The Casting Ouch

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ON A HUMID NIGHT in August, on the 16th floor of the Ripley-Grier Studios on 8th Ave. and
36th St., Scott Powers stands before an audience of 75 actors. Powers, who appears to be in his early
50s, is the owner of Scott Powers Studios, Inc., one of the city’s most successful private acting
schools. He is also, he claims, the hand model whose finger pokes the stomach of the Pillsbury Dough
Boy in the famous television commercial.

To Powers’ left, seated behind a long table, is a panel of five talent agents
and four casting directors. In front of Powers are the actors, seated in fold-up chairs and facing
the panel, trying to look relaxed, though their darting looks and nervous laughs betray their anxiety.

“Welcome everybody,” Powers announces, flashing a sparkling smile.
“Thank you for coming.”

And so begins the National 2004 Commercial Forum, presented by Scott
Powers Studios, Inc. It is the 77th acting forum offered by Powers, whose Chelsea-based school
has been presenting forums like this one since 1987.

For $250 each ($230 for those registering through Powers’ website),
the actors are treated to a three-hour evening that features a half-hour panel discussion followed
by a series of auditions, conducted in a separate room, in which each actor reads a single paragraph
to the nine casting professionals. After the auditions, the actors are ushered back into the audition
room in groups of 10 to 20. As a representative from Scott Powers Studios stands nearby with a stop
watch, each actor is granted one minute in which to speak personally to each agent or casting director.

Because the auditions and the one-on-one meetings are so brief, the
actors spend most of their evening in the main studio room, waiting. During this time, they’re pitched
a Scott Powers class for on-camera acting (cost: $525), a Scott Powers class for acting in television
commercials (cost: $550), a Scott Powers improvisational acting class (cost: $525), the upcoming
Scott Powers National 2004 Primetime TV Forum (cost: $250) and headshots from a photographer named
Barry Burns, who has his own table set up in the hallway and an advertisement on Powers’ website.

For many of the actors, the forum is an extraordinary opportunity, a
chance to meet one on one, however fleetingly, with the hard-to-reach decision-makers in the casting
business. But for others in the acting and casting professions, the forums represent a sadder side
of the acting business, in which struggling actors will pay almost any price for a chance to gain
control over their careers.

THE PROBLEMS BEGIN with a quarter-page advertisement
for Powers’ August forum that for weeks appeared in BackStage, the weekly newspaper for
actors. It included, as all of his past forum advertisements have, a startling claim:

“88% OF THE ACTORS AT OUR PREVIOUS FORUMS HAVE LANDED A JOB, AN AUDITION
OR REPRESENTATION WITHIN 1 WEEK. NOW IT’S YOUR TURN!”

But in two interviews, one the night of the forum, the other five days
later, Powers said that he doesn’t track all the participants after they’ve attended the forums.
An accurate determination of the success rate is impossible.

“People report back to us,” Powers said on the night of the forum. “They’re
proud when they get a job. And the agents tell us.”

When asked about former attendees who don’t report back, Powers simply
repeated his reliance on attendees and agents who report back to him. He refused to explain how the
88 percent figure—which, according to the ads, has remained static over the years—was
calculated and verified. “Sometimes we calculate it in our own head,” he said.

Kirsten Walther, a casting director at the advertising agency Saatchi
& Saatchi, served on Powers’ panel. She was asked if she thought 88 percent of the actors at the
forum would be landing a job, an audition or representation within seven days of the forum.

“Eighty-eight percent?” she asked in return. “That would startle me.”

Walther said the figure would be true if Powers were to simply hold an
audition at his acting school—he claims he casts commercials but refused to name any of his
clients—and invite everyone who paid to be at his forums.

“If I was running seminars,” said Walther, “all I have to do is have them
in there to audition, so it’s probably true in that sense.”

When asked how many of the 75 actors at the forum she liked, Walther said:
“A few more than one or two.”

Ten?

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Walther.

Would she cast any of those few in a commercial?

“I wouldn’t,” said Walther.

Walther added that she wouldn’t be able to learn enough about an actor
from a one-minute audition and a one-minute interview to give him or her a job. “I’d feel insecure
about what they’d do,” she said. “But they’d get an audition.”

David Cady of Donna Deseta Casting, also on Powers’ panel, was asked
how many of the actors he planned to contact.

“One or two,” Cady said. Cady does this type of program about twice a month,
including programs for Actors Connection, another company that runs acting forums. But he was
able to cite only one actor from memory that he met at these programs who went on to get a significant
job: a national spot for Frosted Mini-Wheats.

REGARDLESS OF WHETHER the actors are drawn to the Powers
forums by questionable advertisements, once they arrive at the forums, a different issue arises:
Are casting professionals who take money to serve on panels and audition forum attendees engaging
in a conflict of interest?

“If there isn’t an educational component to these things, they actually
violate California labor laws,” says Ilyanne Morden Kichaven, a spokeswoman for the Screen Actors
Guild.

In California, where acting is a more regulated profession than it is
in New York, the state’s Division of Labor Standards issued a declaratory judgment in November
of 2002 that outlawed pay-to-audition workshops. In response, many workshop producers simply
added an introductory segment in which the attendees are given brief advice from the casting professional
for whom they will soon be auditioning.

“There’s a gray area with these workshops with regard to paying for auditions,”
Kichaven says. “There are many legitimate schools. The problem is that there are a few that prey
upon people’s dreams.”

At Scott Powers’ August forum, many of the actors seem fully aware of
the potential conflict but, desperate to meet with agents and casting directors, brush it aside.

One attendee (who asked not to be identified by name) knows that the casting
professionals “are paid very well” for their time.

“It’s kind of cheesy, sure. But we get a look from people from it,” she
said. “They know it’s a little cheesy,” she adds, referring to those professionals, but “we get
to make a first step.”

This actress had also attended Powers’ Comedy Forum. She got called
for an audition, but nothing came of it.

It is unclear whether Scott Powers’ forums have a genuine educational
component. Powers claims they do, and says his forums are “not a meet-the-agent scam” and that “the
educational part of the evening comes first.” Regarding the information discussed by the panel,
Powers states, “You won’t find it in a bookshop. The only place you’ll find it is here.”

Yet the advice given by the panel is for the most part simple, well-known
and sometimes useless. One panelist, for instance, advises attendees to “work for different kinds
of people.” Not the best advice for actors desperate to work for anyone.

Some panel members give advice that’s difficult, if not impossible,
to follow. One says that “diversity is so important,” and that advertisers are looking for the “ethnically
ambiguous.” Many of the Caucasians in the audience might be wondering how exactly they can comply.

Other pieces of advice—for example, that “commercial classes
are important” or recommending “any type of theatrical training”—come across as no-brainers.

Regardless of just how educational that half hour is, it appears from
the reactions of the audience and from comments after the forum that most of the actors are not there
to learn. They’re there to meet the agents and casting directors.

Asked why she paid to attend, one actress said: “Any chance you get…
to be in front of a casting director, you jump at it.”

GIVEN THE SMALL ODDS and hefty costs, even Powers does
not contend that most of the attendees will make back their money. While it may be impossible to predict
the future, it seems a good bet that, with the casting directors singling out only a few of the participants,
many in the audience simply don’t have what it takes.

Does Powers have some obligation to screen those out or at least warn
them that they’re probably wasting their money?

One former talent professional at one of New York’s major agencies participated
on a panel and auditioned actors at a New York-based company similar to Powers’. When interviewed
for this article, she declined to use her name for fear of reprisal from colleagues who rely on forums
for extra income.

“I would rather starve than do it again,” she says. “When I figured out
how much they were paying, and how much [the company running the forum] was making, it made me sick.”

She adds: “I went to bed that night feeling like a bad person. I didn’t
even cash their check.”

One troublesome aspect of the forum is that some of the participants
were clearly unqualified to work as actors.

“There was this one kid,” she recounts. “He had Down’s Syndrome or something.
He was doing a monologue from Rocky and then from Oedipus. And I was like, ‘get me
the fuck out of here.’ That guy sent me letters for two years in crayon. I’d tell the mail room to toss
his envelopes if they saw them.”

Another panelist had a similar reaction to one of the actors.

“There was I guy there I was terrified of,” she says. “I was scared of him.
His audition was scary. That bothered me. I thought of calling and telling them it was wrong to take
his money.”

Even less extreme cases raise the issue of whether it’s fair to take $250
from someone whom a professional like Powers should be able to pre-screen, or at least warn about
the extreme unlikelihood of success. Removing unlikely candidates might also benefit the participating
casting professionals by improving the pool of actors to be auditioned and increasing the time
the professionals could spend with them.

But Powers’ advertisement in August does not appear to be aimed at deterring
unqualified people from attending the forums. And, of course, the screening process might take
additional effort and might also reduce the number of paying attendees.

AS PART OF OPENING comments, Scott Powers repeatedly said that
“we’ve been doing this since 1987″ and “we’ve conducted 77 forums since 1987.” It may comfort the
actors to know that Scott Powers Studios is not a fly-by-night operation, and it’s certainly true
that Powers has been involved in the business for all that time. Still, it appears that Scott Powers
Studios, Inc. has only been in existence for three years.

Powers’ old company, Scott Powers Productions, Inc. was sued by its
landlord at 150 5th Ave. and evicted in 2001, according to Edward R. Siegel, the lawyer for the landlord.
The landlord received a judgment of more than $32,000 against the company. Siegel says it was never
paid.

Indeed, the company was dissolved before the judgment was entered,
leaving the landlord unable to collect the unpaid rent.

Powers would not comment on the litigation or his former company.

According to public records, the landlord’s judgment against Scott
Powers Productions was docketed with the court on December 7, 2001. Scott Powers Studios, Inc.
was incorporated less than two weeks later, on December 18, 2001.

It is not clear what happened to the assets of Scott Powers Productions,
including the use of the name “Scott Powers,” although Scott Powers Studios appears to use the name
freely.

Powers refused to comment about the relationship between the two companies.

These are not the only litigation difficulties in which Powers has found
himself. His companies have also gotten into trouble with the State of New York. Records show that
New York’s Commissioner of Labor has obtained at least 10 judgments, totaling more than $28,000,
against his businesses. Typical in these cases, judgments are for the underpayment of unemployment
insurance taxes, says Christine Timber, an attorney with New York’s Department of Labor. New York’s
taxing authorities have also filed tax liens and received judgments totaling tens of thousands
of dollars, some of which have since been satisfied.

When asked about these judgments against his businesses, Powers refused
to discuss them except to say his accountant was working on the problems.

Aside from problems with the state, Powers’ business may now have additional
trouble with the city. On August 24, Dina Improta, a spokeswoman for the City of New York Department
of Consumer Affairs, said that the department is investigating Powers’ forums.

“We’re looking into the agency’s claims about job placement, as well
as whether they are operating without the proper license,” Improta wrote in an email.

She declined to give further comment until the investigation is complete.

Scott Berg is the associate publisher and advertising director of Back
Stage
, the weekly newspaper that ran Powers’ ad.

“I haven’t received any complaints,” said Berg of Powers’ claim that
“88% of the actors at our previous forums have landed a job, an audition or a representation within
1 week.”

“But even if it’s one call, we take it very seriously,” said Berg. “We
can ask him to substantiate it.”

Berg said that if any advertiser fails to provide evidence to support
a disputed claim, “there’s a very good possibility we’ll take [the disputed item] out of the ad.”
Berg said this was a general rule of the newspaper and that he was not commenting on or even investigating
Scott Powers specifically.

It seems Powers might be reconsidering his 88 percent claim. It was absent
from the September advertisement for his National Prime Time Forum, though an ad that appears on
his website claims that for his November Commercial Print Forum:

“99.99% OF THE COMMERICAL PRINT INDUSTRY WILL BE HERE LOOKING TO
REPRESENT AND SEND OUT NEW TALENT.”

Below this sentence is a list of the 10 “industry Leaders in Attendance”
who, if Powers’ 99.99 percent claim is true, constitute virtually the entire commercial print
industry.

AFTER THE AUGUST FORUM, many of the students appeared pleased.
A number of actors were optimistic that something would come of the forum.

From that perspective, Powers’ business model can be admired. Without
making any promises, actors pay Powers handsomely for a one-minute meeting with people who might
give them a tiny chance at an audition, which might give them a tiny chance at a paying gig.

“It’s a crapshoot. It’s a tough business,” says David Cady, a casting
director from Donna Deseta Casting who served on the panel. “Bette Davis said, ‘Growing old is not
for sissies.’ Neither is this.”

It’s certainly a tough business for the actors, but for the forum organizers
and casting professionals who take their money, the chances of success are not nearly so small.
They get their money no matter what.

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