|How scam agents rope in aspiring actors
Learn how to detect, avoid fraudulent agents
by Gail Taylor
“You’re really pretty,” said the booking
agent. “We should get you for the Sunshine Girl.”
Jennie* remembers her excitement: “It was in the heart of
Yorkville, the office was gorgeous, and there were posters from every
major movie you can think of.” She was taken to the
inner office to meet the guy with the sales pitch: “Wow,
Jennie,” said the gentleman, “I can see that you
have so much potential.”
Before she knew it, her entire bank savings of $1,200 had been emptied
for the photo shoot.
It was a long time before Jennie figured out what had
happened. “It took me two years to realize that you
don’t need anyone to book you to be a Sunshine girl; all you
need to do is call the newspaper yourself.”
This was not the first time that Jennie had been fooled. In
1990, when Jennie was thirteen years old, she found an ad in the
Toronto Star featuring auditions for young people. She told her parents
that acting was the career she really wanted. “Since my Mom
and Dad did not speak English very well, I made the phone call myself,
and I took them with me. I did all the translating,” she
recalls. “The agent said all the usual things –
‘I see you have potential, Jennie’, and,
‘Mrs. Bell, you have a talented daughter’
– all without having seen me perform.”
Jennie and her parents shelled out $1,200 for the registration. Then
the agent said she needed photos, for an additional $1,000.
Jennie remembers the moment: “I recall very clearly that my
mother was uneasy, but the agent said that this is how it’s
done in the business. My mother didn’t have the heart to say
no to me, so we did it; my mother charged the money on her credit
A few days later, they picked up the photos and this time the agent
said they needed enlargements, at an additional fee of
course. At this point, her mother objected, saying that she
would make copies on her own. A month later the enlargements
were done and Jennie called the agency. “The number was
Something similar almost happened to Bob* when he took his
thirteen-year-old daughter, Susan*, to an open audition.
“My daughter has a passion for performing,” he
says. “She explains it as being fun and being able to fill
others with emotion and most of all make them smile.”
Susan did a five-second cold reading of a soft drink commercial. The
very next day, Bob got a call back from the agency. The woman on the
phone said she was the “talent scout” and she was
interested in Susan.
“My daughter was so happy that she got chosen and she wanted
to take the classes the agency was selling. We paid them a lot of money
to sign up my daughter,” he says. “I am too
embarrassed to say [how much].”
Like many people who pay exorbitant up-front fees to so-called talent
agencies, Bob’s initial instinct was suspicion. But his
daughter was so excited, he ignored his gut and let his heart guide
him. Even so, he later did some research online and discovered CanadianActor Online
(CAO), a website dedicated to informing and educating actors about the
business side of “The Biz.”
“Now, after signing on this wonderful website [CAO], I
realize that we made a horrible mistake by signing with the talent
scout, ” Bob said.
On the CAO
discussion boards, he received advice from the moderators and
other parents to “cancel, cancel, cancel” his
contract. That’s what Bob did. But he was lucky because he
was able to cancel within the ten-day cooling-off period allowed under
the Consumer Protection Act. Had he waited longer than that, the
contract he had signed with the agency would have been legally binding.
Jennie’s parents, like many others, also put aside their
suspicions for the sake of their daughter. They did not want to dash
her hopes. Even when the scam agency disappeared, they still
weren’t sure that they had been defrauded. They just presumed
it went out of business.
Now Jennie knows better. She too learned a great deal about the
business on CAO. She realizes she was naive and not well informed about
“I thought the auditions were real,” she says.
“At the time, I didn’t really question why most of
these auditions took place in non-permanent spaces. I think for my
parents, a part of them kinda knew something was not right,
but . . .”
For both Bob and Jennie, their experiences had several warning signs in
common: In each case, the agencies attracted their attention with a
newspaper ad. All of them had pictures of well-known stars on the
walls; all of them charged high up-front fees; all referred their
prospective clients to the in-house photographer. All three
businesses required their young prospects to take classes –
at outrageous fees – before working with them. Two of the
agencies ‘guaranteed’ work.
Sometimes, an agency may be legitimate but engaged in outrageous
pricing. Others may just be poor business operators who cannot meet
their costs – that’s what Jennie’s
parents thought. Then there are the bogus agents, the ones
that have no intention of providing the services promised.
Entertainment industry experts advise it is critical to ask questions
before signing a contract with any training school or agency. Examples
are: “What happens to your graduates? Is there an employer I
can speak to who has hired students from your school?” There
are many other questions of this nature, and if the school
can’t or won’t answer, then that’s a
reason to be wary.
Now in her mid 20s, Jennie is a full ACTRA member working in theatre,
music and film. She has changed how she approaches
talent agents. “I definitely did my research before I signed
with an agent. I asked around, I checked ACTRA’s website, I
used the Agents Book as a guideline.” She adds, “If
an agent is too eager to sign me on, I’m immediately on
Performing artists are particularly vulnerable to fraud due to the
nature of the business and their work. They are always looking for a
break and they are performing or rehearsing constantly and simply
don’t have the time to do appropriate consumer research. When
they receive an offer that looks like it will fulfill their dreams,
they may not take the time to conduct the analysis – surf the
Net, call the Better Business Bureau, and so on.
Success as an actor, dancer or musician depends on talent,
self-confidence and a desire to perform. That’s
what the bogus agent appeals to – the very thing
that the performing artist needs to achieve success. Instead, bogus
agents steal intangible treasures. In addition to costing money, they
can eat up time and shake a performer’s stride.
Don’t green light talent agent scams. Report any
illegal practices to the Ministry of Consumer and Business Services at
416 326 8800, toll free at 800 889-9768.
For more information on CAO, pick up the organization’s
brochure at ACTRA (625 Church Street, Toronto) or at Theatre Ontario
(215 Spadina Avenue, Suite 210, Toronto) and also online at http://www.canadianactor.com/info/about.html.
(A Toronto-based writer, Gail Taylor has worked at the federal and
provincial levels of government, the last twenty years as an executive.
She has written on organizational change and social policy themes.
*Names of all individuals changed to protect identity.