Four years ago, Risa Schiffman told her parents that she wanted to be on television.
Her mother, Barbara Schiffman, secretly hoped her now 10-year-old daughter’s desire was simply a whim. After working in the entertainment industry for 16 years, Schiffman had firsthand experience with the pitfalls of Hollywood--endless auditions, massive rejection and callous adults. But when Risa persisted and finally embarked on an acting career, Schiffman became a screen parent.
The mother soon learned that there were many things she didn’t know and resources seemed practically non-existent. Where should her daughter go for acting classes? How could she find an agent? Should she get a portfolio of photographs made? Many parents who were in the same situation seemed equally perplexed.
Schiffman’s research eventually resulted in the founding in 1988 of the Hollywood Screen Parents Assn.
Working out of her Burbank house, she established an organization that serves as a support network for parents of young performers and a clearinghouse for information about the entertainment industry. Currently, the group’s membership numbers about 125 parents, most from Southern California, with a few from out of state.
For an annual fee of $30, members receive three newsletters and an additional pamphlet on classes and other relevant information. Members are also able to borrow books about show business from a lending library Schiffman operates from her house.
The association also has a casting liaison service in which Schiffman keeps photographs of members’ acting children on file for casting directors and others in search of juvenile performers.
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Schiffman’s association is its advice and research service available to members and non-members. Anyone can leave a question regarding show business on Schiffman’s answering machine and, within a few days, receive an answer.
Audrey Berkovitz of Sherman Oaks, mother of 10-year-old fraternal twins Dustin and Lindsay, said Hollywood Screen Parents has worked for her. For the past five years, her son Dustin has been carving out his own niche with television roles in TV movies such as “Brat Patrol” and commercials for Log Cabin and Kraft Touch of Butter.
However, her daughter Lindsay, who has cerebral palsy, also wanted to act.
“I had looked for an agent off and on for her for a few years,” Berkovitz said, noting that she had little success, “I suppose because most people didn’t want to be bothered with a child with special needs.”
But after contacting Schiffman last year, the situation changed. Schiffman gave her a few leads and Berkovitz finally found an agent. As a result, Lindsay landed a job on a McDonald’s commercial.
Karen Guzek of Anaheim tells a similar story. Her son Christian, 13, has been in show business for the past five years, doing voice-overs on a Fox Television cartoon series, “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” as well as appearing periodically as Jake Bitterman on the ABC-TV sitcom “Full House.” But when Christian wasn’t working, it never occurred to Guzek to file for the state unemployment benefits available to her son--until she contacted Schiffman.
Under Screen Actors Guild regulations, union production companies must contribute to the state unemployment tax fund for each actor they employ. When a performer is not working, he or she may be eligible for state unemployment benefits.
“I can’t say enough good things about Barbara,” Guzek said. “She’s really helpful. She explores avenues in her newsletter that screen parents would be interested in. She always researches everything very thoroughly and comes up with the right answer.”
In her newsletter, Schiffman, 40, offers information on taxes, labor laws, unions, audition strategies and acting classes.
“Barbara’s certainly not making money,” said Beverly Hills talent agent Joan Mangum, who has known Schiffman for two years. “She’s not making much of anything except a good impression on the people she’s involved with.”
“She provides a lot of information,” said Dick Woody, a talent agent with Terry Lichtman Co. in Studio City who met Schiffman at industry speaker forums. “For parents who want further knowledge about show business, the Hollywood Screen Parents Assn. is a central way to obtain information. Barbara really knows the business.”
One of the most common questions from parents, Schiffman said, is: “How can I find an agent for my child?”
However, there are more difficult issues, she said, such as dealing with a child’s rejection and finding the time and money to invest in a child’s career. Schiffman estimates that a child will have to audition 50 times to land a single job. This, she said, is due in part to the scarcity of jobs and the abundance of child actors.
Of the 73,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild nationwide, 6,000 are age 18 and younger, and one-quarter of them are age 9 and younger. According to guild statistics, last year 3,200 child actors were employed at least once. However, Schiffman said, only about 100 to 200 child actors work regularly.
The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists does not keep age statistics on its membership.
To cope with all the rejection, Schiffman encourages parents to keep everything in perspective. “Kids need to stay involved in other activities,” she said.
“We try to keep Risa doing kid things,” said Glenn Schiffman, Barbara’s screenwriter husband. “She plays soccer, goes to camp every summer. And she has a lot of other interests. That’s always been crucial. Make sure your child stays a child. Don’t make being a star more important than anything else.”
Barbara Schiffman said she also stresses the importance of attitude, and stresses to her daughter that frequently a person is often cast because a particular physical appearance is required for the role.
“We love her no matter what happens,” Glenn Schiffman said. “We tell her how we feel about her has nothing to do with the parts she gets or doesn’t get.”
Another aspect of the business that parents need to consider is the financial risk, she said. Especially during the first year, Barbara Schiffman advises parents not to expect their children to earn much. And once they do begin making money, a good deal of the income will go to agents (usually 10%), managers (15%), taxes (25%), plus many other expenses such as initial union dues ($800) and photographs ($200 to $400). And screen parents must have a lot of free time to take their children to auditions and callbacks.
For Risa’s career, the Schiffmans often rearrange their schedules to accommodate the demands of their daughter’s, whose credits include the parts of Jennifer Baxter in the film “It Nearly Wasn’t Christmas” with actor Charles Durning, and Scrapper in the pilot for the television series “The New Our Gang.” Risa is currently in the play “Accompanied by Adults” at the Science of Mind Church in Burbank.
When Risa’s career began to take off, Schiffman decided to leave her full-time job as development assistant for producer Dan Petrie Jr. at Disney Studios. Alternatively, she pursued free-lance assignments such as writing, script reading and script consulting.
Nearly 20 years ago, when Schiffman worked as assistant to the president at Wakeford-Orloff, a large commercial production company in Los Angeles, she couldn’t imagine herself as a screen parent. After witnessing so many stage parents primping their children in the waiting room, she said she had silently vowed, “I will never do that.
“Years later, I found myself doing the same thing,” she said with a laugh.
Actively participating in a child’s show business career invariably creates stress for screen parents, Barbara Schiffman said. Isolation and negative reactions from casting directors, agents and directors are common.
“They treated me like they just wanted me to sit in the corner and shut up,” she said.
Berkovitz has had similar experiences. “Once your child gets the job and you’re sitting there on the set, you feel like an ant,” she said. “You know you’re not wanted or needed. I’ve even heard negative comments about stage moms right on the set.”
Nevertheless, despite the obvious drawbacks, children--and their parents--continue to strive for success in show business. Some are lured by the lucrative pay, said Barbara Schiffman, who added that minimum guild pay for a television feature is $431 a day and $1,498 a week. Others view the business as an opportunity for their children to develop self-confidence and have fun in the process.
But whatever the reason, Schiffman reminds parents not to forget they are involved in a business.
“If I was just beginning and met Schiffman, I would have gone through a lot less suffering and headaches,” Berkovitz said.
Information about membership in Hollywood Screen Parents Assn. may be obtained by writing 4720 N. Vineland Ave., No. 235, North Hollywood 91602, or by calling (818) 955-6510.