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How to Spot an Acting Scam

How to Spot an Acting Scam

Acting is an extremely vulnerable profession. Some guy yells “action,” and you’re supposed to shed your identity and put on the mantle of a completely different, fictional-though-real, person. This character thinks differently than you, moves differently and goes through a broad range of emotions whenever the script requires, keeping the performance fresh with each take.

Behind the scenes, the process of becoming an actor can be just as vulnerable, if not more. The story of producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual misconduct takes that vulnerability to a nightmarish new level. Whether the power monger’s coercion ends in sexual assault or it leaves you empty-handed after months of unpaid work, the scammer’s tactics are often the same. Below, we’ll discuss a few tried-and-true methods of scamming, and how you can protect yourself from the abundant con artists in our industry.

Red Flags for Actors

Actors are often scammed in the same ways as other film crew members. Often, they’re promised payment, but then the production “runs out of money” and the producers can’t possibly justify paying anyone but the lead actor (and themselves, of course).

For actors, though, many scams can occur before you even get to the contract stage.

Pay-to-play scams

If, as an up-and-coming actor, you learn of a great opportunity to submit your headshot for a film role… after you pay a small processing fee, you’re being scammed.

Jeanmarie Collins, a Master Spolin Acting Instructor, frequently warns her students about pay-to-play scams and over-inflated services for beginning actors.

“Research the credentials of any teacher, director or producer. Anyone who wants to charge over $250 to create a demo reel should be questioned. People should not be charged for auditions.”

Jeanmarie Collins, Master Spolin Instructor

Seedy casting agents or multiple-hat-wearing filmmakers will often try justifying this extra fee by explaining how much special effort it will take to help you… but that’s kinda their job. Requiring a fee with a headshot submission is low-level extortion, committed by self-styled gatekeepers who always have way less power than they insinuate. You shouldn’t have to pay for the opportunity to get paid. Same goes for models or extras, too.

A casting director gets paid by the production – not from the talent he’s expecting to slave for him on a hot film set. In that same light, if a talent agent promises exclusive access to some big franchise film… as long as you pay an upfront service fee or sign a binding contract that ties you permanently to that agency, there’s a good chance you’re being scammed.

Charlatan scams

If an upcoming film project makes great claims about its producer’s or director’s mastery of the craft – but there’s no one else but those people raving about the alleged brilliance, you’re probably dealing with a narcissist at best, and a sociopathic con artist at worst.

Research a filmmaker’s claims online. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) was once an enlightening source of open discussions about film professionals. Often, though, its legitimate warnings by past crew members would get overshadowed by the 14-year-old trolls who seemed to find purpose in enraging the world. Though IMDb’s discussion boards are now shut down (as of February), there’s still great value in the objective content IMDb provides.

“I advise actors to get IMDb Pro and always look up people before they take classes from them or audition for them,” says actor Mark McCullough.

Mark’s star is quickly rising. These days, he shares the screen with the likes of Nicholas CageChanning Tatum and Tom Cruise. Mark advises actors to do their research when it comes to overhyped projects.

“Do not trust someone’s personal website or social media posts,” he says. “IMDb Pro is a verified source that lists individual’s credits and allows you to determine if the projects or teachers are legitimate.”

According to Mark, paying for IMDb Pro is worth it for career film professionals. It’s considered by many as the go-to source for accurate information on legitimate film achievements.

“I can’t tell you how many times I have seen scammers claim something in their website or flyers only to go to IMDb Pro and see it is a lie. The information is readily available. Do your due diligence.”

Mark McCullough, film actor

Doing the Research

Be wary of films that only feature that one known actor whose star is losing its luster. Though this is not always a sign of a scam, it’s at least a sure sign the project’s got a skimpy budget. Skimpy budgets almost always precede unpaid talent or crew.

“My favorite line is ‘We’re just not making money on this,’” says sound mixer Whitney Ince. “You might not be making money, but someone is.”

Watch out for self-aggrandizing producers who highlight the vague promise that they’re seeking “paid positions” while consistently glossing over how that might actually play out. Often, they post on CraigsList or Facebook groups, where it’s easier for them to highlight their best assets while burying the red flags they don’t want exposed. Scour the Internet to see what past collaborators have to say about the person making promises.

Social media’s a great tool for this. Find the names of the below-the-line crew or non-celebrity actors on a filmmaker’s past films and tweet them: “Hey, I saw you worked on [past film title here]. I’m auditioning for [director’s name]’s next project. Can you DM your thoughts?”

“Talk amongst your people, but be careful talking in public forums about someone you suspect of a scam. Make sure you’ve done the private research first. By posting uninformed hunches, you may become accused of libel.”

Chad Darnell, casting director

You can also send a filmmaker’s past collaborators a Facebook friend request and start a private conversation about the mysterious filmmaker. Avoid those names that keep popping up in the filmmaker’s film credits, as they could be complicit in the scam. Some past victims of a charlatan’s schemes may be hesitant to talk about it in public – whether because of a settlement’s terms or the fear of a defamation lawsuit. Rather than trying to get every juicy tidbit about the experience, just ask if they’d recommend working with that director or producer. The simple answer, “No,” with no other explanation can speak volumes.

Sexual Leverage

Another scam artist’s trick is the game of sexual leverage. If the would-be filmmaker convinces you that he’s a creative genius and the gateway to your success, his next step might be to use that self-described reputation to coerce sex or unwanted intimacy.

Even if the producer is a big-shot multiple-Oscar winner whose tactics date back for decades… these scenarios are never worth it in the long run. The person in power eventually becomes trapped in his mounting lies, and the seduced talent remains vulnerable to blackmail as long as the producer remains undiscovered.

In contrast, an above-the-line decision-maker who values you for your acting talents can help you to shine onscreen. He/she can showcase your distinct brand in a role that you genuinely earn instead of shoehorning you into an unflattering part you earned through his gratification.

But sexuality in a film doesn’t always equal “scam.” In some cases, nudity or sexual acts are a legitimate part of the story being told. In these instances – if you’re comfortable with what’s required for these scenes — it’s important to know the SAG-approved norms.

Film Independent offers an informative article on the thin line between SAG-approved and sleazy behavior toward nude actors. I encourage you to read over it before submitting for those parts.

If a producer, director or casting director asks you to send nude photos, be wary. The chances of that person collecting those photos to share elsewhere online are statistically much higher than that the person is legitimately considering whether you’re right for the part. A quick perusal of CraigsList’s calls for “talent gigs” will show you what I mean. Do the above-mentioned research to determine the legitimacy of a requester.

Chad Darnell occasionally requests nude content for roles he casts. With more than two decades of casting under his belt, he checks out on IMDb with plenty of professionals who can vouch for his legitimacy.

“I hate in casting having to deal with anything sex or nudity, because it automatically puts my reputation in question,” Chad admits, “but sex and nudity are very much a part of film.”

Often, the difference between a legitimate call for nude roles and a questionable one is the manner in which it’s handled. Legitimate calls tend to keep references to genitalia or sexual acts as clinical as possible. They include specific contracts that lay out exactly what sort of nudity or simulated sexuality will be involved, and they include minimal crew for those scenes, with robes supplied between takes for the vulnerable performer.

“Two years ago,” Chad recounts, “I called SAG, asking what the ‘respectable’ way of requesting nude photos was. We determined you can, in fact, request nude photos digitally via email. In years past, we used Polaroids (without the actor’s head).”

Legitimate calls for nude roles tend to go out of their way to avoid the appearance of personal arousal or exploitation.

“It’s important to note,” Chad continues, “that these were for contract roles as nude body doubles. The producers/actors would then review the photos and pick the body they wanted. It’s a very rare case (but it can happen) when a casting director will request nude photos. We want to see that you can act first, and if there is a specific reason the director needs to see your nude body for the role, that can be done in person, or in a photograph. When done in the room, there is usually a person of the same sex in the room as a monitor.”

Chad then echoes the other professionals:

“Most importantly in all of this… do your research. Only submit on projects like this that you feel comfortable with. Any time anyone asks your for nude photos, be aware. If the ‘director’ doesn’t have a lot of credits, and he has a ton of ‘scam’ or ‘horrible experience’ comments or blogs written about him and how awful he is, run screaming. Don’t even apply. No good will come of it. If it’s low paying (or no paying!) run screaming. If it’s non-union, be careful.”

Chad Darnell, casting director

When it comes to sexual exploitation, also consider the way you refer to actors who feel comfortable with sex scenes. If you flippantly voice your assumptions that someone is “another cute actress sleeping her way to the top,” you’re normalizing that stereotype. Whether or not you mean to, this provides ammunition for would-be predators to say, “You’ve heard the rite of passage of the cute actress sleeping her way to the top. Now here’s your chance.”

The Takeaway

Scam artists exist in just about every vocation imaginable. What makes them so common in filmmaking is the perception that Hollywood is full of glitz and glamor. Beginning actors often feel they have to sacrifice their payments or dignity to get a leg up in the industry. There’s a difference, however, between hard work and exploitation. Discerning between the two will mean a world of difference in your acting career.

You can still make a decent living in production or acting when you know the warning signs upfront.

“Use common sense. If it smells bad, run away,” Chad adds. “No job is worth your integrity. Definitely ask other people in your local film community, because those are the people that you’ll be working with for years. If it’s some fly-by-night casting director or some fly-by-night director, don’t do it. No good will come of it.”

The stronger you build your community of trusted legitimate film professionals, the easier it’ll be for all of you to avoid scams. Practice the lost art of research, working as a community to parse gossip & assumption from disturbing evidence. That, perhaps, is the most effective weapon against scammers. Stay connected to the community and warn others when you sniff out a scam.

Are you a FILM CREW MEMBER who’s sick of scammers? My post, How to Spot a Filmmaking Scam, helps you protect yourself from the most common threats to your dignity, your wallet and your career in production. Check it out HERE!

Did I miss a scammy tactic geared toward actors? Add your thoughts in the comments below!

About the Author Mark Ezra Stokes

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