I put off writing this month's column until the 11th hour, and for a reason. I'm kind of stuck. The problem is, I really want to Blow the Whistle of rip-off scams that prey upon the aspirations of idealistic and innocent youth as well as their hard-working older counterparts who want to act, and want to act professionally in TV, film and music videos. I know the name of at least one prominent such "scam artist companies," but it is unwise to name any names. Isn't that a funny thing? How freely we name names with our petty complaints and grievances, but when it comes to the REALLY evil guys - the outright thieves and shysters - we don't name the names. I used to wonder if this was out of some strangely misplaced compassion, but really it is because the people who play dirty and mean are the same people we often fear. Maybe being a coward is a good thing sometimes. Safer. Cleaner.
I can't help but feel that my column being on this website, a number of aspiring film actors may happen onto my column who really are looking for some fundamental knowledge about the business. They are enthusiastic and energetic and raring to go. It's beautiful. And it can be dangerous, because there are sharks in these here waters.
Shyster. Possibly a derivative from the German term Scheisser, "shitter." Leave out the name(s) to protect myself, I will instead use this appropo word "Scheisser."
"There's a sucker born every minute." This is a famous motto of Scheissers from way, way back. I'm a sucker. Or at least I have been a sucker. I was sucker enough to visit a local Scheisser just this past month. I wasn't sucker enough to give them any money, or even to talk to them about their "classes," but I was sucker enough to waste my precise time. I felt like such a schmuck for having even fallen for the radio ad, but decided to rubberneck - to view their method of pickpocketing - er, promotion. I went through to the very end. I wanted to see all the gory details so that I wouldn't, after those couple hours, waste another minute of my time wondering what they were doing and "how it all worked."
Here is a list of common practices of Scheissers out to empty the pockets of the acting hopeful, not necessarily in order, but every sign a is symptom of a - well, you know what "Scheisser" means!
* A "famous" casting director (or director or producer, etc.) is coming to town, and it is announced on the radio (if they can't afford TV!) that s/he or they are looking for "diamonds in the rough" or some such concept and will hold "auditions" for people in the area. The commercial or advertisement will list names of famous people, shows or films with which the Very Important Visitor has been involved - but you will always note that there is no actual commercial, TV show or film for which the "casting director" is auditioning. The concept is that you are going to (potentially) going to be "discovered" and this V.I.P. will take you off to Hollywood (or New York or LA, etc.).
* When you set the appointment it may seem as though you are being given an audition time - or not. Either way, you are not. What you are given is a time to come to listen to one or more speakers for an hour or two of HYPE before they PRETEND to audition you.
* They are selling something, and YOU are the potential buyer. Classes. Acting classes. Modeling classes. They are selling you your own Dreams (which you already have, free of charge), and they are charging you to give you a few more. Likely, the speaker at the event will spend 15, 20, 30, even 45 minutes just telling you about himself or herself. ("I cut my teeth on working for [insert famous name here]," "I worked lots of hours, lived and breathed the business," "I know [this famous person] and [that famous group]" and "I'm here to find people with that special something.") Actually there IS no upcoming project they are really working on that you have a chance of becoming involved with. Oh, the project itself may exist all right, but your having come to this cattle call is NO indication that this is a real opportunity to be involved in said project. (Shoot, the damned thing may be just a way to get the name of a movie out - like free advertising.)
* How do I know? This is something you may be asking, especially if you have already shelled out some dough to these dream leechers. Hey, they had pictures of Big Stars that were at least four feet high in their main meeting room. They MUST be legitimate. Wrong. They play on your insecurities and they prey upon your hopes. They work to make you feel that if only you would take one of their classes maybe you too could be a BIG star (or model or singer).
* Okay, the best way to approach this is with the REAL facts. Armed with at least a little bit of the truth, these Scheissers won't be able to pull the wool over for so long.
The following is what LEGITIMATE, non-scammers who are casting directors will do, almost without exception, when looking for talent for a feature films, videos, TV shows, etc., whether we are talking big-time and big-money productions or smaller low-budget projects:
* Those who are casting will advertise in different ways, much depending on their budget. If they have no budget, this is the kind of project actors with less experience on their resume might have some interest. "Payment" is often nothing more than a copy of the video or DVD - but one thing is for certain: the casting people will NOT try to sell you ANYTHING. If any money changes hands, it will be about when and if they will give some to YOU, and NOT the other way around!
* There are experienced, talented and very legitimate acting coaches/teachers here in town. That must, and do, charge for their classes. However, they do NOT try to sell their classes by putting on bogus events or "cattle calls" with supposed big-name-connected "casting directors" in order to sell their classes!!!!
* Legitimate local acting coaches will usually allow you to sit in on one of their classes (if you call them first and set a date) so that you can see for yourself if you feel this will be the kind of class that you want to take. Legitimate acting coaches and teachers are not out to "WOW" you with their importance or their promises, but they actually have something real to teach - and they teach it. We have some very talented coaches here in Austin, and suit some one's style or not - that is for you to decide.
* Remember that some Scheisser companies have been in business for DECADES. When I was a model in Denver a number of years and many pounds ago, there were several "modeling agencies" there that survived only by charging for course - NOT by getting commissions from getting work for their talent. People who were with the legitimate agencies all knew the names of the bigger Scheisser agencies, just because they had been around so long and got their name into the backs of enough print media classifieds. They were and all still all hype. Please be careful. Keep eyes wide open, and if you don't know a soul locally who is definitely in the business in a legitimate fashion, then check out Mona Lee's BIZ Directory. Mona's been around long enough and knows enough about what's going on, that if there is an agency here in town that has been here longer than a year or two and they are not listed in the Directory, you should ask yourself if there may be a very legitimate reason for that. Buyer Beware.
Oh, and here is an interesting note: I attended the "audition" of a recent such shyster business. They set my "audition time" for a specific hour. They said they would accept snapshots and Polaroids, but that if I had a headshot and resume, so much the better and I could bring that.
I showed up 10 minutes early. The first thing I was told was that the room was filled up but they would squeeze me in. Turned out all 100-200 people in attendance were given the same "audition" time as mine! We were herded into a large room where we were given the big pep talks and dream talks and listened to a speaker tell us all about how important her connections are. The speaker went on to say that she GUARANTEED she would be taking "at least two people in this room" to LA. This is weird stuff.
Then we were filed into lines to speak to representatives of the "agency." I could see clearly that this was to pay money for classes and made it known that I came only for the audition and had no interest in the classes, but I had to wait in line behind the people filing through all of this. It was some strange morbidity (did I mention rubbernecking before?) that got me to stay. From the time I arrived I realized what was really going on, but it intrigued me that I had even been fooled far enough to take out valuable time in my day to go there. The radio had said it was a "real" casting director. It must be true. Shoot, I'm not proud. I've been an extra and I might do it again. I knowingly went to a cattle call for LIFE OF DAVID GALE back in August.
Why not go to this company's classes promotion if it will give me a chance to audition before an important casting director?
Well, every bit of sense in me said this was a scam, but I figured since I had been there and wasted so much time already, I wanted to at least go through the whole process and have my curiosity satisfied. Although the "casting director" there that day was supposedly connected with a prime time TV series, the sides we were given for auditioning were all commercial copy. And not for just one brand, either. Heinz. Ivory. Cool Whip. I forget what else. At least three more brands' lines were listed to choose from for the "audition."
A REAL audition is for a specific show, film or project - and yes, it COULD be for a commercial for Heinz ketchup, Ivory soap, Decker's ice cream or Cool Whip - but NOT all four at the same audition!
And just a bit more of the obvious - or what at least is obvious to actors to know the ropes at all - is that a REAL casting director will accept your headshot or snapshot with interest when you first enter the room to audition. It doesn't prove they are "legitimate" because they did so, but this particular day I went, she didn't even want to see my headshot. It was just "going through the motions." Camera on tripod, "cameraman," casting director sitting there looked "bored and important and arrogant." How exciting, huh?
Okay. Now in last month's column when I talked about being an extra I'll bet I had you thinking it didn't get much worse than that. Well, folks, the yuck stuff is near infinite, sorry to say. But I promise to write about something a bit more uplifting next time around. This is the last month of 2001 and 2002 is a New Year.
Until then, take care - and remember: Wherever you go and whatever you do, follow your heart!
Cheers and Best Wishes for the Holidays,
Michele Déradune is a local Austin actor with Liz Atherton and Ciao! Talents, now out of Georgetown. Her credits include a supporting role in award-winning independent comedy film "Snake Tales" and a "home movie" filmed by Kevin Spacey on the set of "Life of David Gale." You can see Michele's online résumé (and follow the link to her new and big tattoo) at http://www.deradune.com/resume.html.