Until last week, buyers on the Internet auction site eBay were enticed to an auction of actors' photographs with the following pitch: "Where else can you get 100 women in the mail? This is a lot of 100 agency photos, with resumes attached to each one. A mixed bag of actors with a range of experience from none at all to those that have been working for years and years. Some you may know, some may be the stars of tomorrow."
Stars or not, all of the actors in this "lot" of 8x10 photos had submitted headshots to the office of Tony Sepulveda,who was until recently the casting director for the NBC series The West Wing (Laura Schiff currently casts the show). EBay records show that a West Wing casting assistant, Elayne Teitelbaum, had made 1,100 sales of actors' headshots through auctions over two years under the name "MaxiRyder," turning the office's overflow of headshot submissions from agents, managers, and actors into a tidy side income. Prices ranged between $7 and $60.
Teitelbaum shut down her eBay headshot auctions last week after casting director and industry gadfly Billy DaMota sent her an angry letter and raised the issue on the popular actors' website wolfesden.net. Another factor in the closing of Teitelbaum's auctions may have been an Internet watchdog from the William Morris Agency, who reportedly bid on a headshot of Morris client Sarah Polley to catch the seller redhanded.
Reached at the West Wing casting office, Teitelbaum refused to comment to Back Stage West about the issue; Sepulveda returned a call but said he couldn't comment, either. Warner Bros.' Senior VP of Talent and Casting, Mary Buck, was on vacation.
The practice raises several issues about the legal status of actors' headshots--once submitted, are they the actors' property or the casting director's property?--and about the murky moral territory of the demand for actors' images in the vast Internet marketplace. While publicity photos, both approved and unauthorized, of well-known actors sell briskly to fans via the Internet, the sale of the headshots of "no name" actors--headshots clearly culled from the overflow of Hollywood's hundreds of casting offices--is also rampant in some corners of the Internet.
In fact, the only unusual thing about Teitelbaum's case is that she was selling them directly on eBay. Though almost all of the headshots that end up for sale can only have come from casting offices, they appear to go through a series of intermediaries: First a seller, who either acquired the headshots from a casting office for a fee or spuriously offered to "recycle" an office's old headshots, auctions the pictures in bulk, roughly sorted by gender or age. They're bought by more specialized sellers who pare the bulk piles down to the photos they think will fetch a good price.
And here is where things get sketchy. Though Teitelbuam is not claimed to have sold many photos of child actors--The West Wing employs few--it is the sale of children's headshots, many with resumes attached, and many of them in eBay's untraceable "private" auctions, that has some parents and child actor advocates worried.
"What they're doing is bringing non-recognizable performers, specifically little boys, not just to public sites but to sites that are borderline pedophilia sites, and posting their photo and resume," said Bonnie Ventis, a children's agent at Kazarian Spencer Associates. "In some cases, the talent has their Social Security number on it, or it will say what school they're at, where they did such-and-such a play.
"And these aren't the kids who have a TV series. You tell me why [buyers] are going into a private auction 'room' on eBay and bidding $200 for a photo of a no-name boy."
Said Anne Henry, mother of three child actors whose 12-year-old son Michael had his headshot up for auction on eBay, "It started with photos of kids who had some recognizability, even minor--that's to be expected. But I and some of my friends who are parents of child actors started realizing that there were no-name actors being sold. There was an auction last week, where sellers are getting blocks of 100; 100 hundred boy actors, ages 5-16, sold for $103.50. A block of 100 girl actors sold for $76. That particular one was sold by a dealer called 'hightide,' who does huge amounts of adults and children."
Another eBay dealer who sells a large volume of young actors' photos and goes by the moniker "showbizkids" has been responsive to parents' concerns, announcing last week that he would voluntarily cease selling agency photos that didn't come directly from actors or with their express permission. "While I don't believe there is anything illegal about it," he wrote, "I don't want to participate in an activity that might cause needless concern to a parent."
Henry understands that there is a proper place for collectibles and fan material.
"I'm not sure I want to say, Pull all headshot selling off eBay," she said. "There are collectors, there are fans, and that's your audience. There are lots of actors who sell their own headshots. But when you're seeing private auctions of your kid's stuff all the time, that's a little bit scary. I'll like to get eBay to not allow private auctions of kid's pictures."
Kevin Pursglove, a spokesman for eBay, said that agency photos of children are generally assumed to be "publicity shots, appropriately staged, and that the legal guardian of the child entered into a relationship with an agent to send those out in pursuit of employment. We would consider that a legitimate item and would let that remain. If it were a photo of random kids walking around a school, we might have some concerns."
Pursglove said that if items with personal information, such as resumes, are posted visibly on eBay, they are removed, but that a listing promising the inclusion of such material--say, a displayed photo with a caption saying, "resume included"--would not prompt concerns unless eBay had reason to believe that any item on sale had been obtained illegally. That criterion wouldn't apply to headshots or resumes, Pursglove said.
"There are state laws that allow individuals to control the commercialization of their name or image," said Pursglove. "But if they're photographs that are distributed to a large market, unsolicited, it would appear to us that it's the right of the individual who receives them to do what they wish with them."
Countered Bonnie Ventis, "Headshots are job applications, so there are legal implications. It is actionable, and I think that if enough parents come forward, there could be a class-action suit."
Said Paul Peterson, who runs the child-actor advocacy group A Minor Consideration, "There may be some rather tricky legal issues, because when you give your headshot, you are in fact making a gift of that. But the understanding is that no one in the casting business turns around and then sells them."
Indeed, as DaMota put it, "My big issue is that some casting professionals are taking pictures that are submitted for consideration for a job, and they're making money off it. They're a disgrace to the profession."