CON ARTISTS Talent scams: Industry hopefuls beware
Most legitimate agencies don't have to advertise, a talent manager says.
By CAMILLA A. HERRERA
We have all heard the story of the stranger in the mall who poses as a talent scout promising fame and fortune to people with stars in their eyes.
Who wouldn't be flattered?
He approaches an unsuspecting teen, praises her "look," explains that he is in the midst of a search for a specific type that, as luck would have it, he sees in her.
He hands her a business card and asks that her parents call him to set up an appointment.
Seems too good to be true, but what harm is there in meeting the guy?
Beware, says Brenda Mack, a spokesperson for the Federal Trade Commission, which published "If You've Got The Look, Look Out," a consumer report on how to avoid talent scams. What could be waiting is a hard sales pitch for acting lessons, photo sessions and so-called training programs that can cost up to several thousand dollars and lead nowhere.
"If you decide to pursue this, listen carefully to what they are saying," says Mack. "It's best to be cautious. Know that legitimate talent agencies don't require money up front and don't make promises about how much money will be made."
No gig, no money
Jessica Schoenholtz, a talent manager for J. Mitchell Management, a New York City talent management firm that represents children in commercials, film, television and theater, explains that legitimate talent agents and managers earn their fees only from commissions based on what a client actually earns.
"The whole scouting thing should seem suspect because most agencies don't have that kind of budget or time or manpower to devote to that kind of search," she said. "You also have to wonder how many other people have been approached."
But gullible parents who believe their child has the cutest little baby face are easy prey, says Schoenholtz. "They are led to believe that it is required to shell out hundreds and thousands of dollars for pictures, portfolios, screen tests, acting lessons, initiation fees and Web site memberships."
Lisa Montoya, whose 9-year-old son, Jason, is about to audition during a recent JMM casting call, recalls being tricked out of several thousand dollars for pictures that never materialized. She said the agent also claimed to have inside industry connections. She had no way of knowing otherwise.
"It really set us back," she says, fussing over her son, who silently rehearses his lines while surreptitiously checking out the competition that crowds the small waiting room.
"I felt so dumb, but it is difficult when your child says he really wants to be an actor," says Montoya. "I wish there was a way for parents to learn who is legitimate and who isn't."
How to tell
To find an agent, parents should check Ross Reports, considered the definitive guide to the television and film industry. Its listings of casting directors, agents, network prime-time programs, daytime serials, television and network producers and packagers, and films in preparation and development in New York City and Los Angeles are updated monthly.
Collect a list of talent agents and managers and send them a picture with a resume, says Schoenholtz. Or audition during open casting calls held by firms such as JMM.
"People come in with their information sheet and recite a commercial for their age group," explains Schoenholtz. "Anyone can come in. It's a quick way to tell if there is something interesting." In the meantime, watch out for scams.
"There are organizations that call themselves development centers," explains Schoenholtz. "They say they can teach modeling and offer picture services. They say they have contacts but many don't."
Mack says consumers should also be cautious of print and Web advertisements that promise stardom. "A legitimate agency generally does not advertise," she says.
Schoenholtz warns of Web sites that post pictures and claim to be insider sites. "Industry professionals may casually look at these but it's not guaranteed like [the site owners] claim," she said.
According to Schoenholtz, parents should also be wary of so-called conventions that invite people to meet agents. "People are asked to pay up to $7,000," she says. "Any kind of registration payment means it's baloney."
"Parents should be guarded if they go into any of these meetings," Schoenholtz said. "Go in as a self-educated consumer. If they try to sell you anything, walk away."