Get the Mindset, Sherlock
Hollywood is an unregulated industry for the most part. The burden falls on parents to do all the screening. Your child’s safety (and your wallet) depend on you. You have to be your own Sherlock Holmes. Check out agents, managers, website designers, acting teachers, publicists, casting directors, film makers etc. This is a public industry, so there should be a lot to find!
Is this a pain? Yep. But just half an hour could save you thousands of dollars and even your child’s innocence by avoiding the bottom feeders of the Hollywood world.
Put your Private Investigator hat on, and let’s get started. Remember…you are investing in your child’s safety. Try to approach things objectively. Don’t overlook facts because you want something wonderful to be true. Just write things down and wait until you have a whole picture to judge. Play Sherlock Holmes. Gather clues. For practice, consider researching your own name. Not only will you get some good researching practice, but you will find out what other people can find about YOU.
Gather Info – What Do You Already Know?
Write down tidbits of info you have. Start with the name of the company, the names of people, their phone numbers, their email address, their website. Pay special attention to what a person or business says about themselves. Study their website. Look at the “About Us” section if they have one.
Check Licenses and Permits — HARD STOP
Required licenses and permits vary from state to state. If a business doesn’t have this, they are operating illegally and you should not work with them. Hard stop. No. Never. In California, for example, the following applies and they are easy to check through the linked public databases:
–Agents must have a California State Talent Agency License
–Anyone charging an advance fee — which typically includes acting teachers, camps, photographers, and showcases — must have a California Talent Service Bond (aka Krekorian Bond, named after the Krekorian Talent Scam Prevention Act)
–Anyone who works with child performers but is not on set — which typically includes managers, publicists, photographers, camps, coaches and teachers — must have a Child Performer Services Permit (including fingerprints).
Even if you are not based in California, consider whether the person you are investigating *should* have these items. Are they claiming to be a “top Hollywood” professional? Then they should have California permits and licenses.
Try to Establish Common Business Practices
You might not always know this at the beginning, but look for “patterns and practices” in the industry. Then compare what you are seeing to the industry standard. For instance:
- Hollywood business practices are NOT generally different than other businesses. Don’t make excuses for odd behavior. If it seems weird to you as a normal business person, it probably is.
- Respected professionals do not usually approach YOU.
- No one “loves” your kid except you. That is just Hollywood-speak, like “let’s do lunch”. This is a business, and everyone is in it to make money. Follow the money.
- Think about who is likely to make money from you, and what kind of things they will say to get that money. Try to sort the sales pitch from the truth.
- Agents and managers work on commission only. Do not pay advance fees for representation.
- Agents generally make 10%, while managers can make 15%. Look for the “going rate” in your area for headshot photography, etc.
- Long term contracts and package deals are NOT normal in Hollywood.
You can find other items like this within the articles on this website. You can also find common tips for consumers on places like the Better Business Bureau website or your state attorney general website.
Red Flag Warning
Red Flags are warning signs, or anything out of the ordinary. It isn’t a judgment, it’s just a caution sign that should make you investigate further, be on your toes, or ask more questions. Our advice is to start a list. If you end up with several red flags as you go through this process, it is time to move on.
If you are unaware of this concept, you might try reading the book “Protecting the Gift” by Gavin DeBecker. The concept is that you don’t need to pronounce someone guilty in order to avoid them. These are your children. A red flag or two is enough to say, thanks, but no thanks. Learn more by reading these BizParentz web pages:
-Questionable Behaviors (PDF)
Most of all, TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS
Check Corporate Registrations
For any business, check their business name as having a license, DBA (Doing Business As) or current corporate registration in the state they are operating in. Usually, you can find this database (almost all states have this online) by searching terms such as “New York Corporate Records Search”. Often this info is under the Secretary of State.
These searches will tell you the real address of the business, who actually owns it, and whether or not they have a current right to do business. If their corporate registration has been revoked, or has lapsed, run.
Also note whether a business is the type of business they say they are. Are they are a profit-making business or a charity? Charities, like Bizparentz Foundation, are set up as non-profit corporations. Because of this status, we are required to comply with much more public oversight and we must adhere to our mission to serve the public. There is nothing wrong with a business making a profit, but don’t be fooled by a profit-making entity claiming to be a “community” or an “organization” designed to do good in the world.
Google is Your Friend
Start by googling the company name along with word “scam”, “complaint”, “ripoff” or “docket”. Read the articles. If you find dozens of entries on sites like www.ripoffreport.com, or www.crimes-of-persuasion.com , it is time to hang up your search.
Respected businesses could have one or two disgruntled customers. But just one or two. Look for patterns. Google the individual’s names. Questionable people often go from company to company. If you google their individual names, you can see if they’ve worked for someone else before and if there were complaints at the business.
Google street addresses and phone numbers. Phone numbers are great because many consumer complaints are filed by phone number, thanks to the Do Not Call List. Googling a physical address can tell you if the business has a virtual office suite (where they aren’t actually there, but pay a common receptionist to answer their phones—this can indicate a transient business) or if they have a real office of their own. Google will give you an option to see a satellite photo of the address—look at it! Is it a residence? A bad neighborhood? A mailbox store with a fake “suite” number?
Google email addresses. Email addresses are great because you can see this person’s other activities—like say, writing comments on message boards, an interest in gambling (are you trusting your money to this person), or a penchant for going to talent conventions and franchised schools every weekend.
Google Again…. NEWS, IMAGES and BLOGS
Once you have the search results on your screen, look at the toolbar just below the regular search box. From there you can search other categories of Google that will bring you different results, including recent news articles, photos and other things not normally included in a regular Google search.
Set up a Google Alert
This is a great function for following the activity of a business or person on a long term basis. One of the best uses we’ve found for Google Alerts are to set them up with your child’s name. When anything new is posted about them on a website, Google sends you an email. Setting up a Google Alert is easy. Just click here: http://www.google.com/alerts
Use Other Search Engines
Try dogpile.com, yahoo.com, duckduckgo, or bing.com (GoodSearch.com uses the Yahoo search engine). Those search engines will come up with different results than just plain Google. It’s worth a 5 minute trip down that road.
Use IMDB Pro
This is probably the quickest and most effective way to research Hollywood people and companies. You need the Pro version though. There is a free 30 day trial to IMDb Pro, or you can pay the cost of about $19.95/mo (discount to union members). It’s worth it. There is a similar database for Broadway called the IBDb.com.
IMDb is a database of movies and television shows, and every human involved in them. It is not 100% accurate, but it is great for a big picture view. If someone is not on IMDb at all, they are probably not going to advance your career much.
If you look at say, an agent, you can see their entire client list—or at least those credited with TV/ film roles. Commercial and modeling work is not included on IMDb (which is partly why scammers can easily fudge these credits—it is impossible for anyone to verify them). Look at the names and see if you recognize anyone. Click on a few names and look at the types of projects the have done:
- Recognizable shows?
- Just short films?
- How old are the credits?
- Do you see a lot of “uncredited” (could be extra work).
- Were they a lead, or were they “Kid #1”?
- Was the content slanted toward a fetish of any sort?.
Next, look at the Starmeter. Starmeter is a trivia item on IMDb, but if you take it in a big picture view, it can be extremely helpful. Numbers go from 1 (the most popular, hottest news item of the week) to over 5,000,000. For the most part, actors who are working regularly and recently have Starmeters under 50,000 or so. When looking at a representative’s client list, you should consider how many people they have and the level of their clients. You are looking for a good match to your child.
Last, look at any “success stories” related to the business you are investigating. Do they make mention of their relationship in biographies and such? If they are a school, or an agent, there clients should have actually worked the jobs they claim. The dates should make sense too (ie. if the school is claiming a student that attended 7 years ago, and they are just now cast in a film, did the school really have anything to do with that success?).
For more about IMDb and how you can use it to your advantage, check out our IMDB article here.
This isn’t foolproof, but most professional organizations at least have a code of ethics for their members. Often you can call and ask about a person – verbally you might get more information than they are willing to give in writing.
Agents: Agents should be members of one of two entities: either SAGAFTRA or the ATA. SAGAFTRA (the actor’s union) has lists of agents who have agreed to their standarized contracts, called “franchised agents”. Alternatively, the larger agencies are members of the Association of Talent Agents (ATA).
Managers may belong to the Talent Managers Association or to National Conference of Personal Managers. Many respected managers do not belong to either organization, but it should be acknowledged that the professionals who do join are voluntarily choosing to join a group with a code of ethnics and some accountability.
Lawyers: check the Bar Association in your state to make sure an attorney is licensed.
Casting Directors have formed an organization called the Casting Society of America and they recently unionized as well. They are organized under Teamsters Local 399 in Los Angeles and Local 817 in New York.
Photographers, publicists, web designers, and acting teachers are largely independent and don’t organize into clubs as much. That means you need to use the tools available to research them yourself. As an example, if they claim any connection to Hollywood, they should be at least complying with the Child Performers Protection Act.
Look for individual’s names on Instgram, Facebook and Twitter. Watch the videos and look at photos. What do they claim as their current job titles and education? We commonly find photos showing drunken parties, sexy pics and other tidbits. Is that a professional image you want associated with your child? Look at their “friends”. It is true that we are judged by who we associate with. By the same token, you and your child will be judged this way—consider your own presence in this area!
Check Website Domains
Anyone can check who owns a website by going to WhoIs and typing in the name of the website. Look for who owns it (it might be Privacy Protected, and that is OK, but most businesses should be more open about it) and look for how long the website has existed. There are also other subscription based tools where you can see what other websites are housed on the same server, possibly owned by the same people.
Check Consumer Protection Websites
The Better Business Bureau is not foolproof, but they do log complaints on companies and give a rating. If a business pays the BBB for “Accredited Status”, that doesn’t mean a lot—it’s no guarantee of quality, just that the business paid a fee. Check the number of complaints, the owners, history of the business and the overall rating.
Note: the A-F grading rating formula used by the BBB recognizes that that certain industries are more susceptible to scams than others. Talent representation is one of them. As a result, some very legitimate talent agencies have “F” ratings. It is really important to read the complaints and not just look at the grade and stop there. The BBB also occasionally posts alerts and articles regarding specific business.
Federal Trade Commission
The FTC is the Federal government agency that handles unfair advertising, and consumer scams. They often issue press releases about a specific company. If you google “FTC complaint” and the company name, you may see some. In general, here is an FTC article about acting and modeling scams.
Other Consumer Sites:
These types of consumer boards are driven by anonymous posters, rather than an evaluation by an objective party. Usually, they will come in a google search if you include the word “scam” or “complaint” in your search. We are mentioning it again here because if you saw it come up back then, go back and explore further. These sites are not totally reliable, but you can get a sense of what regular people’s experiences are. Ripoffreport will not remove complaints, but there are also plenty of “shills” (an employee posing as a satisfied customer) who try to balance the complaints. If you take it all with a grain of salt, you can see a whole business history—the good the bad and the ugly.
Check the National Sex Offender Registry
We have a pretty huge problem with child predators in this industry. We have seen arrests in recent years of photographers, publicists, managers and even a studio teacher. Several had previous convictions for pornography. Statistically, child abusers abuse literally hundreds of children before they are convicted, but you should still check the Megan’s law website for their name.
Don’t forget to check out places you are planning to stay. On FamilyWatchdog you can search by address as well. Make sure to check that temporary housing for pilot season!
Look for Lawsuits and Bankruptcies
This is a little bit of an advanced skill, since it requires knowing where a crime might have occurred. At least try googling the name of the business plus “lawsuit”, or “docket”. In some cases, you may need to employ a paid service such as Pacer.
Get it in Writing
Make a visit to your local Barnes and Noble or to Amazon if you must. Check industry books. Check the trades (such as Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Deadline and Backstage). Just keep in mind that most printed publications in our industry do not employ real journalists any more. They will take a column written by anyone willing to write for them, regardless of their expertise in the industry. They are also particularly vulnerable to those businesses who advertise, and advertisers are not vetted. Just because someone writes a column doesn’t mean they have been background checked.
Get Opinions from Other Actors
There are multiple message boards and private/secret Facebook groups where actors congregate and share opinions. You know what they say about opinions—everyone’s got one. Still, when you start to see a pattern, that should tell you something. Some tips:
- Watch for shills. Most message boards have some indication of how many posts a person has placed on the board. If they are NEW, only posted once a twice and they were GLOWING about a business…they are likely a shill (and employee who is paid to write good things about a business online). Ignore them.
- Do the regular posters a favor: find the search function on the group and see if anyone has asked about the business before. Read all those messages. If it hasn’t been discussed, THEN post a new message asking about them.
- If you include a sentence saying that you would like to hear from people privately, you might get more honest responses. Actors are understandably hesitant to admit their mistakes or say nasty things about industry reps.
Also, there may be some limited information on geographically based boards such as iVillage and Topix. Try searching those sites for the business name you are investigating within a particular city.
In addition, if you know people who are actually working in the industry, ask their opinions. You know us right? Bizparentz keeps an extensive file system of “persons of interest”–people or businesses we received a complaint about. We’ve also been around long enough to have had personal experiences with many people in the industry. We are also present in more than a dozen discussion boards and groups every day.
Also include your Aunt Sally, that kid at your kids’school, or best-case, someone who has worked with that person. Ask how they feel about them today. Consider the marketing angle: businesses may claim a “success” story because an actor once used their services, giving them the right to do so. But many years later, that actor may not actually endorse that product, school or person. Write and ask what they think of them now!
What kind of guarantees can you get? Many businesses will allow you to try their services on a short term basis. agents might take you on without a contract and just “see how it goes”. Legit acting teachers will allow you to audit a class, or at least watch one. Photographers should offer to re-shoot your photos if your agent isn’t happy with them. Contracts almost always favor the business, not the actor…so consider proceeding without a commitment.
For the More Advanced PI
There are paid services to check people out even further:
Paint a Picture
Now that you have all that info, what do you see? Has the list of red flags gotten longer, or have you answered all your questions? Are you feeling comfortable? Are you instincts telling you this person is professional?
The greatest power we have is the power to say NO. Realize that there are hundreds of agents out there, hundreds of managers, thousands of potential jobs and millions of people to work with. When in doubt…don’t.
If you do make the choice to proceed, you can feel confident that you have done all you can to keep your child safe and make good business decisions for them.