Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Oldest Scam in Hollywood

By Barry Dutter

The oldest scam in Hollywood is the bogus “talent agency” that lures in gullible young hopefuls and gets them to pay some kind of “sign-up fee,” as well as pressuring them into paying for a photo session with the agency’s staff photographer for way too much money.
(For the record, no reputable talent agency ever charges any kind of up-front fee. They get paid on commission after their clients get paid for a job.)
I can proudly say I’ve never fallen victim to any of these scams, but there was an incident that happened in L.A. last year that was so well-executed, they almost fooled even a grizzled old veteran like myself.
It all started when a talent management company put an ad on Craigs List, saying they were looking for male models over 30. I happened to fall into that age group, so this seemed right up my alley. You rarely see a Hollywood company looking to sign a long-term contract with middle-aged guys.
At the time, it seemed like it could be legit, but like any posting on Craigs List, you have to be wary. I sent them an email and included my head shot. I was pleased to receive a call from a girl at the agency, asking if I wanted to come in for an appointment.
Of course I said yes.
The next day, I headed over to the agency, which was located in a high-rise building in Newport Beach.
I took the elevator up to the tenth floor and stepped out into the spacious lobby. The floor and walls were all black marble. This was apparently a very successful management company.
There was a cute girl at the reception desk. I gave her my name and she had me take a seat. I had an appointment with the head of the agency. We’ll call her Rebecca.
A few minutes later, Rebecca called me into her office. I expected to find a middle-aged corporate lady. Instead, waiting within that office was a sexy young girl, no older than 22, who introduced herself as the owner of the agency.
This seemed fishy to me. I’ve been in the offices of dozens of talent agencies over the years, but I’ve never seen one headed by a 22-year-old girl before. It didn’t seem realistic to me that someone so young could have acquired the wealth and resources it would take to launch a company that was obviously so successful.
I figured there was no way this young cutie was the owner. She had to be some kind of a figurehead. But I had traveled all the way there to meet with her, so I figured I might as well see it through.
Rebecca explained to me that her company was very selective about who they picked. She said if I was deemed worthy, she would need to take some test pictures of me. Then she would show them to her staff, and they would collectively decide if I was worthy of being added to their roster.
So far, so good. But how much would it cost for the pictures? “We take the test pictures for free,” she explained. We concluded our meeting with her saying she thought I had potential. Could I come back the next day to do the test shoot?
Sure, I said. They weren’t asking me for any money at this point, so it seemed like everything was on the up-and-up.
The next day I put on my finest shirt and slacks, shined up my shoes, and headed back to the agency. Again I met up with Rebecca, the impossibly young owner of the management company. She had me stand against a wall in her office and took a few quick photos of me. Then she asked me to wait in the lobby while she and her staff reviewed the photos to see if I had made the grade.
At this point, everything still felt legit. My spider-sense was not tingling to warn me of any danger.
They kept me waiting in that lobby for about twenty minutes -- long enough for me to think, “They must really be studying my pictures hard!”
Finally the receptionist said Rebecca was ready for me. I never did see any other staffers meeting with her, so I have to wonder if they even existed. The entire staff seemed to consist of the so-called owner and the receptionist.
Rebecca had some good news for me: my photos had passed the test! I felt like a superstar. I had somehow survived their extremely difficult judging process.
Now they could send me out on high-paying modeling jobs! Except that was not the way they ran their agency.
Rebecca explained to me how it worked: you pay them a monthly fee (RED FLAG!) and they email you all the contacts you need to book yourself jobs. And unlike other agencies, you don’t have to pay them a percentage of the income from your jobs.
Right off the bat, this was seeming more and more shady. It sounded like after I paid them money, I would never hear from them again.
I didn’t see why I had to pay them anything if I was the one doing all the work.
And that was when Rebecca dropped the other shoe. “You’re going to need new pictures,” she said. “Our photographer can take them for you.”
“How much will they cost?” I asked.
“Six hundred dollars,” came the reply. (RED FLAG #2!!!)
(Most photographers charge between $50 and $100 for head shots.)
Then she made her final pitch. She sounded very sincere. She had studied her lines well. “We need people who are absolutely committed to a career in modeling. You need to ask yourself, how important is your career to you?”
“It’s very important,” I said, but then I added I was not ready to commit to the photo shoot just yet. I told her I would be in touch to schedule the shoot -- but I knew I would never call her.
As I drove home, it occurred to me that the whole thing had been a first-class scam. The way they had me come in one day, and come back the next day, to keep me dangling like a fish on a hook. The way they kept me waiting in the lobby, to make me think they really were judging my photos… even the pretty girl who was the so-called “owner” of the agency was probably just a model they hired to lure middle-aged men into signing on.
I can't prove it, but I would wager that every guy who walks in to that agency passes their "photo test" and is offered the "opportunity"to pay for more pictures.
I had to give them credit for the amount of detail they put into their scam. It must have been a very successful con because the rent on that office must have cost a small fortune.
Basically it was an upscale version of the oldest con in the business: the old “you need new pics/we’ll take them for you” hustle.
I was happy to get out of there with all my money. Little did I suspect that I was about to walk right into another trap: a low-tech version of the same scam!
About a week later, I saw an ad on Craigs List for an agency that was looking for a middle-aged male to model for an ad.
I made an appointment to meet with the head of the agency. He was a fat, gay Armenian man in his mid-fifties named Vito. Now this seemed like the type of guy who would run a talent agency!
His office was a tiny one located on the ground floor of a luxury high-rise. I think his office may have once been the janitor’s closet, because that’s about how big it was.
The walls of the office were covered with photographs, many of them featuring shirtless men.
Vito explained to me that he was both a photographer and an agent. He showed me samples of his work -- some of them featuring girls, but quite a few featuring what seemed to be his favorite subject: shirtless men. He told me he was about to do a photo shoot of some sexy girls for Maxim.
I don’t know if he was really working for Maxim or not -- it seemed to me that Maxim could afford to hire someone who didn’t have a broom closet for an office. But he kept saying he was doing this shoot for Maxim. He stressed over and over how sexy the girls were going to be.
I think the reason he kept talking about this non-existent Maxim shoot was because there was so much gay stuff in his office, he wanted me to know that he wasn’t just about shooting shirtless guys -- he could do heterosexual stuff, too.
We spoke for a few minutes about the job. It was a modeling gig for a magazine, one where I would get to keep my shirt on. Vito said the client would want to see may headshot. I actually didn’t have a headshot at the time, and I needed to get some new ones. I mentioned how that last management company had tried to scam me with $600 photos. He said, “You’re right, $600 is too much. I can shoot your headshots for free.”
That sounded vaguely familiar, but it was still the best deal I had heard all day, so I asked for more details. He explained that he didn’t really have a studio but he knew a location on the corner of Hollywood and Vine where there was a great backdrop where he could shoot some quick head shots for me.
Usually when you shoot head shots, you bring 3 or 4 changes of clothing and take anywhere from 100 to 200 photos. Then you pick the one picture that best represents your look.
But Vito thought that was too wasteful. He said to me that I didn’t even need to bring a change of clothes -- just wear one outfit, take a few quick pictures and we’re done. He told me his philosophy was that any decent actor should not have to take more than a dozen or so pics to get a good head shot.
This seemed like a really unorthodox way to take pictures, but I did need new photos and the price was right, so I said why not? I mean, since the pics were being taken for free, I really had nothing to lose but a few minutes of my time.
Little did I know that I was walking headlong into another scam!
A few days later, I met Vito on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. He took me to an alley where one of the walls had been painted red. He explained to me that this wall was the perfect backdrop for taking head shots. I posed for 10 or 15 pictures.
Vito showed me a few of the pictures on the LCD display of his camera. Then he said we were done.
Traditionally, when you get headshots taken, the photographer gives you what’s called a “contact sheet.” This is a collection of tiny prints of all your photos on or two one pages, so you can look them over, show them to your friends, and then decide which picture is the best representation of you.
I asked Vito when I would get my contact sheet. He said it wasn’t necessary. “I’ll just bring these pictures to my retouch guy, he’ll pick the best one, and we’ll make that your head shot.” I did not like the way this was going at all.
Basically he was saying I would have no say whatsoever in which picture would be used for my own head shot! When you’re an actor, your head shot is your calling card. It’s the single most important tool you have for finding work. You want it to be as good as it can be. And you always want to have some say in which picture is used.
Vito was trying to take all of that decision-making away from me for this very vital component of my acting career.
But wait -- it gets better. Then he says to me, “All I need now is $175 for the retouching, and I’ll have your pictures for you on Monday.”
“I thought you said the pictures were free.”
“I said I would shoot you for free. What I need now is $175 for the retouching and the prints.”
“I didn’t bring any cash. You never mentioned anything about me paying you any money today.”
“No problem. We can go to the ATM, you can take put the $175, pay me now, I’ll have the pics for you on Monday.”
“I don’t like this arrangement. You never mentioned me paying you anything before.”
“It’s no big deal, there’s an ATM right around the corner.”
It may not have been a big deal to Vito but it was a huge deal to me. I don’t appreciate being ambushed.
Vito was insistent on being paid that day. But there was no way I was paying him that day. I had just gotten through explaining to the guy how the previous people had tried to scam me, and there he was, pulling a variation on the same scam!
I told Vito I would bring him the money on Monday when I came in to pick up the pictures. He said that his retouch guy wouldn’t do any work until he was paid, so he really needed the money up front.
Vito seemed a little too desperate to get his hands on my money. Now my spider-sense was tingling like mad! I told Vito my money was tied up, I didn’t have access to it, and that I would get it to him on Monday.
Vito did not look happy, but he could tell he wasn’t going to get a dime out of me. He got in his car and drove away. I think we pretty much both knew we were never going to see each other again.
I had to give Vito credit for trying. I’m sure his scam works on eight out of ten people, especially the younger ones.
I should say at this point that there is nothing wrong with a modeling agency trying to make some extra money by offering photography services to their clients. But there is an honest way to do it and there are some sneaky, underhanded ones. The examples illustrated here are two of the more creative ones I have come across.
Some modeling agencies do employ very talented photographers. But I would wager most of those photographers work out of an actual studio, not out of alley on the corner of Hollywood and Vine.
I don’t know where Vito went after that. Probably went off to do his imaginary photo shoot for Maxim. I wonder if he rented a studio for that one or just found another seedy street corner…
I guess the lesson here is you can’t believe everything you read on Craigs List!



  1. "Some modeling agencies do employ very talented photographers. But I would wager most of those photographers work out of an actual studio, not out of alley on the corner of Hollywood and Vine."

    Barry, that cracked me up! Thanks!

  2. As a photographer and photo retoucher, I'd like to point out though that we do not work for free. Not even close. If I'm doing a modeling portfolio shoot, I'm usually in my studio with you for about 2 hours, taking 200(ish) pictures, and then working for often another 4-6 hours on editing. My standard charge for this is about $250-300 + the cost of prints. Thinking that someone else should work for free is idiotic (both your for them, or them for you), so simply ask, in fact make it one of your first questions. "What are your rates, and what do we expect to get from this?" Some photogs will do shoots "TFP" or Trade for Prints, where you model for them for free, and they have the full rights to use the pictures but you get a copy of the edited pics for your own portfolio too. Expect to sign some kind of model release if you're doing the work TFP