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April 6, 2018

SCA Alumni Stories: Frank Balkin

By Antonio Frisby

Frank Balkin ‘90 explains the role of talent agencies and how to navigate them. Drawing from his own experience as Partner and Head of Television at Worldwide Production Agency, Balkin sheds light on how to actually become an agent, and how he came to represent notable clients such as Michael Goi (American Horror Story), Hunter Via (Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy), and more.

What is your most memorable experience at USC's School of Cinematic Arts? One night during the first few weeks that I was at USC, the screenwriters of Stand by Me spoke after a 466 screening of their film. It was the first time I'd had a chance to see/hear filmmakers speak, in person, about their craft and the first time I began to think of the people behind the work. Also in that semester, we screened Citizen Kane. Passionately introduced by the legendary Drew Casper, the film opened my eyes to the possibilities of cinema and television as art forms.

How did your BFA in Filmic Writing prepare you to become a talent agent? To be honest, it didn't. In film school, and right afterwards, I had no interest in becoming an agent. In fact, two of the first jobs I was offered right after graduation were at agencies. I didn't accept either one; I thought being an agent was far too "business-ish" for me, and that I was more of an artist. Now, with the gift of hindsight, I can tell you it's the perfect profession for me.

What advice do you have for students interested in becoming an agent? Get an internship or a part-time job at an agency during school. Whether you become an agent or not, it's a great place to learn about how the entertainment business operates.

What were some major career steps you had to take in order to reach your current title as Head of Television at the Worldwide Production Agency? ?I worked several entry-level jobs in different areas of the business: as a production assistant, a producer's assistant, a foreign sales associate at a company that sold the rights to crappy US television shows overseas, etc. Eventually, a friend called me about an opening at a boutique agency that needed an agent for both literary and physical production. I took the interview and ended up getting the job! I then worked at a few different agencies prior to joining WPA as a partner in 2014.

WPA focuses specifically on “physical production talent”. What exactly does this mean? Line producers, directors, cinematographers, editors, costume designers and production designers. Many great individuals within the various departments wish to become department heads. However, until a person crosses that threshold, there's not a lot we (or any other agency) can do to assist.

When is the right time to find an agent? What tips can you give to students and recent alumni seeking representation? Are there any situations to avoid? For physical production, you need recognizable credits. We need to be able to pitch you with work that new potential employers will recognize. You should treat the agent/client relationship as you would any other relationship; you shouldn’t be cajoling an agent into signing you. Find people who are as excited to work with you as you are to work with them. In that sense, it's like a romantic relationship; it's not healthy if either partner is "throwing" him- or herself at the other.

Can you elaborate on WPA's work-finding process for high-profile individuals such as producer Ralph Winter (X-Men series) and editor Michael Shawver (Black Panther)? Agencies track projects and maintain relationships with directors, production companies and studios, introducing clients to the right parties when their resumes and goals align. The two sides of the coin include constant communication with the clients to see what each of them is looking to do next, and constant communication with the buyers to see what they are looking for.

How might this process differ for newer, lesser-known artists? Sometimes newer artists require more introductions. If we call a studio production executive who oversees feature films, he or she is going to have heard of Ralph Winter. A production designer, who, for example, only recently moved up from art direction, may require that more buyers be educated on their body of work.

On the WPA website, you note that your work is exceptionally enjoyable and satisfying. What is an average day in the life of a television agent? Soon after I became an agent, I found that I simply love helping people build their careers. It even goes beyond the film industry – there’s joy for me in referring people to my dentist, or to the person who cuts my hair, or to the person who does my taxes; it’s in my blood. I also love that I represent incredibly smart and interesting people. Growing up as a TV and movie junkie, I was like the kid in the opening credits of Dream On - I'm grateful every day that I get to make my living in this medium.

Is there anything else you'd like to add? During my USC years, for a semester or two in Filmic Writing, we had a standout teacher named Ron Parker. He encouraged my Filmic Writing class to look beyond strictly being feature film screenwriters, saying "there's a role for each of you in this business. Some of you might become agents, or producers, or something in the industry you haven't even thought of." Prophetic words!