My experience was very similar to others who have already posted, though I was lucky enough to be a natural skeptic, have my red flags pop up early, and seek advice from a list serve I subscribe to when I couldn't find information on the initial company that approached me. We wasted lots of time and disappointed my eager 10 year old, but we learned the truth before paying anything.
Like others, we were approached in the mall by an enthusiastic women who told me my daughter was adorable and had the perfect personality for the commercials and television. Though I did wonder if it could be a scam from the beginning, my daughter has truthfully been approached by strangers all her life and told she should be an actress. She is cute and quirky and over the top in her personality, so I wasn't as "run the other way as fast as you can" as I might usually have been.
The woman who approached us was named "Lisa." She represented and claimed to own "Talented Kids Unlimited." She very intentionally misrepresented her company's services and the event to which she was inviting us. She said that they (her company) offered talent management services. Now was a busy time with pilot season coming up. Her company works with child actors and introduces them to agents, who get them work in commercials and television. She made a point of saying "who knows if you get one commercial it's mad money, 5 or a series, and that's college." She invited us to come to a screen test for promising young talent. She assured us that my daughter would be the most adorable one there, and they would fall in love with her. She advised her to wear just what she was wearing that day (a funky mismatched skirt and top outfit, with striped mismatched knee highs and a cool hat).
We showed up at the "screen test." They wrote down the name of our "scout." We thought it strange that most of the kids there were pretty ordinary looking or did not seem to have a real spark or spirit about them. Many were very shy or overweight. Some did not even speak English fluently.
They took us in groups to the auditorium for the kids to do their reading on camera. Each kid got one 15 second take on camera. Most had no expression in their read at all, made no eye contact with the camera, and struggled through their lines. I could not personally understand what it was that motivated someone to invite most of these kids in the first place, and my skepticism was extremely high at this point.
After the read, we were all directed to a room, where we were instructed to stand in someone's line. Our line was for "David" of Gary Spatz's the Playground. We never had contact with "Talented Kids Unlimited" again, and we had never been told by them that they would refer us to another company of any sort other than a direct introduction to an agent.
David gave us his business card. He asked if we were available to come to the offices in Century City, and if in general we would be able to go to auditions that an agent would send us on in the Hollywood area. He asked Mallory if she would want to be in commercials and television shows. He was definitely getting us excited for the business. He mentioned Gary Spatz's name and the Suite Life and Cole and Dylan Sprouse about 10 times in 2 minutes. He also mentioned agents coming in at the call back to see people that they believed in. The implication was that they were a management company. I was confused about why we had been referred to a different management company, and I asked. He said that Lisa's company works with other management companies that they refer people to. Some of them work with people who are better suited to be extras, and some get referred to his company if they seem like they would be good for commercials and television.
When we left, I looked at his card, and it seemed to be an acting school. I wondered if they did both acting classes and management. The only thing that kept me interested enough to play it out was Gary Spatz's connection with the school, and his apparent legitimacy. I believed that Disney would not associate with someone who is conning people out of money.
Not surprisingly, my daughter got called back the next day. We went for the callback. When we got to the offices, we saw many of the kids from line who could not even get through their one sentence script. Some had to be fed the lines almost word by word from the camera person. Many of the kids at the callback had no on camera personality at all (not to be rude - but to be blunt enough to make clear the real purpose of this business).
At the callback, they assured us that they fill the theater the next day with agents from a long list of reputable agencies looking for kids. They supposedly do this 4 times a year, and the next time was the next day. We were given an appointment time the next day to call them and "get feedback" about our child "find out what the agents had to say about them."
We were also given a packet to read to answer our questions about the business. Most of it was logistical. At the beginning it spoke about what to expect from a talent manager -- that they would take 15% as opposed to the agent's 10%. I think that was supposed to be the part that was hard to swallow, and then you think the rest is nothing.
At the end, they purport to debunk the myth that you should never be asked to pay for classes or pictures. They talk about why it is important to have classes to develop your talent and the right pictures. They tell you an agent should never ask you to do these things, but a manager is supposed to help you develop your career. At this point, they never say if they are or are not a management company.
When I called the next day, supposedly to hear how the agents reacted to my daughter, no mention was made of agents at all. I was told how well she did (according to David). He said how pleased he was to offer her a space in their beginner acting class, which was a 2 year program for $2400 per 6 month semester. This was the first time classes were EVER mentioned and the first time it was even discussed that they offered classes as opposed to being a management company.
I reminded him how careful I was (based on an earlier conversation) because of the reputation of the industry, and I started asking him questions. He got annoyed with me, and he said, "well I could give you the name of agencies that work with extras if you don't want her to take acting classes."
I did say I wanted to think about it. His response was to put on a high pressure sales pitch -- expecting me to commit immediately. He mentioned for the first time that they had already filled 10 out of the 12 spots in the class. If I waited, her spot would be filled. Earlier, he told me how selective they had been with who they chose to call. He would be calling people after he got off the phone with me. He suggested that if I take the spot, those people would not necessarily get a call.
David also told me there would be Gary Spatz as her teacher plus 2 others for 12 students, which is a great ratio. I asked him specifically how that would work. Would all three be in the room with all 12, or would they split up. He hesitated, realizing he had no good answer. Finally, he said, "well Gary will actually be going in and out between all the rooms with the other classes, too." He had first implied that Gary would be her primary teacher.
He also told me again about the agents that would fill up the room to see my daughter during their showcases, agents that would never otherwise be willing to see her without the level of training The Playground could provide. He promised that they would bring the agents to her "on a silver platter."
Now that I realize it is a scam, and the audition was not for anything real, my daughter is very upset. All of the people involved built up her hopes with the direct communication they had with her. They told her how cute and talented she was, and repeatedly asked her what type of acting work she most wanted them to get for her.