The business of child actors is not child’s play

2010-11-02 12:43

Twelve-year-old Ciara Bravo was just about to give up. It was September last year and she had spent the past two summers in Los Angeles with her mother, Tammy, auditioning for acting parts. There had been some close calls, including a shot at a regular role on CBS’s Gary Unmarried, but no bookings.

“We knew there was something there, but no one was biting,” says Tammy. “So we went back home to Kentucky and said, ‘It’s time to throw in the towel and be a regular kid’.”

That was when Bravo’s manager, Frederick Levy of Management 101, asked her to video-tape an audition for the role of younger sister Katie on the Nickelodeon series Big Time Rush.

Producer Scott Fellows liked what he saw, and had her do a second read with him on Skype. Satisfied, Bravo left on a two-day field trip to Amish Country in Ohio. Then at 10am the next day, Levy called Tammy and told her they wanted her daughter to read again with new direction.

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? She’s 402km away’,” Tammy recalls. “He said, ‘You have to go get her’. So I jumped in the car with my Flip video camera, drove to Amish Country, and filmed her in an Amish grocery store with flour and maize meal bags in the background.”

Tammy sent the video to Nickelodeon and Bravo booked the job. Within 48 hours of their Amish adventure, the duo was on a plane to Los Angeles to start shooting the first season of Big Time Rush.

Child Exploitation

It’s a fantasy scenario for the thousands of child actors in the US who have watched Miley Cyrus or Miranda Cosgrove, and dreamed they could be the kid in the spotlight, with millions of fans, a fat TV contract, record deals and studios clamouring to create big-screen roles of them.

Now, with new Hasbro network – the Hub and the Cartoon Network – branching out into live action, there could be even more opportunities than ever for young thespians and the people who represent them.

“Every year, this area of talent gets more and more exciting,” says Mitchell Gossett, a United Talent Agency executive who specialises in young actors such as Victoria Justice, star of the Nickelodeon series Victorious and a Sony Music recording artist.

“Also, these are challenging economic times. If a child has a distinctive talent, it could potentially help the family with some revenue. There’s a fine line between exploiting and delivering for your child, but I think that these days it’s okay because families need help around the country.”

California law, namely the Coogan Act, states that a child actor’s income is 100% theirs, making it difficult for parents to use the money to support the family. But the issue is largely rendered irrelevant when one examines the earning potential of the typical “successful” child actor.

According to Anne Henry of non-profit support organisation BizParentz Foundation, it’s not nearly as much as one may think.

A child booking a handful of movie roles and TV spots every year, along with a voice-over spot every month, may make between R349 000 and R418 000 a year.

Children who are regulars on a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon series don’t fare much better, typically making between R35 000 and R49 000 a week on a 22-week series. On top of that, Disney and Nickelodeon usually have clauses that block children from working outside the series.

Then there are the expenses. Lacking the classic adult deductions for home ownership and dependants, children often lose as much as 40% of their pay upfront to taxes, on top of the 10% that goes to their agent along with 15% to their manager and 5% to their attorney, if they have them.

Then there’s all the money spent on union dues, head shots, acting classes, gas for driving to auditions and, for those from out of town, rent for a hotel room or an apartment.

“In the end, the kid is being paid $5 000 a week and taking home $500 to live on,” says Henry, a former city administrator who has three children in the business.

“So, if you moved here from out of state, good luck to you, you ain’t living on $500 a week. That’s why we tell people, ‘don’t sell your home in Dallas and hope that you’re going to make it in Los Angeles. Your odds aren’t really great, even if you do make it and get on that Disney series you so covet’.”

Children on a network series working under a union contract (an increasing rarity) will make more, and while there are rare exceptions such as Angus Jones of CBS’s Two and a Half Men, who is reportedly earning R1.7 million an episode, the glory days of the 1980s when young sitcom stars such as Kirk Cameron were regularly pulling down R697 000 a week are long gone.

Throwing children at the wall

It’s a problem for agents and managers as well as the children themselves. To compensate for the reduced earning power of their average, non-superstar clients, talent representatives have become volume dealers.

“The internet and other things have allowed them to take on a thousand clients, where they used to have 200,” Henry explains. “They’re throwing masses of kids at the wall and hoping one or two stick.”

How do the agents and managers separate the wheat from the chaff? Levy says the number one thing he looks for is personality.

“If they’re animated and have energy, and are real and grounded, and can carry a conversation, that’s half the battle,” Levy says. “The second thing is confidence.”

“The third is some talent potential that I know with the right training and coaching they can get to the level of being competitive. And, of course, looks. Either they’re a great-looking kid or they’re really interesting, quirky-looking.”

Levy believes that acting classes are mandatory for juvenile actors, but Jeff Goldberg, who won an Emmy for casting ABC’s Modern Family, cautions that “the kids with the most experience turn out to be too slick, too polished, too rehearsed and not real”.

“I was reading a guest role for the role of a Halloween trick or treater, and one adorable seven-year-old came in and he was working too hard, so I gave him that note, ‘you’re doing too much’. He said, ‘you mean, don’t act?’ I said, ‘exactly’.”

Finding the exceptional child with talent and enough charisma to carry a series is another matter entirely, says Sean McNamara, who has produced hit Disney Channel shows That’s So Raven, starring Raven-Symoné Pearman, and Even Stevens, which launched the career of Transformers star Shia LaBeouf.

“Any time you audition kids, out of every 100, only five can act, and only one in five or 10 000 are like a Shia or a Raven,” says McNamara. “When they walk in, it’s like electricity. They’re not like other kids. They’re in another stratosphere. You think, ‘we have to sign this person before another studio gets them’.”

Shady operators

Too often, parents are convinced their child is “the one”, despite strong evidence to the contrary, and will stop at nothing to have that talent recognised, even if it means bankrupting their families. Unscrupulous operators know this.

“We’ve heard of story after sob story about how these people have been taken for $20 000 or more before they ever arrived in Los Angeles,” Henry says.

A company typically comes to a city and runs print ads and radio spots announcing an open call for a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon show being held at a local hotel.

“They give the impression the child is auditioning for an agent or a casting director, and it always ends up that they want them to pay for something – classes, a showcase, photos,” says Henry. “But you don’t usually find that out until the call-back level, until they’ve decided if you have the money to pay or not.”

One of the most high-profile cases involves Pacific Modeling and Acting Academy, which staged “open auditions” like these in 10 cities around the US in 2008, then closed shop. In November last year, the academy filed for bankruptcy, naming about 2 500 families as creditors.

But parents must be on guard even when dealing with legitimate employers.

“There are many agencies out there that will hold your money,” says Te-See Bender, whose eight-year-old daughter, Ella Rouhier, has been a working print model and commercial actress since she was a year old.

“You will have been paid, but they’ll keep telling you that they haven’t been paid, so they can roll over the interest. If you don’t hound them, it will take forever to get your money.”

Parents also need to be vigilant that their morals and their child’s innocence do not get trampled in a blind rush to score the next job, according to Keri Shahidi, who has two children in the business, 10-year-old Yara, who played Eddie Murphy’s daughter in Imagine That, and seven-year-old Saheed, who can be seen as Blair Underwood’s son on NBC’s The Event.

“A former agent gave us a script where the girl finds crack in the glove compartment of a car while the dad is in the bathroom at the park doing who knows what,” Shahidi recalls.

There have been no such problems for Bravo, whose experience on Big Time Rush, now wrapping production on its second season, has remained an unadulterated dream come true. But while she loves acting, it’s not the be-all and end-all of her existence.

“I’m really big with animals, so I definitely want to own my own barn and take care of that and stuff,” Ciara says. “And I’m definitely going to take four years off from acting for college.”

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