Ah, it’s that time again. Everyone is gearing up for pilot season and all its madness. But along with pilot season comes scam season. Because so many newbies hit town with big dreams of getting “discovered,” the scam artists come out of the woodwork, hoping to capitalize on actors’ hopes and dreams. For every outlandish claim of success they report, there are thousands of broken hearts and empty wallets. Yet somehow, the scams continue to flourish. They rely on the fact that those who are scammed are very unlikely to ever talk about it (because they are embarrassed, because they fear retaliation, because they’ve somehow rationalized their experience as “not that bad”) and that silence is the scammers’ secret weapon.
Before I get into the red flags to watch for, let me first explain that there are two basic types of scams I’m talking about, here. There’s the full-on scam (where you are promised something the scammer has no plan to ever deliver) and then there’s the scheme (where you are promised something… if you simply invest in this amazing opportunity right now). Both are designed to separate you from your money. I’m lumping these together for the sake of this column because the signs to watch for are the same. Sure, some folks will say it was absolutely worth the thousands of dollars they spent in order to get the opportunity of a lifetime to showcase for a top agent. Thing is, they could’ve also done it for free if they had just done some homework first. Either way, anything that leaves you feeling punked is not going to help your career along. So, let’s work to get the word out and keep scammers’ hands out of our wallets.
Why Scams Work
Scammers say all the right things. They tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to hear about your talent, your chances, your marketability. And then they tell you that the only thing standing between you and the career you’ve always dreamed of is the one thing they can provide… for a fee. Look, legitimate agents and managers want your money too, but they earn it by taking commissions on your bookings. Legitimate schools and coaches want your money, and they earn it for providing a certain number of classes over a finite amount of time.
Because there will always be a new crop of hopefuls entering the industry every year, there will always be scammers hoping to catch you before you know better. They buy contact information off headshots submitted to casting directors or representatives who appeal to newbies. Some even put out “casting notices” to troll for customers. They’ll never be able to pinpoint how they got your number, but they’ll say you were referred as someone who could benefit from whatever it is they have to offer. Because everyone likes being told they’re special and because no one wants to be seen as “green,” actors will often at least go in and “check out” these places. And that’s where they get you. They are experts at closing the deal. You won’t leave there without a contract in place. Something about the walls filled with headshots of famous people (all of whom supposedly endorse this program… uh-huh) and the frenetic energy of everyone there — happily living their showbiz dreams — just takes over. And when they find a way to squeeze you into “one last spot” in an overflowing industry workshop, WOW, you are set!
(Oh, and that contract they have you sign, please note that it waives your right to your image. They can put your headshot up on their wall of fame a few years from now when your career takes off, no thanks to them. Some endorsement deal, eh?)
Managers and agents earn money only when you book. It’s called commission. You are not responsible for paying your representatives’ rent while they’re submitting you for work! Their investment in office supplies, messenger fees, phones, faxes, subscription to Breakdown Services, are all their business expenses and that’s their investment in you. That’s precisely why it’s so difficult to get an agent or manager! They’re going to lay out a great deal of money because they believe you can work in this industry. And then, when you do work, they will receive their commission. It’s their payment for having believed in you, for having invested in you. It’s a business decision! And they limit their risk by signing enough actors of enough different types to (hopefully) keep someone on their roster out there and working at all times. Helping their actors get seen is good business! If an agent or manager is asking you for money up front, telling you to take certain classes, sending you to specific photographers, or requiring you to pay to be on their website or in their industry showcase, you are most likely dealing with a law-breaking creep and you need to say thank you and goodbye!
As outlined on the PARF forum, California Labor Code 1700.40 states: No talent agency may refer an artist to any person, firm, or corporation in which the talent agency has a direct or indirect financial interest for other services to be rendered to the artist, including but not limited to photography, audition tapes, demo reels or similar materials, business management, personal management, coaching, dramatic school, casting or talent brochures, agency-client directories, or other printing.
“But, but, but, I neeeeeeed an agent! I muuussssst have this manager’s logo on my resumé.” Bullshit. Casting directors learn very quickly which reps’ clients are worth looking at. We don’t have the time to do any more filtering than we already have to do as a part of our jobs. So even if you are getting submitted by a scam/scheme representative, you may only be getting seen in spite of them (certainly not because of them). And if they’re the really skeevy bottom-feeders, we may not even see you if we know you rock, since it means we’d have to be hit on by the letch when we called to book you. (Hey, casting couches are fair game for all jobs in this industry. People who think they can wield power over you in that way feel that they can do it to us too. Especially “newbie casting directors” like me.)
Speak Up if You’ve Been Scammed!
I know that no one wants to admit they’ve been targeted (successfully) as an easily-duped newbie. The thing is, that silence is exactly what keeps the scam artists around! They know that even if you do catch on to what they’re doing before you’ve lost thousands of dollars, you’re not likely to go singing from the rooftops about how much you have spent. It’s embarrassing to be thought of as naïve. But you can still get the word out and help others from going through what you went through. Set up a freebie blog account somewhere and post your first-hand testimonial anonymously. Sure, anonymous posts online are much less credible sources of information (as they should be), but at least someone facing the same “moment of gut-check” that you ignored a year ago could Google and read that you wish you had honored that Spidey Sense. Maybe it could make the difference in someone’s life! Fighting multi-million dollar shady businesses with a little bit of free information may seem like a waste of time, but I can assure you that even helping one person avoid heartbreak is worth the investment of putting the truth out there.
Sadly, I get emails all the time from people who start out saying, “Please don’t use this in your column,” and then go on to tell me all about some very negative (and scary) experiences in the industry. It’s not just the “newbie spend money here now” scam, it’s stuff like online predators, pedophiles, pornographers, casting couch experiences with seemingly legitimate casting directors or agents, you name it! *shudder* And I beg them to let me at least use the gist of their emails. Nope. Too scared. Too embarrassed. Too ashamed. Does that make you furious with the scam artists? Boy, I sure get steamed when I see what these creeps do to people who legitimately pursued what looked like a good opportunity in support of their life’s dream. Grr!
You submitted your headshot to casting on a project and somehow are being contacted for representation, classes, headshots.
You live in a market other than the one from which you’ve been “scouted.”
The company claims to have pull in a major market, but is headquartered nowhere near a major market.
The email you received confirming your appointment is filled with typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors. Also, you are encouraged to bring friends (this is so your cynical friend can get caught up in the hype, and sign up as well. Your cynical friend is far more likely to convince you this is a scam if you go alone and then tell her about it later, so they want her there with you, getting the well-oiled sales pitch).
Your appointment turns out to be a big open call with many other hopefuls, all just as excited about this opportunity.
The company’s website lists no principals’ names, only extreme claims of success and power in the industry.
You are guaranteed paid work, before you even sign up for whatever it is they are offering (management contract, package deal, etc.).
You’ve been told to come to LA to get seen by agents during pilot season. (Agents are busy pitching their existing roster during pilot season; they are not looking to sign anyone right now.)
You can “win” an event and then travel to LA for pilot season at a discount, since you were the winner.
You Google the name of the program along with the word “scam” in the search and find pages of hits.
You’ve been told that summer is “episodic season” and that you’ll score big if you come to this company’s “intensive” for six weeks in June and July.
Your “manager” wants you to pay for participating in an industry showcase, guaranteeing that you will be seen by top agents and casting directors. (Of course you will! They have all been paid to be there. Paid with your money, and then what kind of agent have you nabbed? One who, instead of pitching his clients or negotiating their best deal on projects is out doing paid scouting trips to sign more new, out-of-market talent? What a winner!)
BizParentz.org (a young actors’ advocacy group) sent me to a great watch list at the Federal Trade Commission’s website. Bookmark this and share the link with anyone who is trying to decide whether their recent industry opportunity is too good to be true.
And Bob Brody, general manager of Showfax, had this to say about doing due diligence before plunking down money for anything in this business: The three Rs: research, research, research. The Internet is fraught with scams but conversely it also provides excellent ability to do the research. Anyone imposing a breakneck deadline to receive payment, or for hurrying you to agree on something such as a contract, should be greeted with more than a degree of skepticism and individuals should take the time to try and research it out. Another blip on my scam radar is promises. When people promise something, hold onto your wallet and do some research.
So What? It’s My Money!
One of the favorite arguments among those who do not feel that they have been scammed is, “So what? It’s my money and I’ll spend it where I want to.” You’re absolutely right. You are entitled to spend thousands of dollars on unnecessary classes, unprofessional photos, and totally bogus showcases for people who are just collecting a check for doing something that is part of their job. The problem is, in doing so, you help perpetuate the scam! These folks can continue to operate because so many people are willing to throw good money after bad, and then folks who maybe don’t have thousands to spare will think they have to spend the money in order to compete, when the truth is, they could just do their own legwork and have better results (and the added satisfaction of having gotten savvy about the business, rather than having paid someone to tell them everything they wanted to hear about how special and uniquely talented they are).
“We couldn’t have landed such a great agent without spending all of this money on the program!” Great. Good for you. But most actors who are talented, professional, and driven will eventually land great agents and without having been a part of a sketchy “program” in order to do so. Yes, there are required costs in the pursuit of acting. “Opportunities” at thousands of dollars a pop are not among those required costs. Still, some people will say they are fine with having spent the big bucks, since it yielded some results. They simply don’t realize that these results were likely, regardless of having spent the money. Hey, I suppose it’s fine, then, as long as you don’t end up getting bitter because of having been scammed. The world doesn’t need bitter people in it (and bitter actors don’t book).
One final tip: If you have been suckered into one of these programs and now have a resumé filled with training from a group with a murky reputation in the industry, consider listing only the instructors’ names on your resumé, rather than the program. Honestly, casting directors will see some “schools” in actors’ training sections and toss the headshots right out, since the credits are equated with “new, duped, doesn’t know better, non-pro” so much of the time.
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000657.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.