Tinsel or Sham
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a reprint, verbatim, with permission, of an article from a 1999 edition of Oz Magazine. Some advice is just plain timeless!
Ever since Thomas Edison patented the motion picture camera, people have dreamed about seeing themselves on the screen. Unfortunately, for just about as long as that fantasy has existed, unscrupulous individuals have sought to take advantage of the dreamers.
In Atlanta, and other media centers across the country, con artists posing as talent agents prey on the hopes and aspirations of those seeking to become actors in commercials, films, television shows, and other productions. People are aware that the validity of many talent agencies is questionable. However, despite following what their common sense tells them, people lose all perspective when a silver-tongued persuader tells them they’ve got what it takes to become a star.
“It’s an industry that relies on hopes and dreams in the first place,” says Norman Bielowicz, former Director of the Georgia Film & Videotape Office. “When you start using these hopes and dreams to advance your financial position, that’s when you get into trouble.”
Atlanta’s reputation as a growing production center is well known nationwide, and along with talent and production companies, a large number of rip-off artists have also settled in the area. Although we won’t mention these scammers by name, we’ve contacted a number of well-known professionals in the production community to help us inform readers about the common traps that are set up to snare would be on-camera talent.
When dealing with a talent agent, a good rule of thumb is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A legitimate talent agent, according to those contacted for this story, would never make any promises or guarantees regarding work.
Kay Tanner, Vice President of the Genesis Models & Talent agency, says the agent’s job is to provide occasions for talent to audition for work. “An opportunity to get you an audition and actually getting you work are two different things,” she explains. “Anyone who promises you work is talking out of both sides of their mouth.”
“No one can promise employment,” says Melissa Goodman, Executive Director of the Atlanta offices of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). “That’s not the agent’s decision, it’s dependent on the client or the director’s approval. You have to go out and audition to get the work.”
Outrageous promises and guarantees are only one tactic used by unscrupulous talent agents. If an agent asks for a “registration fee” to represent a talent, that’s another signal that the prospective talent should leave immediately.
“If they take one penny from you up front, do an about-face and run as quickly as you can..." -Scott Woodside
“If they take one penny from you up front, do an about-face and run as quickly as you can,” advises Scott Woodside, an actor and radio personality on Z-93 Radio. Woodside advised would be actors on the do’s and don’ts of breaking into the business on his video, You Oughta Be In Pictures. The video, which was available from 1993 until 1998, explained how to break into the Atlanta talent market.
After the initial run of his video sold out, Woodside moved onto other pursuits, but says he still helps out people whose children wish to enter the business. His main warning is to be wary of agents who expect money before finding work.
“If they want any fees up front, they’re out for your money and not out to market you, or your child,” Woodside explains. “An agent makes money when you, the talent, makes money. That’s what an agent is all about.”
Others contacted for this article agree with Woodside. They stress that the only time an agent gets money from a client is when they get work for that client.
“We recommend that people do not register with agents who ask for money up front,” says Goodman. “A agent works for you, and should work on a commission only basis when work is obtained for you.”
Some of the most common scams involve agents convincing want to be actors that the key to success lies in signing up for acting or modeling classes through the agency, or going to the agent’s exclusive photographer for a complete portfolio of pictures. People stress that if an agent asks for money for any of these necessary services, it’s time to walk away.
Goodman says that agencies that are signatories to SAG and AFTRA cannot be affiliated with acting schools or photographers, and can only make suggestions about classes or photographers. “You need to avoid agents who say ‘You have to be trained here,’ or ‘You have to go to this specific photographer, or we won’t represent you,’” she explains.
People should also be wary of classified ads in the newspapers. “Legitimate producers do not put ads in the newspaper,” says Bielowicz. “They work through established, legitimate talent agents. Answering ads in the newspaper is typically a way to end up in [an acting] class situation.”
Photographer Brian Dougherty, who is well known for his headshots of area talent, says that he’s never seen a legitimate talent agency advertise in the newspaper. “They usually have more talent than they can find work for,” he explains.
Executive Producer John McCorkle, of Fireside Productions, says that the vast majority of work cast in Atlanta is done through talent agents arranging for their talent to audition before casting directors. If a newspaper ad is legitimate, it wouldn’t be for a speaking part, but more likely a call for extras in a crowd scene. “The only way you’ll know if it’s a scam or not,” McCorkle explains, “is to call the number and see who you get on the other end. If that person is a legitimate talent agent, or casting director, they put that ad in the paper to find 3,000 people to fill up a stadium for a shot.”
It’s important to understand the difference between a talent agent and a casting director. According to Annette Stilwell, of Stilwell Casting, an agent represents the actor/ actress, and “they try to market the person and sell them to the casting director, saying they’re right for the role.” A casting director is hired by the ad agency or production company behind the project. The casting director calls talent agents to let them know about projects, describes roles that are being cast, and asks them to suggest talent and submit photos and resumes.
"I choose which ones to bring in for an audition,” Stilwell says. She usually brings talent into her office and has them videotaped doing a reading. This videotape is then submitted to the director and/or ad agency, who cuts the list down to two or three candidates, who then are brought in for a live reading.
Agents say that experience, a resume, and a good headshot are the basic components needed by people trying to break into the business. A prospective talent should get together a resume and headshot and send it to an agent. If there is any interest, the agent will make a point of getting in touch.
“Agents can’t represent talent without a good headshot. That’s the most important marketing tool they have.”
The headshot is one of the agent’s prime tools. “It’s the cornerstone of what they need to get started,” says Dougherty. “Agents can’t represent talent without a good headshot. That’s the most important marketing tool they have.”
Agents will recommend two or three photographers to an actor or actress, and suggest they seek out a photographer who specializes in headshots rather than a business that sells “glamour” photos, or a general portrait studio. An 8 x 10 inch color photo is the industry standard.
The price range for such a photo runs about $125 to $200, most of which is a session fee. Women’s makeup and hair is not included in this fee, and runs an additional $65 to $85. At a session, a photographer will shoot two rolls of film and provide the talent with a contact sheet. Photographers suggest that the subject choose a particular photo after conferring with an agent, and after that pick is made, the subject receives an 8x10 print, which costs about $15 to $20. That print is sent to a duplication company, and the talent receives 500 copies for between $80 to $120.*
Due to it’s importance, it is necessary to know what makes a “good” one. In general, the subject should be smiling and showing teeth. Dougherty believes that a “commercial headshot” photo should be “nice, warm, friendly and simple, real approachable.”
Photographer Michael Holland, another headshot specialist, says, “It should look like the person. If he were to walk in off the street, he should look no different.” Even so, Holland believes that a good headshot needs to convey a certain magic about the subject. “Anyone can smile for the camera on cue,” he says, “but there’s an additional emotional content in a good headshot. There should be a certain spark in the eyes. It’s the most important visual aid you have. It helps you to get remembered and to get work.”
For someone breaking into the market, this headshot should suffice for a year or two. Photographers suggest that a new one be taken when the talent changes his or her look, such as growing or shaving-off facial hair for a male, or a change in hairstyle for a female. After gaining some experience, if the actor/actress is interested in pursuing film roles, photographers suggest that they shoot a second, more “dramatic” photo. Rather than the smiling face of the commercial photo, Holland says this dramatic photo “shows more depth. It allows the talent to show who they are.” This second shot can be a three-quarters body photo, an image that the photographers say is very popular in New York and Los Angeles, and is starting to catch on here.
Both Dougherty and Holland stress that unless the person is interested in pursuing fashion or print work, these two pictures are all that’s necessary to get started as an actor. Holland says that he doesn’t shoot composites for absolute beginners, and warns aspiring actors/actresses to be wary of a photographer who offers a complete package of photos. He says he only shoots such packages for “somebody who comes to me for that kind of product because they’ve been around, and know what they want.”
The resume is the agent’s other important marketing tool. The resume, doesn’t have to be detailed, but should be a basic overview of what you’ve done so that agents and others can see the skill level. Kelly Kelly, formerly an Associate Agent at Atlanta Models & Talent, suggests that a resume be updated about every six months, “depending on how much work they get.”
The one-page resume should contain four main areas: basic statistics including height, weight, hair color, eye color, and possibly shoe size or dress size; experience; classes or workshops the actor has taken; and interests and special skills, such as roller-skating, horseback riding, sports, or musical instruments played.
Although people have a tendency to embellish their resumes, agents advise people to be straightforward and honest. If you lie on your resume, or put something on there you didn’t do, sooner or later, it’s going to come back and bite you. If you put something on the resume that’s not true, you may be reading some day for a film, and the person auditioning may be the one who cast that show, or commercial.
When filling out the experience section, put down the name of the film or project, the character played, and the name of the director of the film or television program, or the production company for commercials and industrials. Tony Brown, formerly with The Houghton Agency, says that any extra work should be included on the resume. “If you’re working steadily and you’re any good at all,” he explains, “you should get enough credits on there so you can get the extras credits off.”
Brown is also a strong proponent of putting theater work on the resume. “It demonstrates you’re dedicated to your craft,” he explains, “that you’re paying your dues, and that you’re learning how to be an actor, not just a performer.”
Agents stress that theater work is important, and director Bill VanDerKloot says that he tries to attend as much local theater as possible, to get an idea of the talent in the market. In addition to performing, industry professionals say that the classes and workshops that an aspiring actor/actress take can also influence whether or not they get called for an audition.
When exploring a possible class or acting coach, Chris Coleman, artistic director of the Actor’s Express, says “Talk to the people that studied there and see what they got out of it, did they get concrete tools they could use and apply?” He suggests talking to two or three people who have taken the class before making any decision.
If an agent, however, suggests that an actor take a particular class, you should be wary. If they encourage you to get classes through them, you’d be better off running for the door. Instead, investigate classes offered by theaters allied with Actors Equity, and look at the credentials of the person teaching the class. Know if it’s someone working in the market, who is doing commercials or theater.
When checking out a school, Bielowicz says “You should do the same thing you’d do if you were buying a car, call to see if there are any complaints registered with the Better Business Bureau, the Governor’s Office on Consumer Affairs, or the county solicitor’s office. Look for people you need more than they need you. They don’t need you as a student, it’s just the reverse.”
Perhaps no people are as open to scams as parents who are convinced that their child is the next Shirley Temple, or Macaulay Culkin. The same common sense precautions need to be used with children as with adults. But very often, all a parent has to hear is that their child has the potential to be a star, and they throw all sensibility out the window.
Before a parent even considers taking their child to an agent, it’s recommended that they observe several criteria. Even though they think their son or daughter is the most beautiful child in the world, if total strangers come up to them and affirm that opinion, then their child probably has a shot.
Rebecca Shrager, president of The People Store talent agency, says that when she considers a child as a client, she tries to determine whose idea it is for the child to perform. “I look for parents who say ‘My kid is really bugging me to do this’, where the kid is more motivated than the parent.”
Kelly agrees that the child’s motivation is key. “I make sure the child is doing it because they want to do it, not because the parents are telling them to do it. If the parents are overbearing, it’s not healthy for the child.” She stresses that it can be tougher on a child. “There are a lot of kids who burn out if they get too many rejections,” she says. “It can be very hard on them.”
A lack of experience need not be a roadblock to a child who wants to be in commercials or movies. “Sometimes with kids,” Shrager explains, “it’s a matter of giving them a shot. We will give them an opportunity to audition for something to see how they can do.”
The child’s personality is another important factor that influences their performance. Pay attention to how they interact when introduced to a stranger. The child should be open, with a gregarious personality, who is not shy, and not afraid of the camera. Their mom will not be on the set with them, so they need to be comfortable taking direction from total strangers. If they’re not able to do that, don’t pursue it.
Parents are most susceptible to scams involving photos of their child. Agents advise that because children’s looks change so rapidly, a professional headshot might be outdated within a matter of weeks. Instead, they say that a recent snapshot will do. When it comes to casting children, Stilwell says that she’s “happy with a Polaroid. I’d rather see something that shows what they look like right now.”
Once a talent is signed to an agent, the standard fee for getting the actor/actress work is 10 percent. SAG/ AFTRA contracts mandate this sum for any work done under the auspices of the union. For print work, an agent may take a 15 percent commission. If any agent has a talent sign a contract for a larger percentage, or the space for the commission is left blank, the prospective talent is advised to walk away as quickly as possible.
The talent should keep in touch with the agent on a steady basis. Most agents recommend a call or note every week or two, to keep the agent updated on activities and to get the talent’s name known around the agency. The talent, however, shouldn’t call too often. They should try to check in with them once or twice a month, usually in the morning when things are not quite as busy. They should stay in touch without becoming a pest. It otherwise prevents the agent from making the necessary calls to find work for that talent.
More than anything, an aspiring actor/actress needs to understand what their relationship is with their agent. “It’s not my job to make you a star,” says Tanner. “It’s not my job to get you work, it’s your job. I work with you, and I’ll do everything I can to help you, but I can’t make people hire you. I cannot make your life wonderful. That’s the actor’s responsibility. The way you get work is by acting well. If you are a good actor, someone will see your work and find you.”