end, a certificate.

The prestigious Central Academy of Drama and Shanghai Theater Academy now offer curricula for students who wish to become agents. The Shanghai academy does not yet offer a complete major. It's difficult to find the right teachers and the right case material that is instructive without violating celebrities' privacy.

Armed with a certificate, and often without, young people try to hitch their wagon to a star.

Patty Pan, a 34-year-old travel writer, used to feel invisible and lonely working in the Shanghai metropolis for eight years since college graduation. Two months ago her life took on new meaning after she received an official "talent agent certificate" from Jiao Tong University for a one-month course.

She decided to be a part-time independent agent for Shao Junyan, a struggling Shanghainese pub singer - and a friend - who impressed critics and the public at last year's televised talent program "My Show."

"Some people are just born to be stars," Pan says. "When I saw him perform, I was moved by his emotional voice, skills and determination to follow his dream."

She hopes she can help him with her media resources, experience and planning abilities.

Their relationship has evolved over the past year, particularly after she became his agent two months ago. "At first he was an idol of mine, then a friend, and now my working partner," Pan says.

The varied work gives Pan a chance to make friends, improve her communication skills and overall knowledge of entertainment, business and law. She remembers the first time she handled large amounts of cash - that was when she had to pay the band and stagehands. She forgot to include in the contract the considerable fees for renting audio equipment - that was a lesson she won't forget because profits could have been higher.

People skills

"An agent needs to deal with all kinds of interpersonal relationships in marketing and promoting, but people are complicated and they can be fretful and temperamental. Unexpected problems can arise. You have to learn patience."

She had to apologize to a fan on a social networking site because she commented that the photos he uploaded were too blurred to capture any facial expression.

"Since I worked for a long time as a journalist, I am used to expressing myself in a straightforward and critical way. I'm sorry that I hurt the fan's feelings," she says.

While some agents work for theatrical companies, many independent agents are relatives or close friends of performers or professionals with big social circles and human resources. They may be working in media or business and some are retired performers.

"I don't make a living in this profession," says Pan. "Everything I do is motivated by enthusiasm and friendship. I have to learn to be more practical and efficient."

She is building a team.

It's much easier for agent wannabes to get started in China than in other countries. Succeeding is another question altogether.

According to Qu Jun, an official from Emperor Entertainment Group, a standard staff for a star usually includes a major agent with wide connections and good negotiating techniques, an executive agent, an assistant agent, a personal assistant and an event promoter.

"Not everyone is qualified for this profession since it requires excellent communication skills and long-term attention to even trifling problems - patience is important," he says.

Agents also need to think fast and on their feet, to stay calm and to handle stress and crisis.

Top agents in Hollywood are valued by their ability to place a client on the cover of an important magazine or appear on red carpets at important events.

In China, as elsewhere, the daily work is more mundane, including collecting clippings, spotting promotional possibilities and maintaining good media relations.

Freshman agents at entertainment agencies only earn several thousand yuan a month and hope for project bonuses. Only those at the very top directly share profits from performances with celebrities, earning around 10 percent of the total revenue.

Yu Xuan, who used to work with South Korean celebrities, now scouts new Chinese talent from star-making television shows and theater academies. Yu majored in business management and worked as a headhunter, then decided that entertainment was what interested her.

In 2007 she obtained a 2-million-yuan (US$300,170 today) sponsorship for South Korean singer Rain's Shanghai concert and organized around 20 celebrities to perform at a concert for the 2009 Olympic Games in Beijing.

She likes the variety and excitement, the flexible schedule, sometimes crazy hours and demands for extra work.

Today Yu is an agent for Wei Qianxiang, a fresh graduate of the Shanghai Theater Academy. Wei recently appeared in a period film drama set in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s. Yu is both a working partner and big sister to Wei, helping him find his way in the entertainment jungle.

"There are so many beauties and heartthrobs in the world, but only a few of them can survive the fierce competition," Yu says. "A star's healthy psychology and personality are more important than appearance."

Agent from hell

And then there are the agents from hell.

Wang Ziqi, the former agent of Hong Kong actress Kenix Kwok and her husband, Frankie Lam, continues to dish dirt on the couple. Kwok and Joe Ma were long rumored to have had an affair while Lam was reported to have had an affair with mainland actress Vicky Dong.

Last year the couple held a press conference to show that they were still very much in love. They said that they were being blackmailed by Wang, who was later sentenced to four and a half years in jail.

This month Wang was released early for good behavior. She is joining Wang Yiqin, who is Kwok and Lam's current agent on the Chinese mainland, in exposing what she calls the couple's arrogance and mean spirit in dealing with assistants and agents.

"We will not reply to any false claims," Kwok's manager in Hong Kong told the media.

Zhang Jun, a teacher from Shanghai Theater Academy, says ethics are essential for an agent. "Values and ethics vary from person and that's why there are many cases of vulgar media hype and unwritten rules in the entertainment industry."

"We need more expertise in this field," Zhang says, adding that the academy is collecting practical information from institutions in Germany and the United States.

"We are trying to get well prepared for this new major. With the flourishing of private entertainment companies and agencies, it will be a very promising profession."

Katie Chan, former agent for famous singer Faye Wong and singer-actor Eason Chan, once told media that EQ, emotional quotient, is indispensable for an agent.

Honesty and sincerity are essential to anyone entering the field, she says. An agent should never consider a client to be a money machine, but rather a kind of family member.


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