Don’t Get Ripped Off – Acting Scams
It is a sad truth that people are always going to exploit the needs (and dreams) of other people.
Acting is a dream that aspiring performers are constantly (perhaps even foolishly) seeking a shortcut in to. The vultures circle this desire and there are far too many upcoming actors who get picked off by them. Don’t play with fire! I have. What I am about to tell you is not for self-pity (I learned from my mistake), but rather to let you know that ANYONE can become victim to a well-delivered scam.
In my early days as a performer trying to break into industry the Internet was still a baby. It was full of promises and opportunity. I was struggling to get myself out there into the world of performing arts. I had no contacts at the time, no network to call upon and I was more than a little green about the gills. Living in the back of beyond in a little hamlet in Yorkshire, I was nowhere near the bright lights of potential work. I was desperate to try and secure a job.
This desperation led me to the Internet. I waited a millennium for the whirring, clicking, screeching sound of modem (do you remember those days? The days when you would be grateful when the loading bar had hit half way within two minutes? That was fast!) to tick over. I typed in search terms to a search engine called Dogpile – Google was possibly emerging then, but it was little known and could well have still been embryonic at that time. “Audition”, “Acting jobs”, “Find an agent”… You name it, I searched for it.
As results came through, I became increasingly despondent. I was NEVER going to get an acting job.
Then I stumbled upon a site, long since closed, which offered to put aspiring performers like me in touch with the best agents in the UK. What was more, they GUARANTEED I would have my first acting job within a month. I signed up! A job that quickly?! I just simply had to.
I received my first email. They could only put me in touch with the agents if I paid £49.00 as an administrative fee. Fine. I was going to get my first acting job. I could afford that.
A thank you email came through about a day later (I don’t think auto responders were available yet). It said they were compiling my contact list and that I should now get my head shots and CV reviewed by a professional casting director to ensure I was providing the right material. It would ONLY cost £22.00 and the best in the business would look over what I was sending out.
Sure, I thought, why not! I paid.
A day later I received a thank you email and a postal address to send my shots and CV to.
A week later I received a list of agents entitled “Monster List of Agents” through the post. It was 4 A4 pages long, and comprised of a list of about 60 agents. There was an explicit instructional note: do not contact these theatrical agents until I had finished my headshot review.
Okay, I thought, these guys know the industry. They know best. So, I continued to patiently wait.
A week or so later, I received another letter – this time from a “Frederick Barnes”. Allegedly a high profile casting director who worked in West End castings. I had no reason to doubt this (did I mention how naive I was?) and he was full of praise for my CV layout, but didn’t think much of my head shots. He recommended I come down to London and get another professional shoot done with his recommended head shot photographer. What was more was that he could get a significant discount for me. For only £150 I could get three portraits.
Now this seemed like a great idea, but I couldn’t afford £150 + the train fare. I decided not to go for it, but to still follow Frederick’s advice and get new shots done. This time, locally. Another £80 spent.
By this time over a month had passed and I had no agent and no acting job. I took matters into my own hands and decided to contact the agents on the list.
Out went my copies of CV and headshot together with SAEs. Then something weird happened. I started to receive return post: “not known at this address”. Every single one!
It turns out that the list was a complete fake. Mind bubbling and I then did some research into Frederick Barnes. No such person could be found at his alleged address.
I’d spent £71.00 on dud information and could have spent more had I gone for those head shots.
I complained to the originating company. They had, after all, agreed a guarantee. Lo and behold I receive contact details for an extras agency who were absolutely guaranteed to offer work to me.
I went for an interview with the agency. I’m not going to name them publicly, but people close to me know who they are. I was told to audition, so I did. I was then told that I absolutely was their type and they had plenty of work for me. But… I had to pay them £100 administrative fee to put me on their books and they needed me to get additional head shots with THEIR photographer.
I wouldn’t have to pay for these upfront as the fee would be paid for through my first four jobs with them (in other words, I wouldn’t be paid for my first four jobs – at today’s rate that’s nearly £400).
Their contract was six pages long and tied me in on exclusive rights to them. I wouldn’t be escalated to a speaking extra role with them until I had done at least ten jobs. Their cut was 18% and if I refused any work I was offered I would either have to pay for the administration or they would blacklist me. Sounds fair right?
Needless to say, I didn’t sign and didn’t work with them.
By this point I was a little clearer on what I was getting into. I had been scammed. I received no responses from the originating company and their website disappeared. That was a lot of time and money spent for nothing. What was worse, I then discovered the Contacts Directory (comprising of hundreds of agents details, all professionals and acknowledged) and this cost £12 in any standard bookstore. The bible for all actors in Britain.
I had been well and truly scammed! Why? Because I was not prepared and was led by me dream rather than thinking professionally.
Avoiding Acting Scams
Firstly, you just ALWAYS do your research…
Companies you do not know anything about should be approached with caution. Regardless of how good they may look.
Although there is much hyperbole around the dangers and alleged stories about aspiring actors (and models) attending supposed “auditions”, “photoshoots” or “castings” and then being subjected to rape on the casting couch, kidnap and even of murder; there is still a necessary safety mechanism that needs to be engaged. These stories may just be that: stories. Indeed, despite hearing these gruesome tales in my own ventures, I could not find any solid cases that support the reality behind them. But, there is a very real possibility that this could happen – however unlikely the chance.
The dangers are there, and the fact is many actors do suffer extortion in the same manner I did. While this is not rape or murder, it is still a very real crime. How do we arm ourselves? Preparation is ultimately key.
Quite simply, you should exercise caution. Remember the common sense that was drilled into you as a kid. Be alert and aware to the possible risks and work hard to safeguard against them.
Remember the following:
- Before attending any audition, do some research into them. Check that they are bonafide. Check that other performers have been involved with them. If there is nothing about the company online then there is something a little odd. Check the companies registers with your appropriate chamber of commerce. Does the company actually exist?
- If the company is calling you to a remote location or they are making unusual requests in their content (script/sides etc), then call the casting director to discuss. If it still doesn’t feel right then do not go, or at the very least take someone with you.
- Trust your instincts. Do not “stick it out” just because you do not want to look bad to a company. If something is weird or feels odd at the audition then leave.
- Don’t feel pressured to do something you don’t want to at an audition. A reasonable company will understand your concerns and will not force the issue or request.
Always question your initial impression. Be wary, but don’t be worried. You do not need to become anxious over these things providing you have exercises true caution. It is highly unlikely you will ever be exposed to danger as you venture out into the big world of performing arts. You are more likely to be exposed to the same type of scam I was caught out by.
Fake Connections (agents, networks and talent scouting)
Most scams that catch out the unsuspecting and naive aspiring performer are those connected with services and people who allege that they can support your career.
Talent scouts and agents are the golden bough of the acting tree we all climb. To think, for even one second, that an agent or casting director may be interested in you is an enormous opportunity and could be the start of your big break.
Of course, the scam artists out there know only too well that this is like honey to a bee for actors. It makes us all an easy target, and sadly we do not disappoint with jumping into their trap.
These unscrupulous rip-off merchants trick you into buying services you either don’t need or which don’t actually exist. Not only that, but they paint it all up to look so desirable and attractive to us. Promises that are lined with gold. Some of these scams are entirely illegal; others are simply unethical – but either way neither will benefit you in the long run, and will leave you licking your wounds later.
The “I’ve Noticed You” Scam
Perhaps one of the most common of scams is the one where a scout comes up to you in the street, on public transport or (if they are particularly targeting) after a small scale/amateur show you’ve just been in. They tell you how good you look, or how they think your work is amazing. Flattery is an understatement in these scenarios. These crystal words are usually followed by a “meet my team at my offices, we can sign you up immediately”. Sounds great right?
You turn up at their office and very quickly you are presented with papers to sign. You might even be told to have photos taken there and then. The liquid gold of praise continues and you feel so worthy. They remind you of how lucky you are that they discovered you.
Before you know it, you are being billed for photos (you’ll later read this line in the contract you had signed) and that you may not even get copies of, or you will suddenly end up in a chain scenario (like I did) where you have to jump through several hoops (head shots, acting classes etc), and all at a cost to you, before they even consider you for a possible job.
If you actually pay up for all of this, there is a highly likely chance that you will get very little service for the money you just shelled out. The company may even vanish or cease being contactable to you. Suddenly you kick yourself for believing the unbelievable.
How to watch out for this type of scam:
- Beware any promise that they will get your career kickstarted. No real agent or service can promise this. There are NO guarantees in this business – only a lot of hard work, and even that may not be enough. They cannot assure you that you will have a paying career, and no real agent/casting office will tell you otherwise.
- Step away from these people the minute there is any requirement or duty for you to take additional classes or use a specified photographer. You may (but most likely may not) receive these services, but they are not a requirement for an agent to find you work. You can do all of this yourself. If they stipulate, do not capitulate! You have no obligation to do anything like this.
- Never pay an upfront fee for an agent, casting or audition. Agents will only ever take a percentage cut from your contracted acting jobs. They make money from you making money. Not before.
- NEVER NEVER NEVER sign a contract (or paper) there and then. Any real agent will be happy for you to go away and take legal advice and peruse the fine print first. If you get no whiff of a contract and there is no discussion about the legally binding terms than you should also cease any trust.
- Avoid agents that advertise through the newspaper classified columns. You normally have to do the legwork in getting an agent – either by contacting them from your own research, or by performing in a showcase specifically attracting agents.
Seems Too Good?
If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is.
Getting into a performing career is costly enough. It needn’t cost you extra because you tried to take a shortcut.
Let my lesson be yours without you having to suffer for it!
Also published on Medium.