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Glam Scam

We go undercover to reveal how a Hollywood "studio" rips off parents and shatters children’s dreams.
By Sherri Daye |

Here’s the scenario: You get a letter in the mail inviting your kid to participate in the O’Brien Rottman Studio’s Model and Talent Search. The letter, in fact, is a personal invitation from former Saved by the Bell hunk Mario Lopez-who can now be seen fighting crime bare-chested on USA’s Pacific Blue. Mario sure wishes someone had told him about a place like O’Brien Rottman Studios before he got his big break and began his career on B-sitcoms. Boy, would that have made the whole process easier! But, lucky you. your child is one of the “limited number of people” offered the chance to attend a free audition. All you have to do is show up.

Or, maybe instead of Mario’s personal invitation, you get a call one night around dinnertime. Something about how your child is being invited because of her expressed interest in the creative arts. Again, all you have to do is show up at O’Brien Rottman Studios downtown at McKinney and Akard for your appointment on Sunday afternoon.

Either way. when you arrive for your “appointment,” child in tow. requested snapshots in hand, you encounter a line full of hundreds of other parents waiting with their own specially-invited children, plus a tew walk-ins who heard the studio’s commercials on local radio stations. A staffer dressed in all black directs you to the back of the line. As it inches along, finally allowing you inside, you glance around the waiting room.

Movie posters hang on the wall along with headshots of celebrities. Kids are everywhere: hip kids trying their best to look aloof and worldly; cute kids running around the room dressed in their now-wrinkled Sunday best; bored kids watching television in the corner while their parents stand in line: and little kids who fuss and whine, pulling on mothers’ dresses and throwing small tantrums. The scene may be unsettling, considering thai you have an appointment and that your child was specially invited. But the promise of lame and all it brings blinds the majority of people here, parents of potential stars. A little trouble on a Sunday afternoon is worth it to discover whether a child is truly talented and whether she has what it takes to pursue an acting or modeling career. A few of the details may be bothersome, such as who are all these other people (Do they really believe their kids are all that special?) or why this big-lime studio has the same movie posters that hang in your local Blockbusters. But as long as you’ve come this far, you might as well see what happens. After all, who knows?

You make your way to the receptionist’s desk where you are given a form with your child’s name and address printed on it and herded to the next station. Another chicly dressed staffer hands you a slip of torn paper-your child’s script. He tells her she will read this in front of the cameras when it’s her turn in the video room. But for now, more waiting until you are moved to another station for a quick pep talk and a short lecture on studio etiquette. (“Honey, honey. I am talking. You listen. That’s how this business works.”) Your appointment was for 2:30; it’s 3:15. All you have done so far is line up, sign in, and line up again.

Finally, your child is prodded onto a small sound stage. Faster than she can say. “Yo Quiero Taco Bell,” her brief moment in front of the camera is over. Once her even shorter interview with an O’Brien Rottman staffer is finished, the two of you are ushered through the front doors with a personally autographed picture of Mario Lopez and a friendly ’Thanks, we may call you soon.” Total time spent waiting: at least an hour. Total time before the O’Brien Rottman talent scouts: maybe 45 seconds. Welcome to the world of show business. O’Brien Rottman-style.

Was it worth it? You figure that depends on whether your child made the cut. You tried to ask questions, but the nice staff people were very busy. After all, it was an audition.

A few days later, the call comes: Your child has been selected for a second audition-a real audition. The talent scouts at O’Brien Rottman see potential. A second audition will help determine whether O’Brien Rottman Studios can help your child find an agent. If it decides it can help, you’ll be required to pay for training and a set of high quality headshots. The cost is anywhere between $2,000 to $3.000-models pay a bit more-payable in advance. Addilional charges may come later, depending on how actively you follow the studio’s recommendations. But the fee seems a small price to pay. After all, the talent scouts at O’Brien Rottman have picked your child out of the crowd as having promise.

Your kid and live hundred others just like her.

The unfortunate truth is O’Brien Rottman Studios can do little more to help a child break into acting or modeling than any parent could with a little research and a few postage stamps. In Dallas an association with the studio can actually hurl because reputable agencies don’t want to have anything to do with any child who has signed with them.

The studio happens to be an entirely legal scam, playing on children’s dreams and adult ignorance. O’Brien Rottman banks on that ignorance, gambling that the average parent who walks into their studio does not understand the importance of two things:

First, O’Brien Rottman Studios never places anyone in a job and doesn’t claim that it will; instead, il claims to “market” its talent to other agencies.

Second. O’Brien Rottman is not licensed as a modeling or acting school in the State of Texas, and it is not allowed to hold classes; therefore, it hires outside facilitators for the démonstrations and lectures it provides (like the type customers receive when they buy a new sewing machine, one O’Brien staffer explained).

Before opening the doors of the original O’Brien Roitman Studios in West Hollywood, owners Pal O’Brien and Eric Rottman were bit players in the Los Angeles modeling and acting scene. In early February of 1994. the duo created O’Brien Rottman Talent Placement-also known as OR Studios and OR Talent-“to provide would-be entertainers with a competitive edge in the entertainment industry.” according to the company’s website. They patterned their marketing model on a former employer, Beverly Hills Talent.

In the Los Angeles area, O’Brien Rottman Talent Placement is just one of the many talent companies, like Beverly Hills Talent, operating on the fringe of the entertainment industry. (One such company, West Coast Talent, was ordered in late January to pay $416, 614 in restitution to 174 “clients” for grand theft and making false, misleading statements.) But O’Brien Rottman has been first to seize the opportunities outside of LA, opening in San Francisco in 1997, and Dallas and Phoenix in March 1999.

O’Brien Rottman may play on people’s dreams, but it-and its lawyers-are very careful when it comes to putting anything on paper: careful to promise nothing, careful to make no guarantees, careful to make no claims that could possibly lead to a lawsuit or a charge of criminal fraud. “We’re not lying to them.” says Amir Khalatbari, marketing director for O’Brien Rottman Studios in Dallas. “I understand that some people think that. But we’re not.” Even so. the studio is currently under investigation by the LA County Department of Consumer Affairs and by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. Also, several complaints against the Company have been filed with Better Business Bureaus in the LA, San Francisco, and Phoenix areas.

Why the complaints’? Because when all is said and done, after the interviews, after the headshots, and after the seminars, parents have come to realize that all they have received for their minimum of $2.000 is advice, a set of a hundred or so photographs, and a mass mailing to area agents. The advice is the same the local Screen Actors Guild, area acting teachers, even the local modeling agencies themselves offer-for free. {JCPenney’s toll-free phone line for would-be models steers them to these resources.) The same advice can be found on the web with a few simple keystrokes. Even O’Brien Rottman staffers admit that. “It’s not that you couldn’t do all of this yourself.” one staffer told me.

When Mario Lopez’s personal invitation to attend an audition arrived in Cinda Fulmer’s Flower Mound mailbox in the spring of 1999. it seemed like a godsend, the answer she had been searching for. Her youngest son Mike had recently announced-after years of performing in church plays, videos for school projects, at youth rallies, and in the Flower Mound Summer Festival-that he was more interested in acting than in playing soccer. Until that spring Cinda and her husband had doubted Mike’s commitment; kids hop from one interest to another, and Mike had plenty of interests. But as proud as she was of Mike’s newfound determination, Cinda was clueless about the acting business. She had no idea where to even begin to help him. Until the letter from O’Brien Rottman arrived.

“I knew Mike showed promise, but I also knew he needed some instruction,” Cinda recalls. They would train him and help us find an agency later on. It sounded logical to me.”

And yet, almost from the beginning. Cinda Fulmer harbored her doubts about O’Brien Rottman Studios. Initially, it was the $2,580 price tag that caused her to pause. She and her husband reasoned their way to paying it: Mike had quit soccer, so at least that expense was eliminated, they figured.

Four months into the process, however, Fulmer began to wonder just what was really going on at O’Brien Rottman Studios.

First, there was “Fashion Sundays at Maggianos.” the Italian restaurant at NorthPark Mall. A local production company, Sebastian Fashion Entertainment Productions, was putting on a fashion show and needed models. Would Mike be interested? Mike was and eagerly planned what he would do with the money earned. To his, and Cinda’s, disappointment, they learned at the first rehearsal that not only would Mike be modeling Tor free, but he was also required to pay an additional $20 a week rehearsal fee. It was necessary to cover the “intense schedule” that was “above and beyond” what the Fulmers had already-paid for training. Instead of making money. Mike and Cinda were spending more.

Then there was the time Mike worked tor weeks preparing a piece for a talent showcase at Passo Mente, a Deep Ellum restaurant where Cinda was assured local agents came in search of new talent. On Mike’s big night, the emcee announced over the mike that no agents would be in the house that night. (They were later told a production crew had come in town looking for actors, and the opportunity for agents to schmooze and possibly secure work for their clients look precedent.)

Still, Mike was enjoying himself and making new friends at his Saturday morning lectures and modeling classes. He even got to model in a Versace show at the Fairmont Hotel-again, for free. But as the months went on, Cinda grew increasingly doubtful that O’Brien Rottman Studios could really do anything for Mike’s career. Sure, Mike was having a lot of fun with modeling, but they had signed with O’Brien Rottman to further his acting career. And with the exception of the failed showcase at Passo Mente ’s, Cinda saw no sign of progress in that area. Her misgivings were continued when she took Mike in for an audition at the Young Actors Studio, on the advice of an O’Brien staffer who seemed to take to Mike. There she met Linda Seto.

“Parents are basically paying $2.500 to make sure their child will never work in this industry,” says Seto. the fortyish director of the Young Actors Studio, one of the most innovative and respected children’s studios in the country. For $95 a month. Seto’s students learn to read scripts, study scenes, and improvise; they work in the studio’s own soundstage, which looks like it belongs more on the NBC lot than in a Los Colinas office building. And they receive advice on how to break into show business-at no charge. On the walls of her office hang pictures of some of her former students: Barry Watson, who stars on the WB’s Seventh Heaven; Joie Lenz, or Michelle on Guiding Light; Victor Togunde from last summer’s teen hit Can’t Hardly Wait; and Johnny Whitworth. who starred in John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. The many notes and cards on her bulletin board represent 14 years’ effort in identifying and training the area’s budding thes-pians. Agents respect Linda’s kids; she prepares them for the real world of acting. Parents love her; she offers guidance and the brutal truth about the entertainment industry. She takes her job very seriously and knows the industry inside out. which is why, when O’Brien Rottman Studios appeared on the scene almost a year ago, she instantly recognized the studio for what it is: a parasite feeding on the fringe of the entertainment business.

Linda Seto first learned O’Brien Rottman had come to town when a parent sought her opinion on a flyer similar to the letter Cinda Fullmer and others have received. One phrase raised Seto’s antenna: In the flyer O’Brien Rottman touted itself as the “necessary link” between a child and an agent. “I immediately became apprehensive,” says Seto. ” I told that parent, the way you get an agent is with a snapshot and a letter. That is the only ’necessary link.’”

When a second parent mentioned the studio and the up-front fee involved, Seto grew even more alarmed and called the slate licensing and regulation department in Austin. She was told nothing could be done: Legally, O’Brien had covered its bases. So Seto did what she could, urging parents who contacted her to legally sever all ties with O’Brien Rottman Studios. There are two very important reasons. The standard contract with O’Brien Rottman Studios gives the company the right to use a child’s likeness without first seeking permission. It also gives O’Brien Rottman a live percent cut of any future earnings, regardless as to whether the studio played any part in securing the job.

For the vast majority of children who pass through O’Brien Rottman’s doors on a Sunday afternoon, these two clauses are irrelevant. But for the lucky few who actually have talent and do find work, they are potential landmines, as Ora Johnson discovered.

Johnson pulled rive-year-old son Vincent out of O’Brien Rottman. chalking up the wasted money as a learning experience. However, soon after Vincent landed a role in the Dallas Summer Musicals’ production of Ragtime, she spotted flyers touting Vincent as one of O’Brien Rottman’s local successes. She was outraged. “They were leading people to believe they found him a job when they didn’t,” she says, the disbelief still in her voice. In the end. Johnson hired a lawyer to get out of the contract. Later, when I ask an O’Brien Rottman’s spokesman to name any clients working in the Dallas area, he mentions an “8-year old black kid who was picked for Ragtime.’”

Then there’s the finder’s fee. “No one wants these kids because they are legally locked in with this agency that is a scam,” says Seto, And they don’t have to. not when the market is saturated with talented kids looking for representation.

“Everyone is infatuated with this business,” begins Nancy Campbell of the Campbell Agency, the hottest agency for kids right now in Dallas. With 10 years of experience behind her. Campbell is one of Dallas’ most respected agents. Her stable of talent includes the Titian-haired Parks sisters and Taylor Mountz, who plays in NBC’s Pussions. Locally, her kids have slurred on Wishbone and Barney. Her models have graced the pages of Vogue and Glamour, not to mention D Magazine. Outside in the lobby while we talk, some of Campbell’s kids sit waiting to audition for Nickelodeon’s newest kid show, All That. From Nancy’s office in the back, you can hear the sounds of one young actress practicing her monologue while a father wishes his daughter luck.

Nancy Campbell doesn’t take just anybody. In fact, she is quite discriminating. She has to be. If clients don’t like her kids, all her hard work-the networking, the grooming, the hours matching a particular look to a client’s specific needs-is out the window, and Nancy doesn’t get paid. “We have to invest time in these kids, and we do it with no up-front fee.”

After a decade in the talent business, Campbell has seen studios like O’Brien Rottman come and go. So when she began receiving more phone calls from parents asking about O’Brien Rottman Studios than from clients seeking talent, she knew it was just a matter of time before the complaints started rolling in. Like Seto. Campbell contacted the state licensing board, only to be told nothing could be done. (The state agency has since opened an investigation.) “Most kids don’t have a prayer,” says Campbell. “But you can make a lot of money charging for these classes, the headshots, the advice.”

She pulls several headshots sent to her offices by O’Brien Rottman Studios. The kids are cute. But most are untrained. Unless, of course, you count O’Brien Rottman’s lectures and workshops as training, which Nancy and other agencies in town do not. Training means actual acting classes, like the ones given at the Dallas Children’s Theater Center or the Young Actors Studio. Training means actually learning dialogue, being critiqued on technique, and becoming accustomed to performing in front of others. O’Brien Rottman is not licensed to provide that type of training, and as far as Campbell is concerned, the type of training they do provide is worthless. O’Brien Rottman says statements like these only reflect “professional jealousy.”

Even through the phone line, the reluctance in Ken Freehill’s voice is palpable. He doesn’t really want to talk about what is going on at O’Brien Rottman Studios. In fact, the director of the Dallas chapter of the Screen Actors Guild jokes about the dangers of sticking his neck out. He then declines to say anything about O’Brien Rottman by name. He will offer general advice, and the first piece of advice is do not pay any money up-front to an agency.”When parents call here and say ’I’ve just been offered blah, blah, blah,” I tell them run, don’t walk from these people,” says Freehill.

So what steps should parents who want to help their child explore an acting career take?

First, says Freehill, parents should make sure their child is truly interested in the business. An overbearing stage parent can sour any child’s experience.

Second, do your research. Had the Fulmers or the Johnsons typed in “O’Brien Rottman” on Yahoo, they might have saved themselves thousands of dollars and a lot of heartache. For instance, on the bulletin board of the messages pertaining to O’Brien Rottman range from the cautionary (“Don’t get screwed like me!!!”) to the resigned (“If you don’t have the extra money to do this, don’t. You are betting on a lottery and the odds are awful”).

Third, call the SAG office for the names of local agents and photographers. More than likely, a session with a top photographer for the necessary headshots will not cost more than $200. Even in LA, which is considered a more expensive market, agents say a session should cost no more than $500-and that’s the extreme. Less than a hundred prints are needed, especially for young children whose look can change in a matter of months.

Fourth, send a letter to area agencies explaining that you are looking for representation. Nothing fancy: a simple description of your child’s talents, experience, and size. So far. you’ve spent around $350 for the same services O’Brien Rottman offers for almost eight times as much.

And what about training? If your child is interested only in modeling, training is unnecessary. A few classes won’t hurt, but industry insiders say they rarely make a difference. Would-be thespians can attend local acting schools, from Seto’s Young Actors Studio to classes taught at local community colleges.

Fame costs, this is true, but not in dollars and cents. In all, the biggest investment you should make in your child’s career is not the headshots or the classes: it’s in the time it takes to research, to make a few phone calls, to get on the Web and look around. A company like O’Brien Rottman can come to Dallas and make a quick killing because parents allow themselves to be as easily dazzled as children. These parents have forgotten the first rule of all: For everyone but them, it’s just business.


The Council of Belter Business Bureaus warns to be wary of “agencies” that:

Ask for up-front money, whether they call it “registration,” “consultation,” or “administrative fees.” Legitimate agencies work on a commission. They don’t get any money until their clients get paid.

Require a check or cash deposit or pressure for a signature immediately.

Insist on lessons at a particular school or from a particular teacher; or expensive headshots, audition tapes, or other services or materials sold by someone they suggest. Legitimate agents spend their lime finding work for their clients, not selling products and services.

Display pictures of famous models or celebrities on the walls to make you believe they are represented by the agency, although they’re not.

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