Author Topic: Selling Stardom: Talent scams get short shrift from authorities, actors say  (Read 1477 times)


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Daniel Miller

John Doman was filming on location in Prague when he learned that roughly $450,000 he was owed for his work on the TV series “Borgia” was missing.

His talent agent of more than two decades, Peter Strain, was supposed to hold the money on his behalf in a trust account and pay it out to the actor in installments.

Strain eventually pleaded guilty to a felony charge in connection with the theft of earnings from Doman and two other clients. But it wasn't in a court in Los Angeles, where Strain resided and his company maintained an office.

Instead, Strain was convicted in a New York federal court last year after Doman's lawyer said he was unable to interest the Los Angeles County district attorney's office or the U.S. attorney's office for Los Angeles in the case.

“Nobody wanted to do anything about it,” said Doman, 70, who starred on HBO's “The Wire” and lives in Brooklyn. “It's an industry town out there, and this is a guy stealing half a million dollars. I thought for sure they'd want to do something about that, but they didn't.”

Prosecutors in Los Angeles declined to comment. Doman's attorney, Miles Feldman, says local government lawyers told him it came down to resources.

“It is difficult for them to spend money on a case that could be resolved in a civil court — that's what they explained to us,” Feldman said.

Doman's experience illustrates what some actors and others working in the entertainment industry say is an indifferent attitude by Los Angeles authorities toward illegal or unscrupulous acts by talent agents and others who help performers secure work.

State and local officials have acknowledged that talent-related rip-offs are a big problem, passing at least five laws (including revisions to existing statutes) since 2000 to prevent abuses. The most significant legislation is the Krekorian Talent Scam Prevention Act, which went into effect in January 2010 and prohibits agents and others who represent performers from charging them any fees other than commissions and reimbursements for some out-of-pocket costs.

“With the unprecedented popularity of ‘American Idol' and other reality television programming, the false promise of instant stardom has increasingly become a fertile ground for talent peddlers to scam the public, victimizing children and young adults in particular,” Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian wrote in 2009, when he was a state assemblyman spearheading the legislation targeting the abuse.

Most of the A-list talent in Hollywood — including actors, directors and writers — is represented by one of the handful of major agencies in Beverly Hills and Century City such as William Morris Endeavor, Creative Artists Agency and United Talent Agency.

But there are hundreds of other talent agencies registered to do business in Los Angeles County, many of them clustered in the Mid-Wilshire district and on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.

Most are legitimate businesses, representing actors, singers, models and dancers. Body Parts Models, for example, has about 200 clients whose hands, eyes, legs, rear ends and other features are needed for everything from TV commercials to feature films.

“We are almost like an index of parts,” said owner Linda Teglovic, a former fashion model. “Not just perfect parts — all types of parts. Glamour hands. Hands that play piano. Hands that have arthritis.”

But entertainment industry trade groups and attorneys caution that some of the smaller companies that represent performers take advantage of unknown wannabes who are blinded by the prospect of stardom. The abuses include:

Charging illegal upfront fees — such as a monthly retainer — in exchange for representation. These payments are barred under the Krekorian Act, which has a criminal remedy: Each violation of the law is punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

Misrepresenting their services. There are companies called talent listing services that have given some clients the impression they are talent agencies and have gotten aspirants to sign up for expensive and unwanted services. These companies have also allegedly used improper contracts — or none at all.

Operating without proper licenses or bonds. Agencies are required by law to have a state-issued license and carry a $50,000 bond. Some have operated without a license and not posted a bond with the state Labor Commissioner's Office.

Stealing money. Performers have complained that smaller agencies take money that is supposed to be deposited in trust accounts and never pay them, as was the case in the Strain matter. (When an actor books a job, the producer typically transfers the fee to the performer's agent — who holds it in trust and has 30 days to pay out the funds, minus a commission.) Because the amounts are typically small, prosecutors rarely file criminal charges — forcing actors to retain private counsel or seek relief in Small Claims Court.

“These scams just don't squelch dreams, they take thousands and thousands of dollars from people,” said Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer. “If that were allowed to go on unabated, it sends a very bad message about Hollywood, which isn't true.”

Licensed talent agencies in Los Angeles County

There are nearly 500 talent agencies registered to do business in L.A. County, ranging from powerhouses such as a William Morris Endeavor and Creative Artists Agency to smaller companies that represent actors, singers, models, dancers and unknown wannabes.