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Surviving Scamland - How to Avoid the Bottom-Feeders

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#1 Casting



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Posted 26 September 2002 - 07:52 AM

by Greg Quinn


Model Twaddle

Video Casting - "Only a $1000 from Stardom"

Fringe Agents

Photographers: What's Wrong With This Picture?

Let's Buy an Agent!

Scambusting is well-tread territory ("a sucker born every minute," yada yada). So even though old-timers have heard it a million times, it pays to say it again, because a good warning can't be sounded often enough.

Modeling Schools
Beware the smiling salesman.

Probably the King of all talent scams, modeling schools have been around forever. But, as any reputable modeling agent will say, one does not need to attend modeling school to become a model. In fact, what is there to teach? Attitude, poise and...uh, attitude? Maybe lessons on how to fix your face with the right look for the runway, such as, "You'll never have me so drop dead, buddy!" But if you're a gorgeous woman, hell, you've probably been doing that all your life. Just kidding.

Most experts agree that what little there is to teach can be taught in less than five minutes. Yet there are scammers who con young students into taking modeling classes that cost a fortune. Without naming names (for obvious legal reasons), here is the core difference between the good and the bad.

Good: Top agencies, like Ford, Blanchard, Wilhelmina, have no up front fees of any sort - no registration fees, no class fees, no kick-backs from photographers, nothing.
Bad: Scammers will charge all of the above while force-feeding the idea that classes are essential for "success."

Good: Real agencies survive off of commissions from their clients; they make their money by getting them work. Real agents are bulldogs, aggressively pushing their clients' careers in the most lucrative direction.
Bad: Bogus agencies live of off "sign up" fees. They have little or no incentive to push the careers of their students. Why should they? Their rent is being paid off by fees they collect up front.

Good: Real modeling agents know photogenic talent when they see it. Very few people are blessed with perfect bone-structure, and these are the only ones a real agent is interested in.
Bad: Scammers are interested in anyone with a bank account.

Good: Agency doorways are marked with a ruler so the agent can see how tall a person is the moment she enters the room. This alone, eliminates a large majority.
Bad: The cons eliminate no-one, not even if you're a short, flat-nosed aborigine mud man. You're their meal ticket, baby.

There are three well-known agency/schools that have built a solid niche in this field, mainly through advertising in newspapers and on radio (another hint: good agencies don't advertise their services). They thrive in smaller markets outside L.A. and N.Y. They have great-looking, charming salespeople ready to greet you at the door. They will gush about your talent and personality and say that with a little "guidance" you, too, could be a star.

Well, if that's all it took, then everyone and their dog would be a star. But like I said, these are salespeople, whose only wish is to separate you from your cash.

Video Casting
Read the classified ads in newspapers and you'll see companies calling themselves video casting services or some such dreck, that vow to put you on tape to send to studio chiefs. They charge you hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars to make a tape of you doing scenes or monologues.

Most of these tapes are clumsy and amateurish. Few, if any, will ever make it to a studio chief's desk because a studio chief has no time to watch a tape made by a video casting service that charges actors to make tapes.

If you decide to hand deliver your paid-for tape to someone, like a casting director, you might find yourself in a very awkward position. That person may ask you why you had to pay to get yourself on tape.

You see his point, don't you? Why should a casting director look at a homemade tape of some actor who hasn't worked in an actual production, when he can look at tapes of other actors in real shooting conditions?

Actors should have film on themselves, especially if that's the medium of their choice. Ideally you want to have samples from actual movies or TV shows, but if you're just starting out, this can be difficult.

A good way to get film on yourself is from university student productions. In Hollywood there is U.S.C. and U.C.L.A. In New York, N.Y.U. Many student film auditions are advertised in the trade journals of these cities and on film department callboards.

Stick to the better departments where the students are talented and can make a tape that you'll be happy to show. It would be better to have no film at all than really bad film.

Always make duplicates of your original tapes, and never send out the original. The advantage of sending out tapes is that industry folks can view it at their leisure. They may watch it, or they may not. The important thing is to give them that option.

No one will ever cast you or represent you sight unseen. Too many reputations are at stake in this business to hire an unknown. Film on yourself is yet another calling card, as well as a demo of your skill.

Agent Scams
Tough union regulations make it hard for agents to scam actors, yet they still manage to do it on occasion. The rule of thumb for new actors is this: deal only with a legitimate agent, in other words an agent who is franchised by the acting unions - SAG, AFTRA, AEA.

"Franchised" means the agent has signed documents filed with the union - in effect binding him to the rules of the union. Those rules protect you, the actor.

Any agent who isn't franchised by the union isn't legit. Rarely will such an agent help your career because the film studios will not negotiate with an agent who isn't franchised by the appropriate union.

Keep in mind that a franchised agent makes his money by getting you work. The non-franchised agent normally makes a living by charging actors to sign up with him (again, the dreaded sign-up fee, a recurring theme in talent scams).

Any agent who tries to charge you money up front before you land a job, isn't legit. This is not acceptable practice. A franchised agent won't get any money until you do - and in that case it will be a percentage of your wage, not a flat fee.

In dealing with a franchised agent, you are protected by the unions. If a problem occurs, the union steps in, often resolving in favor of the actor. The laws are very specific and any hanky-panky can result in the agent losing his franchise, hence, relegating him to Scamland.

Shutterbug kickbacks
Reports to union offices still come in on a regular basis regarding photography kickback scams. A kickback is when an actor is strongly persuaded by an agent/manager to use a certain photographer. Said photographer then pays part of his session fee to the agent/manager for referring the client to him.

The most blatant offenders are the ones that con non-union talent. This keeps them out of trouble, because the unions - SAG, AFTRA - can only investigate complaints by union members.

I once had an agent who had a well-known scam going. Luckily, I had just joined the union, so I was spared from her dealings. The non-union folks weren't so fortunate. This agent signed up newbies like they were going out of style. Each one a meal-ticket, for they were strongly referred to the agent's boyfriend/photographer who took the worst pictures I've ever seen.

I was in her office once when her latest "kill," a non-union actor with a confused air about him, walked in with his bundle of proofs. As the agent browsed the proofs, she sang praises about what a great photographer her boyfriend was, a future Steven Meisel in the making.

My curiosity piqued, I looked over the actor's shoulder at the work of genius. I had to bite my tongue.

What I saw were shots of the actor jogging, fishing, eating a burger, talking on the phone - your typical commercial composites - but in each, the exact same strained smile (actually a grimace), on the actor's face. Mug shots. As if the photographer had given no thought to the actor's appropriate facial expressions, nuance, variety, so on. In fact, they were bereft of "life."

Some might say it is the fault of the actor who came up short on projecting a character. But this was beyond that. The actor looked as if he had been thrown into the ocean, without any coaching or advice.

A good photographer will take the role of a director, coaxing the actor into the right mood. The mood of this poor actor was clear from the start: panic.

All the rumors I had heard about this agent suddenly came crashing down on my head. The industry guides, word-of-mouth, SAG complaint files - all true.

News about inappropriate behavior among agents can spread through the industry like a Hollywood Hills brush fire. Indecencies are reported by actors and published in books like The Agencies as a reference guide for the newly initiated.

Agents that are red-flagged by the industry are doomed to fail. As was my agent. With all the bad publicity she had no option but to bail out of the business.

There are people who advertise themselves as "talent consultants" who, for a fee, will promise to get you signed with an agent. Such con artists maintain unholy alliances set up in advance with certain fringe agents.

The consultant will send his actors to the same agents who promptly sign them. The cost for this "service" - anywhere from $500 to $1,000. Who knows which - the agent or consultant - gets the lion's share of the fee, but certainly the actor is the bank-roller in this joint operation.

Some actors might say, "What's a few hundred dollars if I can get an agent?" But what kind of agent is the actor buying? One who is surely getting money under the table from the agent-getter, and who is probably earning a living from the scam. If an agent is that destitute that he would stoop to kickbacks, how good an agent could he be?

Proving such a scam, however, is not easy. Not without a paper trail. But if you find an agent, especially a union agent, in this manner, you should notify the SAG Agency Department, and mention the name of the agent who signed you.

There still are SAG/AFTRA talent agencies that bend union rules, often with costly scams like those already mentioned on this page. SAG/AFTRA does its best to prosecute these agencies, with varying results. There are instances of lawsuits that drag on for several years. Non-union agencies get away with what they can, and the sad fact is that governance of agencies varies, state to state.

Please note that what so many "agent-getters" and "advisors" offer at a fee is, by law, perfectly legal. Anyone can give you information and charge for it.

However, so much of what they will tell you (for a fee) can be found free by reading the Hollywood trade papers, or by searching the Net, if you know where and how to look. Check my Resources page for one such site.

My rule of thumb is this: beware of anyone who wants money to help you get started. Agents are regulated by law and can only take a commission when and if you work, but that is not the case with these so-called talent consultants! So be careful how and where you spend your money.

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