By Jessica Fargen
March 21, 2010
Talent companies out to bilk wannabe kid stars are following Hollywood to the Bay State, according to industry watchdogs who warn of a dark side to the local film boom.
“The unscrupulous businesses look at Massachusetts as fertile ground,” said Anne Henry, co-founder of BizParentz Foundation, a California group that advocates for child actors.
The fringe industry makes its money by holding events at local hotels, where hundreds of kids audition for scouts and some are urged to sign up for expensive acting classes and competitions. Such events – promoted with ads touting “the opportunity to audition for an agent who puts kids JUST LIKE YOU on TV shows” – have garnered some companies warnings from state attorneys general and flunking grades from the Better Business Bureau.
“They pulled her aside and they said, ‘You are definitely what we are looking for,’ ” said Jen Alberino, a Weymouth mom who attended a mass audition for Great American Model and Talent Search at a Somerville Holiday Inn with her daughter Gianna, 8.
Then came the catch: At a second event, Alberino said she was asked to pay $4,500 for acting classes.
“It was very disturbing, the whole experience,” she said.
In fact, local casting agents say, parents should never pay for auditions. They should be concerned if their child is auditioning for an agent or scout, rather than a specific part. And, one local casting agent said, acting classes should cost no more than $300 per class.
As the spring filming season kicks off, “consumers who are thinking about looking into going to one of these seminars should call around and look into the company,” said Amie Breton, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.
Bright lights, big money
Since the state’s film tax credit passed in 2006, the number of movies made in Massachusetts jumped from two to 13 in two years, opening up hundreds of kid roles. Along with that has come fame and fortune for some families and cautionary tales from others.
At least two national companies that have run into trouble in other states for allegedly deceptive practices are marketing to wannabe kid actors here.
THE, a company based in Phoenix, Ariz., held at least two mass auditions in Massachusetts in the past year, according to Henry, including one at the Copley Marriott in Boston attended by hundreds. In May, the Connecticut attorney general settled with THE over a Stamford event after receiving 15 consumer complaints. NedGam Productions, doing business as THE, was fined $25,000 and agreed to issue refunds of $1,950 for people who preregistered for the four-day event. NedGam did not admit to breaking any laws.
“THE and similar organizations are not talent agents,” said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. “If consumers are seeking an agent to represent their child, look elsewhere.”
He advised parents: “Shop around. The lessons and instruction that these organizations provide may be available elsewhere for less.”
George Gammon, who founded THE, said the settlement concerned three sentences in a contract that registrants signed. About 250 people preregistered, he said.
According to Blumenthal, THE’s $1,000 cancellation fee for registrants was a possible violation of state law.
The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office had one complaint about THE in 2009. The Better Business Bureau has received 31 complaints in three years against THE and Academy of Cinema and Television, or ACT, which Gammon also founded. Of the complaints, 14 were “assumed resolved,” 16 were resolved to consumer satisfaction and one was resolved with a dissatisfied consumer.
The BBB gave THE and ACT an “F” grade, based on the AG action and the number of complaints, including 17 “serious” ones.
In March last year, the Missouri BBB warned parents of “hidden fees” associated with THE auditions held in St. Louis.
Great American Model and Talent Search, based in Pittsburgh, Pa., held an event at a Somerville Holiday Inn in the summer of 2008. In 2005, the New York Consumer Protection Board warned parents of advance fees charged by GAMTS for its local events. In 2006, the Michigan attorney general warned parents not to “fall victim” to model and talent search agencies such as GAMTS that promise to make kids stars.
Seven complaints have been filed against GAMTS with the BBB in three years. The company was given an “F” by the BBB because one complaint was serious, one was unresolved and it failed to respond to two complaints.
Elaine Zuccarelli, office manager at GAMTS, refused in an e-mail to answer questions about the company’s practices.
Boom and bust
Angela Peri, owner of Boston Casting, one of the area’s biggest casting groups, said Boston has become a “pot of gold” for the movie business, offering opportunity but also risks for vulnerable kids and their families.
The number of child actors she has on file has surged from 1,000 to 5,000 since the film tax credit passed in 2006.
“Now all of a sudden these people are coming out of the woodwork and taking advantage of people with these unnecessary fees. People don’t know any better,” said Jodi Purdy-Quinlan, owner of South Shore Casting.
Peter DePesa, a Wilmington restaurant owner, said a THE event at the Copley Marriott in Boston on Feb. 13 left his 10-year-old daughter in tears.
“They told her, ‘She didn’t make this call back, but with our help she’ll be ready for the next audition,’ ” said DePesa.
Then, he said, they told him acting classes would cost $10,000.
Gammon, founder of THE, would not confirm the dates of events in Massachusetts and said THE does not offer acting classes. Gammon founded ACT, an acting school, in 2007, but said it is a separate company.
Gammon said THE holds a weeklong competition at Disney World, attended by kids who are recruited at events such as the one in Boston. Registration is $1,950 and up, according to the Web site. Kids audition for agents, take classes and can win awards, while parents can make connections with agents.
He said he gets only positive feedback. “Parents say it’s a wonderful experience,” he said. Children “experience a lot of growth, self-confidence and self-esteem.”
GAMTS also touts its success: The company’s Web site is filled with testimonials, including one from a New Hampshire mom whose triplet boys broke into the business after a Manchester, N.H., event in 2005.
Terri Barton paid about $800 for her boys to attend a GAMTS annual competition in Pittsburgh, where she made connections and later hired an agent. The boys, now 11, were in a Kmart TV ad and the movie “Revolutionary Road.”
“I have no gripes,” she said.
But there are other routes to success, said Purdy-Quinlan.
“You don’t have to spend all this money,” she said, “to get started in the business.”
To file a complaint against a company operating in Massachusetts, call the AG’s consumer hotline at 617-727-8400.
Law aims to protect children’s money
By Jessica Fargen
March 21, 2010
Massachusetts officials have become so concerned with exploitation of kids in the movie business that advocates are pushing to toughen a state law that requires parents to get court approval for certain child star acting and entertainment contracts.
The law, enacted in 1992, requires parents to file yearly financial reports with their county probate and family court and prove they are setting aside their child’s earnings in an escrow account.
Advocates for changing the law say more child actors are at risk now because of the increase in made-in-Massachusetts films – yet few parents are filing the required paperwork with the courts.
“With more kids working . . . the need for protection rises significantly,” said Sally R. Gaglini, an entertainment attorney who teaches at Suffolk University Law School.
Gaglini said her law students last summer reviewed 10 years of Suffolk County child entertainer petitions and found only one yearly financial report.
“This means that the laws enacted to protect child performers earnings have not been enforced,” said Gaglini, who testified in favor of the bill at a hearing this month. She helped craft the bill, as well as the 1992 law. “Without enforcement and accountability, the children’s earnings are at high risk of being jeopardized.”
The legislation closes loopholes in the existing law, said bill sponsor Rep. Daniel Bosley (D-North Adams).
“You need to protect them until they can have access to their money and you need to protect them from people trying to skirt the law,” he said. The bill would:
—Require parents to file a petition for child entertainers who make more than $500 per contract as a “day player,” such as an extra. There is currently no monetary requirement.
—Eliminate an exception that required parents to file a petition with the court only if the child worked more than 120 days and was paid in weekly or three-day increments. Under the bill, petitions would be required for paid minor entertainers, except day players or on-camera narrators.
—Add entertainment “services” to cover minors working behind the scenes.
“Whatever protection we can provide for minor entertainers, we want to provide that,” said Paula M. Carey, chief justice of the probate and family court, which tracks minor entertainment contract cases. “We want to make sure the money is protected for the child.”