Paul Alan Smith is an agent and manager representing directors working in both film and TV. He’s most recently known as the founder of New Deal Mfg. Co., which seeks to shift representation to a more client-centric approach, rather than focusing on the needs of corporations. This focus is typical of the entertainment professional’s career, which has centered around encouraging artistic creativity wherever possible.
The agent/manager is also widely known for his extensive activism, a product of his upbringing in the socially and politically turbulent era of the 1960s and 1970s. That upbringing taught him the power even a small group of individuals can have if they dedicate themselves to a cause. This has manifested in his work through efforts to improve economic equality, such as advocating for employee pay. He’s also worked extensively to support environmental efforts such as recycling and carpooling programs.
Mr. Smith first began his career on the heels of his formal education in theater at both UCLA and NYU. Following that time, he moved to Hollywood in an effort to create independent television content. That naturally evolved into a role at Triad Artists, one of the major talent agencies of its time. From there, he worked his way up the ladder to becoming an agent, which led to his career in talent representation.
How did you get started in this business?
Three agencies were merging, so they needed someone to help organize all the employee’s boxes after they moved into their new space, so thanks to my ex-UCLA roommate, he arranged for me to be temporarily hired for three days. Turns out, being anal retentive served my objectives swimmingly, as I was able to look at all theses boxes, haphazardly thrown into this huge room, and devise a system that utilized the space efficiently, as well as make it mindlessly easy for the agents to locate their belongings. The next day my superiors pointed to another room, but this one was full of boxes containing ¾” and ½” cassettes. So I devised a plan to create shelves outta the boxes . . . anyhow, by now it was clear my IQ was in the high double-digit range, so the next day they asked if I wanted a job “in the mailroom.” I looked at them and respectfully asked, “How much mail do you have to keep me busy for eight hours?” (Fine, an IQ in the mid-double-digits.)
How do you make money?
I sign directors I think are talented and capable of directing television and films. (The requisites are very subjective.) When a producer is looking to hire a director, I lobby all involved to hire the one I rep. Once my client is chosen, I negotiate how much they will pay for their services. When that money comes in, we take 10%.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
Since I had a loyal list of clients that were coming with me, we were immediately profitable.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
I never gave it any thought. True, I had enough saved to keep me from being homeless if I struck out, but I had enough blind confidence to know I was better than most of the competition, at least enough to remain in business. On the other hand, I consistently reflect upon where we are lacking, both literally and in terms of industry perception. This discipline allows us to be pretty fluid and adaptable.
How did you get your first customer?
Well, our business doesn’t really have “customers,” per se, but industry periodicals covered us, so that initially helped.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
Giving back to your community. Since I’m technically a salesperson, I can periodically be perceived as a pain-in-the-ass, since I’m always “hawkin’ my wares.” Therefore, it’s important that I do more than just sell-sell-sell. So, early on I’d organize weekend trips to State Parks, which morphed into Speaker Soirees and company parties. Of course, we paid for everything, and never cut corners, so they helped brand us accordingly. Even if folks couldn’t attend, the mere act of simply INVITING them was a reminder we were appreciative.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
I had JUST publicly rebranded the entire company midway through 2019. However, by the end of the year we ran into two massive issues: one was with regard to a Hollywood union’s demands, and the other was a workplace dynamic that was negatively impacting the majority of my employees. Consequently, to deal with both issues concurrently (and effectively), I chose to resign from MY OWN company! Of course, I offered my colleagues the option to continue on without me, even saying I’d initially help subsidize them until they got up and running. They chose not to do so, and they have gone their separate ways. In the meantime, I started a new company, smaller and leaner, to focus on my own clients without the distractions of office politics. It was a brutal decision, but the correct one nonetheless, certainly for myself and most likely for my colleagues as well.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
I work my ass off.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Earning the trust of both Harry Belafonte and Howard Zinn.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
Well, there appears to be an endless appetite to manufacture content by viewers from around the world, and since most of that content requires a director, we’re in relatively good shape. Furthermore, it’s refreshing to see the growing diversity of voices contributing to the narratives. There’s only an upside to this trajectory.
What business books have inspired you?
“All the President’s Bankers,” by Nomi Prins. “An Empire of Their Own,” by Neil Gabler. “Manufacturing Consent,” by Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Never think anyone is a real friend.
Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?
I’ve mentored many over the years. Often times I warn them NOT to do as I, since being honest and ethical is seldom, if ever, reciprocated; in fact, I’d go as far as to warn them their righteousness could be interpreted as being WEAK by today’s plutocratic, greedy leaders and wannabe leaders. But I’d then go on to say this tide is reversible, so if they wanna join up and be prepared to hit back when bullies naively misread them, I would forever be loyal and supportive. And on a far lighter note, I encourage them to have patience, work very, very hard, push themselves to be the best they can, always help others and trust your employers and your colleagues will notice.