Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dream Trade

Little more in what follows than a PSA of sorts buried in a wraparound narrative.

Last weekend, we heard an ad on Detroit's Hit Music Station 95.5FM about Disney Channel auditions coming up in the area, at the Romulus Marriott, specifically. Somebody was interested--interested enough to listen for another hour until the ad played again so as to take down the phone number.

We called and—how could we not?—booked an audition for 2 p.m. yesterday.

Typical Marriott conference room, for the most part, but crowded hallways with a long, snaking line, many families standing in it, the parent-types filling out an application and the children between 6-18 practicing audition lines from a handout. The setup seemed more or less legitimate, and since we hadn't been to anything like this before, we went along, cool cool okay, filled out the paperwork, practiced the line (from a classic television commercial), and waited. Just before 2 o'clock, the line funneled into the room and everyone sat down more or less in the order they arrived, filling the room with ~300 people.

The first person to speak introduced a talent search guru, Mr. Steve(?) Hughes, who was born in London and who had played an important part in identifying many big name talents (so big, in fact, that I can't recall any of them, but you get the general sense of this pitch, nevertheless). Hughes and two others would be involved in the screening interviews, and he introduced another actress (I've forgotten her name, but supposedly she is a business partner with Jamie Foxx, was in an ER episode with George Clooney, and has made untold thousands in the biz). She would be judging the auditions.

After almost 40 minutes—lots of "let's hear you parents shout "YES!" if you support and we mean really support your child's acting dream!"—we were called row by seated row to the back of the room for standing interviews. We happened to land at Table 2 with Mr. Hughes himself and he asked us a couple of questions, but the curious thing was that he didn't take any notes. Just a few minutes earlier, he'd told us he and his colleagues would be screening 900 of Detroit's top youth talent that day. No notes?

Next, we went to the front of the room and stood in line for the audition, a one-minute exchange with the celebrity whose name I've forgotten, and then we picked up a Kinkos-quality brochure, which explained in some detail (though not much!) the "The Exclusive Acting League TV and Film Program," a five-day acting camp at Universal Studios, available for just $4500. They also peddle "Prep-coaching Workshops" described as "6 One hour sessions (SKYPE) and interview with an Agent" for just $600.

Basically, The Acting League seemed to be leveraging a bunch of kids' show business dreams against a pricey and convoluted "audition" process that put parents on the spot to either opt in or appear unsupportive. If left us to wonder—and as parent's talked in the audition line, this came up: Just how selective was this process, really?, especially when the interviewers didn't write anything down? We would have to wait until the next day—today—before texting the applicant's name to 347-919-9716 and, in response, we would receive a text message about whether or not the audition was successful.

Meanwhile, I fished around online for more perspective on The Acting League. What sort of company is this? And has it been as fortuitously and as long involved in talent vetting as its representatives claimed? First, take a look at the website. Sparse. The "Success Stories" aren't especially built up with successes or stories. But there is a phone number and email address. I called the phone number—424-220-4002—and the message indicates reception for all of MK Business Centers in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The relatively recent domain registration for (8-18-2013) seems curious, as does the thinness of their Twitter account. Still, all in all, there's not a whole lot to point at here other than some weird and over-prompted insistence on parental support, the fact that nobody involved in screening appeared to take notes, a dang near six bitcoin acting "camp" at Universal Studios, a new and crappy website, and a Twitter account built on the faint, fading footprint of merely three tweets.

But is The Acting League legitimate? A bona fide, up-standing business? I don't know. When I called the Romulus Marriott this afternoon to ask if TAL was still set up there, the receptionist told me they were. I asked whether they'd heard that The Acting League may be iffy, and she said they'd heard this from several people and were investigating it. Relatedly, there's a news report expressing similar reservations felt by parents in McAllen, Texas, last September. The one source in the story mentioned that after getting a callback, they were pressured to plunk down a $1000 deposit almost immediately for the pricey camp at Universal Studios. Also, there's quite a bit matching up between The Acting League and some of the characterizations about auditioning scams here and here.

Without moralizing (more than I have or more explicitly) or sounding off about the scruples of any talent search process, I suppose I can only end with a shrug. Credit to (by which I mean something more like "shame on") The Acting Guild, their presenters were dynamic and almost convincing. They seemed to have many in the room—including many who would have to dig deep to find that $1000 deposit—convinced that this was a genuine opportunity, an authentic audition.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at January 19, 2014 5:00 PM to Slouching Toward

Con artists that con parents and kids. It doesn't sound like a role Christian Bale or Nicholas Cage will take up anytime soon. Well, maybe Nick Cage.

I would also like to point out that your twitter skills really paid off here.

Posted by: Andrew Stevens at January 20, 2014 10:57 AM

Well, tell Is. that everyone needs the experience of being almost scammed. Remind me to tell you the time Annette and I went to Canada to collect a prize and learn about a time share vacation plan.

Posted by: Steven D. Krause at January 20, 2014 5:22 PM

She's taken it well. And it wasn't such a close call for us, but with organizers who were so careful about hyping the opportunity and withholding the specific costs, I'm sure the pressures to appear supportive of their kids lured at least a few families into the ordeal.

Posted by: Derek at January 20, 2014 6:28 PM