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Two for the Show

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Austin and Andrew Hine of Burbank were scampering around a rehearsal room at Academy Kids Management in North Hollywood when Bethany Constance, toting a Polaroid, corralled them for a snapshot to put in their files--and officially launch their careers in show business.

“What? No smile?” she said, flashing a dazzling grin that no doubt elicits giggles from most tots but not these towheaded 3-year-old twins.

“They’ll smile next time,” promised their grandmother, Carol Judy, a former model.

Twins Days is staged the last Friday of every month at Academy Kids, one of several Hollywood firms representing child actors.

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Constance, a co-founder of the 8-year-old company and herself a former child actress, uses the sessions to meet parents willing to put their children to work in the entertainment industry.

And these days, nearly half of the kids who show up for such sessions actually end up on screen.

Agents are looking for raw talent because the demand for on-camera children has rarely been higher, said Bonnie Ventis, head of the Young Peoples Department at Kazarian Spencer & Associates in Studio City. Kids are used not only in the burgeoning field of children’s TV programming and in family-oriented movies but also by advertisers such as oil companies, airlines and auto makers that want to show their products in family-friendly settings.

“Babies are always cute and they’re an easy sell,” said Michlene Norton, owner of Mission Viejo-based Carbon Copies Management, which has booked babies into commercials for health care, financial services and communications technology.

“Everybody in the mutual-fund industry, they all want to use babies,” said Steve Landau, head of creative affairs at Academy Kids. That means that even an average-looking child with a good temperament has a reasonable chance of actually landing a role in a TV show, a movie or a commercial production, he said.

The rule of thumb is that babies land roles because the casting director likes their look for the part. By age 3 or 4, tiny actors win jobs not only for their looks but also for the way they project personality for the camera.

Of course, there is but a slim chance that a child will land a lucrative, high-profile job. Those are reserved for the exceptionally talented and highly motivated child actor. A more realistic expectation for youngsters just starting out is for a humdrum role as a background extra.

Constance explained the current show-business landscape for youngsters as the Hine boys wrestled on the floor among the roomful of families, which included three other pairs of twins and a set of 3-year-old triplet girls.

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They were on hand, along with a TV documentary crew from Europe, which had its camera trained on Constance as she recited a litany of details that the parents would need to master.

“You need to adopt a business-like attitude,” she said.

Parents must obtain state work permits and photographs to be sent to casting directors, she said.

Parents will have to be willing to drop what they are doing and drive to casting sessions. Successful children have parents who can set aside plenty of time and provide financial resources--and it is important for parents to keep in mind that those demands often place enormous stress on a family, Constance said.

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All that said, it still sounds like fun, said Barbara Hine, an accounting office worker and the mother of the Hine twins.

“Everybody tells me they are so cute, I should get them on TV or get them in the movies,” she said. “I finally said, OK, let’s give it a shot.”

For her part, Constance said she always hopes the monthly sessions bring in a new crop of the tiniest actors. “Twins are a specialized market,” Constance said. “You can never find too many twins.”

California labor laws forbid children from working a full eight-hour day on the set until they are 6 years old. Twins can double a character’s availability, so they have a distinct advantage.

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Of course, nobody stays young for long--hence the steady demand for new talent. T.J. Stein, the firm’s other owner, said the kid talent boom has fueled a 400% growth in his company’s revenues in the past 2 1/2 years, about 80% of which is derived from commercial production.

Children are getting show-business jobs and joining the Screen Actors Guild at the rate of 40 to 50 a month, said SAG Young Performers Committee chairman Jeanne Russell, a North Hollywood chiropractor who 40 years ago played the curly-headed moppet Margaret Wade on TV’s “Dennis the Menace.”

“Then, there were only 30 or 40 of us kids in town who did all the work,” she said.

Now, with the demand for babies as well as crowds of young extras in classroom and playground scenes, many agents find they can’t keep up with the demand for talent.

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SAG regulations allow managers to do almost anything an agent can do--they scan casting breakdowns, coach talent and submit players for roles, Constance said. But they cannot negotiate for pay, a duty reserved solely for agents. Thus, many agents turn time-consuming logistics over to managers such as Academy Kids, L.A. Kids and Carbon Copies.

“I used to try to represent babies, but it’s a pain in the neck,” said Hollywood agent Judy Savage. “Babies change every month. They lose teeth, they get new teeth. You have to get new pictures, change the files. I found it was not cost effective, so we just call the management companies. They have huge files of babies and twins.”

Pay is hardly extravagant. Minimum union scale is $86 per day on a TV or movie production and $262 for commercials, of which managers customarily collect a 15% commission, Stein said.

But for a few kids who emerge from the pack, the rewards can be substantial.

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Jamie McConnell of Temecula said his daughters, Academy Kids clients Brittany and Brianna McConnell, 5, earned low-six-figure incomes last year for working in TV shows, movies and commercials.

The pair started in the business as 3-month-olds, and are best known as Belle, a character they played for three years on the NBC soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” They also appear in the Columbia Tri-Star motion picture “Baby Geniuses,” scheduled for release in early June.

“We looked into it at first and found out the amount the kids could make,” said McConnell, a construction contractor who is married to a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy. “We realized that both of us working couldn’t put that much money in a bank account.”

Stein warns parents to avoid companies that require advance payments--some want up to $3,000--to secure roles in TV or film productions. At his end, Stein says his firm rejects children whose parents would appear to require the acting income to support the family, or who are too pushy.

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But ultimately it is the child’s attitude--not the parents--that makes or breaks a career.

“They’ll do this for four or five years and then they discover sports or kissing under a tree,” he said, “and then they’re gone.”

BE THERE

Twins Day for multiples, ages 15 days to 4 years, last Friday of every month, 11 a.m., Academy Kids Management, 4942 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood. Free. (818) 769-8091.

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