Tinsel or Sham? by Nichole Bazemore
So, you want to be in pictures. If you live anywhere near Atlanta, booming right now with motion picture and television production, there’s no reason you can’t. According to the Georgia Economic Development Authority’s 2011 Annual Report, more than 327 feature films, TV series and commercials were made in Georgia last year alone, making an unprecedented $2.4 billion impact on the state’s economy, and leading film industry publication P3 to name it the number three place in the world to film.
This blitz of production activity has proven to be a proverbial goldmine for aspiring actors and actresses hoping to get their big break. But it has also created a fertile environment for scam artists who masquerade as talent and casting agents and leave Hollywood hopefuls with little more than empty wallets and shattered dreams. So, we wondered: in a city and state that are bustling with Hollywood glitterati, and productions popping up at every turn calling for fresh, new talent, how do you know when you’re walking into the opportunity of a lifetime, or simply taking the bait that unscrupulous “agents” or “casting directors” are throwing out?
Pay Up: the Biggest Scam Going
Twenty-four year old Ashley Roberson and her twin sister, Mandy, have what it takes to be models. That’s what the Atlanta woman, who claimed to be a talent agent, told them after the sisters were selected for what was ostensibly a BET photo shoot and commercial. “We got a call saying we were finalists,” Ashley recalls. “This was major for us, since we didn’t have any prior modeling experiences and were just getting started.” But that excitement took a different turn when the sisters went to the agent’s office to fill out some paperwork. “We had to pay $80 for photos and to hold our spot,” Ashley says. “The agent stopped returning calls or answering her phone and never replied back to emails. We never got the pictures, portfolio, comp cards, or anything we paid for.”
But while this scam artist’s antics were new to Ashley and Mandy, legitimate talent and casting agents say making promises and asking for money up front are tactics scam artists have used for years. “Agencies that tell you they’ll take your photos or teach you how to act are not legit,” says Sarah Carpenter, President of Atlanta Models and Talent, a 50 year old boutique agency that last year booked talent for hundreds of voice-overs, commercials, TV series, and feature films, including Army Wives, The Game on BET, Coma, a four-part series on A&E, The Vampire Diaries, and Flight, starring Denzel Washington. “What a good agent does is refer you. We’ll say, ‘Here are some legitimate photographers, or ‘here are some reputable classes. Go audit a class. Check out various photographers’ websites and rates. A good agent gives you an opportunity to audition, then they collect their commission from the jobs you book,” she says. “A legitimate agent will never ask you for money up front.”
And yet, stories of people who paid talent agents hundreds or thousands of dollars—only to end up empty-handed—abound. How are scammers able to get away with it? Well, simply because they can. “Actors are so eager to get into the industry that they’re not thinking straight,” says George Pierre, an independent casting agent in Atlanta, who has casted talent for hundreds of roles, mostly recently, Teen Wolf on MTV and the upcoming feature film Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, based on the best-selling book by comedian Steve Harvey. Pierre says if actors want to avoid being scammed, they have to be proactive. “Do your homework with the online tools that are available. Google people. Check IMDb. But if anybody ever asks you for money, turn around and run. Don’t give your agent money, don’t give your producer money, don’t give anybody money,” he says.
Taking Parents For a Ride
Like Pierre, Carpenter has seen her share of scams in the twenty-five years she’s been in the business, but she says what’s especially appalling is when scammers take advantage of parents hoping to make their children stars. “What’s really heartbreaking is when parents spend money putting kids through school and they learn nothing, or they’ve paid for pictures and comp cards that aren’t good and have to start over again,” she says.
Catherine Fein, a photographer based in the Northeast, knows this scam all too well. Fein, whose own daughter is signed with a modeling agency, says she gets calls from parents all the time wanting to know how much her agent costs. “Um…it doesn’t cost anything!” she quips. She recalls working with one parent who had paid a talent school a large sum of money and needed photos for an audition the following weekend. “She said she came to me because of the price,” Fein remembers. “The ‘agency’ wanted to charge her an additional $800 for a photo session,” she says. And that wasn’t the end of the deception. “The child arrives and is not a sample size for child modeling, which is a size 5 or 10-12. Instead, she was about a size 14-16 and 7 or 8 years old.” When Fein tried to explain to the mother that she was probably being scammed, her good intentions fell on deaf ears. “The mom was adamant that the agency had convinced her her daughter would be the perfect model for the audition,” says Fein.
Carpenter says this, too, is a scam she’s heard before. In fact, there’s little in the way of scams legitimate talent and casting agents haven’t heard. That’s why, when they hear of something that doesn’t sound quite right, they sound the alarm. “When we think something funny is going on, we’ll pick up the phone and let each other know,” says Carpenter, describing what she calls a “friendly competition” among Atlanta entertainment agents.
Get Booked: the Right Way
But if you’re not in the loop, so to speak, how can you know if something is a scam or not? More importantly, where can you find legitimate acting opportunities? Most of the time, it boils down to relying on good old common sense and instinct, backed by a healthy dose of research. “Check references and word of mouth, the Screen Actors Guild and the Better Business Bureau. See what they say. Do your homework,” says Rebecca Shrager, Owner/Agent of The People Store and Hot Shot Kids Talent Agency, in Atlanta. Shrager, who has booked talent for the TV series Necessary Roughness, Teen Wolf, and the feature film Footloose, says her firm gets inquiries from actors every single day. Normally, she says, the process works like this: an actor sends in a resume. Shrager’s team gives them a “cold” read and they talk for a few minutes to answer any questions the actor might have. If the actor is a voice-over candidate, Shrager asks that they put together a reel, or digital sample of their work. She calls them when an audition is available. The actor auditions and if they’re booked—and only then—Shrager gets paid.
“Check references and word of mouth, the Screen Actors Guild and the Better Business Bureau.
See what they say. Do your homework.”
Rebecca Shrager, Owner/Agent of The People Store and Hot Shot Kids Talent Agency, in Atlanta
But what if you don’t have an agent? How can you find legitimate acting opportunities? Well, you can start by ruling out those newspaper ads inviting you to go to your local mall to audition for a big Hollywood agency. Those are probably not legit.
Pierre, who works exclusively with talent agents when he’s casting principals or main actors for roles, says the only time agents tend to deviate from the process Shrager described above is when they’re looking for dozens or hundreds of extras for a film scene. He says for those occasions, he’ll sometimes hold open calls for talent, often posting notices on Facebook or websites that specifically deal with extras. But even then, determined scammers sometimes corrupt legitimate postings in order to lure people looking for fame. Pierre says it happened to him once when he was casting for a film. “We needed a certain look, so we placed a mass call. Someone reposted that status on another site, removed my name, and had people submit their information to a scam artist. They were getting people’s bank account numbers and taking their money,” Pierre remembers. “It’s crazy and it’s so sad. This is the actors’ passion. It’s kind of like love. They’re blinded. Sometimes, they’re willing to do anything, even compromise themselves,” he says.
To avoid being taken for a ride, and to learn exactly how the entertainment industry works, every talent and casting agent I spoke with offered this advice: take a class. Shrager says, “Do research on classes, take a six-week class. It should literally be a few hundred dollars.” Carpenter, whose agency only works with actors and models with at least five years’ worth of experience, agrees. “If you don’t have experience, the next best thing is training. Get yourself some training.” That training can come in the form of community theatre or a more traditional class setting.
But beware, because here again, scammers know how to get to you. Roberson, one of the twins who forked over money to a talent agent in hopes of becoming a model, also enrolled in a class that was run by a scammer. “We attended classes every other Saturday,” she said. “We had to pay for every class we attended but after we told them we weren’t coming back, they sent our names to a collection agency, saying we owed them money. They claim we took out a loan for our classes, but we paid out of pocket for every class,” she said. Pierre knows the scam well. He says scam artists will often advertise talent “showcases,” where they invite actors to pay for classes with instructors or producers who are not from here and are not legit. “Research which actors and producers these schools are affiliated with. You’re only as good as your last project,” he says.
But Carpenter takes it a step further. She says if you’ve done your research, checked references, taken classes and still aren’t confident that you can spot a scam when you see it, there’s only one way to go. “If they want to do it properly, they need to get an agent,” she says. “The right time to get an agent is when you say, ‘I’ve done as much as I can by myself, but I want to do more.’” Pierre agrees. “Let the agent do the work for you. That’s what they do.
Always know that you’re the talent. You’re the reason they’re making money.”
George Pierre, Atlanta independent casting agent
Nichole Bazemore is a freelance writer and blogger. She is also the host of the show, Say It With Style, on Blog Talk Radio. Her company, Simply Stated Solutions, provides marketing materials for coaches, consultants, and small businesses. Learn more about Nichole and her company via her website, www.simplystatedsolutions.com, or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter @nicholebazemore.