This story is the first in an ongoing Back Stage investigation of scams
A 19-year-old actress we'll call Chloe wrote to Back Stage about a scam. The target of her distress was a talent agency that announced in a local freebie that it was holding auditions for features and commercials. "No Experience Necessary!" the ad proclaimed. Encouraged‹this one looked like a real possibility‹Chloe came down to the agency in Midtown: She auditioned, her work was evaluated by the agents in the room, and she was told to call back in a few days. When she did, she was informed that she was one of five selected, out of dozens who had auditioned that day. Her future was bright, the agent intimated. The only thing she needed was headshots. And the agent told her whom to hire, adding that if she was not satisfied with the pictures, the photographer would re-shoot them.
Her alarm signals should have gone off right then and there!
As it turned out the pictures were dreadful and had to be re-shot...at an additional cost. Then there was the makeup artist who had to be hired...More money. Chloe was prepared for none of it, and in the end was out $400-plus for pictures she hated. If she'd hired her own photographer‹sans agent‹she would have been better served and spent substantially less. To make matters worse, the agent, who was now thoroughly rude, handed her a list of casting opportunities, all lifted from Back Stage, and told to follow through on them. It was her job, she was chided, to send out her resume, using the agent's stationery. The clinker: of any earnings Chloe garnered, the agency was entitled to 10 percent!
Charlie's story goes one better. One day, out of the blue, Charlie‹not his real name‹got a call from a casting director‹"Suzy"‹he had never contacted her or indeed ever heard of her. She said his picture and resume had come to her attention and she thought he might be good for a commercial she was casting. Would he come down for an audition? Not surprisingly, the 27-year-old actor couldn't get there fast enough.
The encounter was slick. He read some generic copy, was filmed, praised, and told to come back later that day to meet an agent. Charlie was flying high, a mood that was further boosted when he auditioned for the agent. Lots more positive feedback. He was to phone the following Monday, at which time casting director Suzy said he had real talent, but no one knew about it. What he needed, she remarked, was an acting class and she knew just the one.
The acting teacher, Suzy noted, was an assistant director in an Off-Broadway theatre and the majority of students in the class were professionals. This was a great opportunity she said. Besides the training, at the end of the five-week class, Charlie would participate in a showcase that major agents attended. The cost to Charlie would be $300.
Charlie's suspicions were first aroused when Suzy suggested he make the check out to her, Suzy. She explained that the classes were being held in her office space and the check was simply going to defer the cost of the rent. And after all, what difference did it make? This class was the stepping stone to a real career.
Once in the class, it didn't take Charlie long to recognize a lie in action. For starters, nobody in the class was a professional; in fact, like Charlie, they had all come through Suzy. But most serious, the showcase at the end of the five weeks was attended by no one of consequence and Suzy was nowhere to be found. All of Charlie's calls to her went unanswered.
The punch line was Charlie's conversation with the acting teacher. According to Charlie, she was shocked by his account and informed him that it was Suzy's school. The loss of $300 was only a small part of the blow to Charlie's sense of dignity. He knew he had been had.
Like Chloe, Charlie wrote to us, describing his experience. Unlike Chloe, however, the young actor wanted to name names, including his own. We chose not to name names at this time for obvious legal reasons. We hope to do so at a later date.
SUBHEAD: Watch Out for Hidden Costs
Regrettably, Charlie and Chloe are not alone. They are two of hundreds of young actors each year who are victimized‹or targeted‹by con artists who prey upon the vulnerability and relentless hope of the ambitious performer. Charlie's story is a little anomalous. Neither the Better Business Bureau nor the Department of Consumer Affairs have heard much about rip-off casting directors (or was Suzy even a casting director?). But they are all too familiar with Chloe's scenario: actors/models conned by talent agencies.
"So far in fiscal year 1998, we've had 79 complaints in connection with employment agencies," says Robert Martin, general counsel at the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs. "Twenty nine of these centered on problems with modeling and/or talent agencies either making employment promises they didn't keep or more usually charging for services‹like photos or classes‹as a condition for employment."
Interestingly, employment is not ultimately the point, says Martin. In fact, the actor may land some work‹admittedly, it's rare‹as a result of his association with the agency. The tip-off that something illegal is afoot is that the agency asks the actor/model for money up front for anything
The problem is compounded by the fact that the agencies' ads‹that's how clients are usually snared‹are misleading. There is no indication of hidden costs. More often than not, the ads state that there are no fees, according to our informants. When the client arrives there are all the trappings of legitimacy: interviews, auditions, callbacks and lots of serious discussion about the client's future. Frequently, the actor/model is made to feel that he's won a major competition and is one of the lucky few to have been selected. In con man's parlance that's the "bait." The "hook" comes next. In short order the actor finds himself pressured‹although it may look like seduction‹into getting photos or taking classes that the agency is providing. Put another way, the actor is now called upon to pay the agency or someone it recommends‹which may translate into kick-backs to the agent, although that's hard to prove‹for these services.
The experts we talked with insist there is nothing wrong with a talent agency expecting an actor to get new photos or suggesting that he take classes. The problem arises when the actor is not allowed to choose the photographers or teachers he wishes to work with. Instead, he's been railroaded into the agent's choice as a condition of employment. On occasion the photographer and/or class is literally on the agent's premises. "Suzy's" is a case in point. In New York State, ancillary businesses provided on the same premises and owned by the same individual are illegal.
"If the agent is pushing the actor into anything, it's a sign that something is wrong," says Anthony LeGrand, executive ddministrator of the Agency Department at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), New York branch. "And if the agent is promoting only one photographer, for example, it's cause for suspicion. We take the position he can make recommendations, but there have to be at least three photographers on the list, so the actor makes the choice."
Another common tip-off that something fraudulent is going on is an agent's request that the actor submit shots to a "book" of photos that the agent is allegedly showing to casting directors. Read: The actor pays the agent for his exposure. The odds are nobody is seeing the book. And, more relevant, it doesn't matter if anybody is, Martin reiterates. "Payment to an employment agency‹and that's what a talent agency is‹as a condition of employment is illegal! The agency is supposed to make its money only from the employment it finds for its client!"
Adds Gareth May, agency representative at New York's Actors' Equity Association, "In dealing with unknown talent agencies, an actor should always ask the question, "Where is this agency making its money?' "
SUBHEAD The Myth of Being "Discovered"
It should be noted that young actors are not the only pigeons these confidence men and women entrap. Everybody buys into the myth of being "discovered." After all it happened to Lana Turner just sipping a soda at Schwab's, the now famous drug store. A producer saw her and her movie career was launched. It's part of the American imagination. There's an audience at large all too receptive to the agent's promise of glamour and big bucks. Consider the cattle call ads‹"No Experience Necessary"‹that surface on TV, subway posters, and/or newspapers that market to the general public. "These ads usually don't appear in trade publications [like Back Stage] and they're more likely to be seen in New Jersey than New York. There are no licensing requirements for these agencies in New Jersey," says Nancy Fox, manager of agent relations at the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) in New York.
"Mothers of small children are often specifically targeted," she continues. "I know of one scam where mothers of four-month old tots received letters in the mail from a talent agency saying it had heard they had beautiful children who might have a real shot at TV commercials. "Come on down for an interview.' Many Moms and infants showed up and were enthusiastically encouraged. Now all they needed was a portfolio of photos, which the agent was going to provide at a hefty cost!"
The request that photos be purchased from the agent's photographer was only part of the problem, says Fox. There were other clues that something was wrong here. For starters, children under 12 do not require portfolio of photos. "Since they're changing so quickly, no legitimate casting director expects a portfolio. Snapshots will usually do." And there's another element here: Where did the agent get these women's names and addresses? Who else was in on this and to what extent were they benefiting?
Says Fox: "I don't know for certain who was behind this. But my perception is that it may have been someone at the hospital where all the kids were born."
New York City Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jules Polonetsky comments that the worst agency scam he'd ever encountered was perpetrated by a modeling agency. "It requested $8,000 from its clients‹aspiring young models‹for classes and a promotional fashion show at the end of the course. No one in the profession came to the fashion show. Eight thousand dollars thrown away‹all in pursuit of a dream that was not going to happen."
Subhead: Licensing and Union Franchises
In New York State, all legitimate employment agencies, including talent agencies, have to be licensed. Specific standards must be met before a business can exist, legally speaking. "If someone has a bad track record, he won't be licensed," says Robert Martin, general counsel at the Consumer Affairs Department. He acknowledges, however, that there are businesses that have lost their licenses in the past which resurface with new names, new addresses, and may evade detection. Still, it doesn't happen often. "Besides filing an application, the business owner has to pay the state‹although the licensing is administered by municipal agencies‹a $10,000 bond as part of the application cost."
More rigorous than the State's standards are those demanded by the unions‹Actors' Equity, SAG, and AFTRA‹in order to be franchised by them. Franchising is essentially the union's stamp of approval. Talent agents may be licensed by the state but not union franchised. Criteria for franchising and loss of franchised status varies slightly among the unions. We came across one talent agency that was franchised by two of the unions, but had lost its franchise from the third. But for the most part, criteria for franchising‹and loss thereof‹is shared among the three unions.
Says SAG's LeGrand: "Agencies that wish to be franchised with us must obtain a $10,000 bond to cover any misdeed that may occur [that's in addition to the $10,000 the agency has paid the state]. The agency must have been in business for at least one year. It must provide recommendations from other franchised agents in the business. The agent must operate out of a commercial space, which we visit to make sure it has amenities and is safe. And finally, the agent(s) must take a test, indicating his (their) knowledge of collective bargaining procedures. "
When an agent signs a contract with a union, it means he agrees to the union's guidelines regarding the agent's relationship with the actor‹from percentages of monies withdrawn to termination clauses. It goes without saying that it's against union policy for a franchised member to engage in any of the questionable tactics described so far.
"Our contract with the agent makes it possible for us to discipline him," says AFTRA's Fox. "We can take him to arbitration or withdraw his franchise. Our rules state that our actors [union actors] can only work with franchised agents."
Subhead: How to Protect Yourself
In all fairness, complaints leveled against franchised agents are few and far between, insist the union administrators we talked with. And those that are filed usually have more to do with issues of non-payment‹after an actor has been employed by a producer and worked‹as opposed to any of the scams targeted at newcomers.
It should also be noted that unions have no jurisdiction over agents who are not franchised. And almost consistently, it's the non-franchised agents that are the most likely to engage in scams. Still, simply because an agent is not franchised isn't an indication in and of itself that he's a con artist, the union heads point out, although clearly an actor has more protection and options for recourse if an agent is franchised. The agent's status within the union is surely worth checking.
"We will tell a caller if an agent is franchised or not," says LeGrand. "But we will not say why an agent is not franchised or has lost his franchise. For callers with complaints against non-franchised members, we refer them to the Better Business Bureau."
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is an independent non-profit national network that mostly gathers information‹indeed it has a rating system‹about businesses in its respective localities. If someone has a question about a talent agency, the BBB is a good starting point. Currently, the most complained about agencies on the list are American Talent Network (nine complaints); Davidson Media Corporation (six complaints); Model Developments (six complaints); and Screen Test U.S.A. (six complaints). Interestingly, Chloe's talent agency was not on the list, although in 1995 a complaint was filed against the company, and it was resolved. The bulk of the complaints center on issues involving agencies' expectations that clients use‹and pay up front for‹photographers and/or acting teachers that they (the agents) provide.
One of the BBB's functions is to mediate resolutions once a grievance has been filed. A possible step the BBB may take in connection with a questionable talent agency is "ask it for ten clients it has represented who have earned $1,000 in a year's time," says Jerry DeSanto, Vice-president of Operations at New York City's Better Business Bureau.
"We ask for names and numbers in writing and then track these actors/models down to verify the agency's claim. You'd be amazed at how many of these agencies cannot come up with ten names.''
Occasionally the BBB takes legal action against an agency, although that's usually within the domain of the Department of Consumer Affairs, since the latter has more legal leverage. Typically victims of scams file complaints with the Consumer Affairs Department as well as the BBB.
"We also attempt to mediate," Consumer Affairs Counsel Robert Martin points out. "But if the situation is not resolved voluntarily, we may serve notice of a hearing, which takes place in front of an administrative law judge at Consumer Affairs. If the agency is found guilty, it can be fined and/or made to pay damages as well. That means the person who filed the complaint may get restitution. But he will not be awarded punitive damages. Our batting average is over fifty percent."
Commissioner Polonetsky says that in the not-too-distant future he'd like to see regulations governing agencies broadened to address those operations that evade strict definition and thus circumvent guidelines. "For example, there are companies that call themselves schools or career management firms‹and they may in fact have those components‹but in reality they are talent agencies. By calling themselves career management agencies, as a case in point, they can charge much more than the ten percent we allow employment [talent] agencies to collect."
Subhead: More Savvy, or Intimidated, or Just Not Sure?
Interestingly, all those we interviewed suggest that the number of complaints made against fraudulent talent agencies has leveled off slightly. So far this year, no major scam has come to the attention of the Consumer Affairs Department, says Martin. He attributes the drop in grievances filed to education and publicity‹"Agencies realize they can't get away with scams quite that easily"‹and to more sophisticated consumers who back off when they smell scam. Still, Martin acknowledges the possibility of intimidation.
"One of the problems in dealing with people who have been conned by an employment agency is that they may not want to talk for fear of harming their careers. I believe the fear is more prevalent in the entertainment industry where so much depends on reputation and word of mouth."
SAG's LeGrand agrees: "Actors believe that if they complain, they will be publicly identified and that will somehow put them at a competitive disadvantage. They're convinced that industry insiders have especially long memories."
Check out what happened when we told Chloe we wanted to include her in our story. Remember Chloe? She was the young woman who contacted us about her unhappy experience with a talent agency. Immediately, she told us she didn't want to be identified. A phone call later‹and now clearly anxious to get off the phone‹she said she'd had a change of heart about all of it. The agency in question had gotten her work as a non-SAG extra in three major SAG films. And she echoed the agent's earlier remarks, that without him, the doors would have been slammed in her face. We can't help wondering, did she indicate to him that she was writing to us? Was he appeasing her or did he intimidate her in some way...Or, on the contrary, was it a coincidence and did it happen exactly as she suggested that when work was available, he submitted her?
This is a gray area. The fact is, legitimate casting directors sometimes hire non-SAG extras from certain non-franchised talent agencies. Chloe's is one of them. Yet, when we contacted two of the casting directors involved, they were clearly evasive, before reluctantly admitting that they used Chloe's agent.
Discomfort is rampant. It's understandable that nobody wants to be a whistle-blower or perhaps worse, a self-acknowledged victim of a con game. Charlie's "witnesses" also refused to surface. Charlie is the young actor who doled out $300 to an alleged casting director for her acting classes as a prerequisite for employment.
When we last talked, Charlie was convinced that a host of fellow-students as well as the acting teacher who herself had been duped by "Suzy," would be more than willing to talk with us. He had given them our number. As of press time, none had called.
Subhead The Scam of the Future
So what's coming down the road in terms of talent agency/casting director scams? Will there be new wrinkles, greater subtlety, or will the scams be in fact the same old ones just reinvented slightly for a new age?
Consider the Internet and its application to possible employment for ambitious performers. Right now, some talent agents request large sums of money from clients‹we're familiar with one who asked for $300‹to purchase a web page on the internet that will supposedly let casting directors know of his clients' talents and availability. The money is handed over up front before any work has been found as a condition of representation. It may not be stated in those bold terms, but clearly that's the gentlemen's agreement. Is there something fishy here? And how prevalent is the practice?
Martin and LeGrand admit frankly that they've not heard complaints about this. But LeGrand restates: "Costs cannot be past along to the client. Designing and purchasing a web page on the Internet should be seen as the agent's cost of doing business."
Adds Martin: "Asking actors to buy web pages sounds very similar to talent agents demanding that an actor get shots from a particular photographer the agent has in mind. I'd like to hear more about this."
So would we. Please contact us at Back Stage (attn: Simi Horwitz, Scam Alert) if you've ever been scammed. These con artists won't stop, unless they're fingered.
Back Stage, attn: Simi Horwitz, Scam Alert, 1515 Broadway, New York, NY 10036, 14th fl.
Actors' Equity Association, attn: Gareth May 165 W. 46 St., New York NY 10036 (212) 869-8530
AFTRA attn: Megan Spoto, 260 Madison Ave. New York, NY. 10016 (212) 532-0800
SAG, 1515 Broadway, New York, NY 10036 (212) 944-1030
City of New York Department of Consumer Affairs, 42 Broadway, New York, NY 10004 (212) 487-4377
Better Business Bureau, 257 Park Avenue south, New York NY 10010-7384 You can inquire about a company or business, or file a complaint by writing to them, or contacting them on the internet; . There is no charge for this. There is a charge if you call them A flat rate of $3.80, is charged to a credit card if you call (212) 533-6200; or a rate of $3.80 for the first four minutes, $.95 for each minute thereafter for a maximum fee of $9.50 if you call 1-(900)-CALL-BBB