Rachel Prieur and her brother Ryan were captivated by a radio commercial flooding the airwaves in Dallas. It offered children a shot at stardom — maybe even a part on a Disney show — and all they had to do was show up for an audition.
The teenagers begged their parents to take them. Crammed into a hotel ballroom with 200 other children, they took turns reading short monologues in front of a judge.
Their father, Bruce Prieur, said a representative for “The,” the company that staged the event, told him his children had talent and had qualified to participate in a larger showcase at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, where they would meet top talent scouts.
The Orlando competition, however, wasn’t free of charge. Prieur said the woman from “The” recommended a package that included acting workshops for about $6,000 for both children. With airfare, hotel and professional photos of his children, he said, he paid about $10,000 for the weeklong trip.
“My kids were really gung-ho, thinking they were going to get a chance at something,” said Prieur, 44, an air traffic controller.
But Prieur said there were no meetings with agents or leads for auditions. All his children got, he said, was disappointment.
Since Hollywood’s earliest days, families have come to Los Angeles to chase stardom for their children. In a departure from that tradition, companies such as “The” (pronounced “tay”) are marketing the Hollywood dream in towns and cities across the U.S., offering children a chance to be discovered — for a price.
The companies blanket radio and TV stations with ads that use the names of Disney stars to draw children and their families to free auditions. Parents are then pressured to buy packages of acting workshops and other services that they’re told will make the children more appealing to talent agents and casting directors, according to court records and complaints filed with state attorneys general and the Better Business Bureau.
“I’ve talked to parents who’ve spent their children’s college fund to make this dream a reality and have nothing to show for it,” said Zino Macaluso, a national director of the Screen Actors Guild.
The talent businesses have thrived because the proliferation of children’s TV programs has created a large pool of children eager to become the next Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez.
“The money has become huge,” said Anne Henry, co-founder of BizParentz Foundation, an advocacy group for child actors and their parents. “It’s happening on a level we’ve never seen before.”
“The,” which now goes by the name the Event, is one of the most visible companies in the field and holds auditions across the U.S. and in foreign countries. The privately held business, which does not disclose its revenue, has been the target of most of the complaints against talent services firms filed with the BBB, records show.
In May 2009, “The” paid $25,000 to the Connecticut state attorney general to settle an investigation into the company’s business practices and agreed to offer refunds to nearly 350 families who paid money for a large talent competition in Stamford.
“The” “appeared to use high-pressure sales tactics” and charged excessive cancellation fees that were not properly disclosed, said Brendan Flynn, a Connecticut assistant attorney general. The company denied wrongdoing and revised the contract.
Michael Palance, the owner of New York Studio, which operates “The,” declined to be interviewed, but he issued a statement defending the company.
“The Event, like any other business, gets complaints. But relative to the scale of the business, it is a fact that the number of complaints is minuscule when compared to any other business of the same size,” Palance wrote.
“The” is careful not to guarantee that children will find agents or secure jobs, but it says many participants have had successful careers, including Landry Bender, who starred in last year’s Jonah Hill comedy “The Sitter.”
Still, in Delaware, where New York Studio is based, “The” received an “F” grade from the Better Business Bureau in response to complaints. Better Business Bureaus in several states and in Canada have issued warnings to consumers about “The’s” business practices.
In affidavits recently filed in an Arizona court case, eight former customers said the company made false promises and used deceptive tactics. One of them, a Boston mother, said a “The” representative told her 90% of those selected to attend the Orlando showcase would “receive a contract of some type” to become a professional entertainer.
Betty Cook took her granddaughters, ages 8 and 12, to a “The” audition in July 2010 at a convention center outside St. Louis after hearing an ad on her favorite country radio station.
The 57-year-old cleaning woman said she never met the “world-famous agent” mentioned in the ad, but did talk to a talent representative named Todd, who praised the two girls, saying the younger one would be perfect for a sitcom while her older sister would do well in commercials.
“He said, ‘You’re going to Disney.’ The grandkids went nuts,” Cook recalled.
Cook said Todd persuaded her to charge nearly $5,000 on her credit card to send the girls to “The’s” Orlando showcase. She changed her mind a few weeks later after a TV news report raised questions about the contest. Cook said Todd never responded to calls and emails seeking a refund.
“We had to refinance our house to pay off the credit card,” she said. “It was horrible.”
Although “The’s” Orlando talent competitions are held within the Walt Disney World Resort, Disney says it has nothing to do with them.
“Disney has no business relationship with ‘The’ and does not evaluate talent at these events,” said Michael Griffin, a spokesman for Walt Disney World.
“The” is one of several similar companies whose principals got their start with the John Robert Powers chain of modeling and acting schools or its offshoots.
John Robert Powers, based in Beverly Hills, was founded in 1923 by an actor-entrepreneur of the same name. Its website lists Lucille Ball, Henry Fonda and Grace Kelly among its alumni.
In the mid-1990s, Ron Patterson, a former J.C. Penney buyer, acquired the company’s name and sold franchises, expanding to more than 80 locations in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
Among the buyers was Stanley Robinson, a former insurance company owner who acquired three franchises in the Bay Area in February 2007. Robinson’s schools recruited heavily in malls.
“They were misleading parents to think that their kids had this wonderful talent and they didn’t,” said Bernice Johnson, a former director of the JRP School in San Jose who said she was fired for complaining about the school’s practices.
Robinson also launched a traveling school called Pacific Modeling and Acting Academy, which held auditions in multiple cities.
In May 2008, Robinson abruptly closed both businesses and filed for personal bankruptcy. The creditors were mostly families who had paid for classes. About 125 filed claims totaling about $450,000. The judge ruled the claims were business debts that could not be recovered in a personal bankruptcy.
Gina Dawson, a San Diego nurse and law student, said she paid $2,900 for 10 weeks of acting classes and photos for her son. He attended one class before Pacific Modeling shut down, she said.
“My son was devastated,” Dawson said. “It took him two to three months to get over it.”
Asked for comment, Robinson, 52, who now runs a medical marijuana clinic in Northern California, said: “This is a dead issue.”
Several of Robinson’s former employees went to work for the Academy of Cinema and Television. ACT had a permanent school in Phoenix and offered classes in multiple cities.
BizParentz warned parents about similarities between ACT and Pacific Modeling. It described ACT as “the next big scam.”
ACT’s parent company declared bankruptcy in June 2010. Founder George Gammon shifted his focus to “The,” another of his enterprises.
“The” was sold in August 2009 to New York Studio, owned by Palance. Gammon, 39, had previously worked for a JRP franchise, and Palance, 41, has owned several.
After the Better Business Bureaus in Phoenix, St. Louis and Alaska alerted the public to “The’s” run-in with the Connecticut attorney general and its history of complaints, New York Studio sued the bureaus, saying they had unfairly tarred “The” with the actions of its former owners.
New York Studio said it had invested “significant resources in improving ‘The’s’ reputation” and that its events provide a “wholesome, fun and family-oriented way to expose children to certain aspects of the entertainment business.”
Better Business Bureau lawyers countered in a court filing that Gammon and other employees remained closely involved with “The,” and that “The” used the same business model and marketing materials as ACT.
New York Studio dropped its lawsuits against the Better Business Bureaus in St. Louis and Alaska. The Arizona case is pending.
“The” has also clashed with celebrities who once promoted its events.
“It’s nothing but a big scheme for them to make money,” said David DeLuise, of the TV show “Wizards of Waverly Place.” After he was paid $4,000 to host a “The” function in March 2010, he said, the company continued to use his name without permission.
“I just want them to stop duping people in my name,” DeLuise said.
The Event said it had a contract with DeLuise and called his complaint baseless.
The showcase the Prieurs attended in July at Walt Disney World Resort drew more than 1,000 people to the Swan and Dolphin hotel (not owned by Disney). Children participated in acting, vocalist and modeling workshops and seminars, competed for thousands of dollars in prize money and auditioned in front of talent scouts.
Hundreds of children carrying purple and black tote bags and envelopes containing their event schedules joined parents and siblings in a giant ballroom for an industry Q&A.
Nearly a dozen agents, casting directors and managers answered questions put to them by a moderator. Topics included how to avoid being labeled a stage parent and how much money actors can make from a commercial.
Outside the ballroom, booths sold merchandise, including T-shirts with messages such as “Drama Queen” ($30), director’s clapboards ($15) and raffle tickets to win admission to another “The” event ($150).
For an extra $500, children could attend a private concert featuring performances from American Idol finalists Kimberly Caldwell and Kevin Covais.
Prieur, the air-traffic controller from Dallas, said his children complained that the acting workshops, which were closed to parents, were unruly and run by instructors who appeared poorly qualified. He said he never heard again from the woman who sold him the trip and promised to help his children break into Hollywood.
“It was a complete sham,” he said, “and a waste of money.”