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Don’t get scammed: How to set yourself up for success and avoid predators in Hollywood

An illustration of two women reaching out to shake hands as one crosses her fingers behind her back.
Know how to spot offers that are too good to be true and other warning signs.
(Juliette Toma / For The Times)

In February 2017, an undercover investigation shook the Los Angeles acting community. Criminal charges were filed against 28 defendants linked to five casting workshops over alleged pay-to-play schemes.

A yearlong effort by the Los Angeles city attorney’s office found that these workshops had violated the Krekorian Talent Scam Prevention Act when they charged aspiring actors to participate in auditions. Among those charged were several well-known casting professionals with credits in shows on Netflix, ABC and CBS.

That’s just one high-profile example of the scams that target people in the entertainment industry. If you’re just starting out or it’s early in your career, you need to be careful about upfront fees, guarantees of employment and really anything that feels too good to be true.

Zino Macaluso, national director and senior counsel, professional representatives, at SAG-AFTRA, said it was imperative for new actors to talk to those who were more experienced within the industry. Articles (like this one) and forums online can provide useful information, he said, but on-the-ground experience is invaluable. So find a trusted mentor who can point out the less reputable companies and individuals hoping to exploit you.

Here’s more advice from the experts.

Set yourself up for success

Many people move to L.A. to pursue a dream, but a lot of them move to Los Angeles too soon.

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One way to protect yourself is to save money before you move, Macaluso said.

“You need to make sure that you have some cash in your pocket before you move here, because the pressures of the town and being able to pay rent very quickly come up,” he said. “And if you’re not prepared for something like that, then you are easier prey for those people who are attempting to separate you from your money.”

Here’s what he recommends having in place, at a minimum, prior to a move:

These initial building blocks “will overall ease the pressure on you when you’re approached by people where your intuition would say, ‘This is a bad thing,’” he said.

Know the warning signs

In acting or any entertainment career, there are bad actors. Here are a few ways to spot them:

Upfront fees: “Don’t pay a business upfront fees for services,” Rafael Carbajal, director of the L.A. County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, said in a statement to The Times. “Talent services companies or talent agencies cannot charge upfront fees to clients in exchange for the promise of securing employment.”

Guarantees: There are numerous services in Hollywood that market themselves as casting agencies and promise audition and employment opportunities and offer to promote new actors on their websites.

“They have convinced hundreds of thousands of wannabe actors that they are some kind of industry standard,” Billy DaMota, a longtime casting director, told the Times in 2015. “Not one reputable casting director I know uses those places to find talent.”

Before working with a talent services company or talent agency, Carbajal recommends checking with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement to ensure the business holds the appropriate licenses and permits.

“Ask for references,” he said, “and research online reviews of the business to see if others have complained about their services.”

Get everything — contracts, promises — in writing, and keep copies.

“It’s very sad because actors are very hopeful, and obviously you have to be optimistic and hopeful to be an actor in the first place,” Graham Shiels of Graham Shiels Studios said. “The hurdle is so vast; the hurdle is so high. ... But it does make you a little gullible.”

Unearned bravado: This can be a tell that someone simply wants to take your money, casting director Dea Vise said.

“If they say ‘big Hollywood manager’ or ‘big Hollywood agent,’ that’s a scam. Nobody says that when they’re actually a big Hollywood agent,” Vise said.

Unsolicited offers: There’s a Hollywood myth that actors can be discovered anywhere — at the shopping mall or at the gas station — but if someone approaches you unprompted, do your research.

“Unsolicited representation requests should be seen and reviewed carefully because they’re not always what they appear to be on the surface,” Macaluso said. “This is not a market where you have credible, legitimate agents actively go out and seek representation in that way.”

Sex: The #MeToo movement raised awareness about people in the industry who preyed on the vulnerable by leveraging sex in exchange for fame or success. There has been a lot of progress due to social activism and changes in laws. “I think this notion that you can simply invoke the casting couch culture as an excuse for rape, those days are over,” Debra Katz, a partner at law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, told us in 2020.

Recent reports, however, indicate that people in the industry should remain vigilant.

”Very few performers have been comfortable coming forth and speaking out because they feel that, if they do, they’ll harm their careers in the long run,” Macaluso said. “But that’s also the sort of seedy underbelly of what’s going on out there. It’s not just money; it’s also sex and power.”

Report scams

Since 2012, the L.A. County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs (DCBA) has received 82 complaints against talent service companies and talent agencies. The department has successfully investigated three businesses for violations of the Krekorian Talent Scam Prevention Act, which resulted in the prosecution of all three businesses.

The department said oftentimes people do not report incidents out of embarrassment. But there’s nothing to be ashamed of, and your report could prevent someone else from being scammed in the future.

You can make a report on the department’s website, or call (800) 593-8222 with any questions.


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