MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - The came through the airwaves offering kids ages 6-17 a chance to be on Disney Channel, work with Selena Gomez or even star in movies like "The Last Song" with Miley Cyrus.
All you had to do was call a number at the bottom of the screen and come out to an audition at the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel the weekend of April 2 in downtown Mobile and wow the famous Hollywood agent they said would be there.
Hundreds responded, but were surprised with what they found.
The company called The, pronounced "Tay", said it is "a family friendly competition for the performing arts held at various Walt Disney World resorts. We provide the opportunity for parents and kids to learn about the entertainment industry and to network with dozens of industry professionals as well opportunities to meet and learn from today's hottest kid and teen celebrities."
What they don't mention on the commercial is the price. For the event they were selling in Mobile, which is held in July at the Disney Swan and Dauphin Hotel in Orlando, participants were asked to pay for specific packages starting at $1,950 and go as high as $7,900. The more you pay, the more showcase events you are able to participate in and the more time you get to meet "industry professionals."
We are not sure exactly how many signed on to participate from the Mobile audition.
The said, "Any questions regarding the cities they visit, the invitational ratios and audition process is confidential information and it is company policy not to release this information or otherwise make it publicly available to our competitors."
FOX10 got a number of calls after the first day of auditions on April 2 and decided to take a closer look.
Here's what we found
Trying to find information on the company wasn't easy. Just try and type " The" into the search engine, and you'll get everything but the company.
On the website , the contact information only lists a toll-free number and a Delaware address. The address is to an office suite that is operated by a company called Davinci Virtual Solutions.
The company provides toll-free numbers, a live receptionist and mailing address. This made sense when we tried to reach an employee of The we had been speaking with and the receptionist told us "she was working from home today."
Other things on the webpage aren't as obvious and easy to identify.
Anne Henry is the founder of BizParentz Foundation , the largest grassroots organization in the country serving kids and families in the entertainment industry. The organization is constantly on the watch for firms like The, which ironically found BizParentz Foundation first.
" The, and the original companies that created that program, started several years ago. They got on the radar of our organization originally when they had borrowed a press release for a charity event that we had, and reissued the wording of our press release with some additional sentences to make it sound as if they were the sponsor, but they left our phone number on the press release so people started to call us and say this company is in our town," said Henry.
So that's when BizParentz took an interest in the company.
Henry said one thing talent conventions in general use to lure people in is success stories.
"Their claims of success are dismal. When would you ever pay for any product where someone told you their success rate was less than 10 percent? You wouldn't," said Henry.
Sometimes, though, the conventions claim much higher success rates.
"Usually if they are analyzed, they are not very good. For instance, you might see something, say, where someone auditioned for a TV series or a film. Okay, well that's not a success. That means that child didn't get any money. They have no return on their investment. They just went on a job interview," said Henry.
Henry said to also look for things that say an actor appeared on a TV show or in a movie. Often, Henry said, it's a PR way of saying they were an extra.
Hiring an agent is also not a success in Henry's book.
"That is simply giving your kid a bill. It's hiring an employee. That's not a success. There's no income related to that at all. That is you hired somebody you have to pay," said Henry.
FOX10 asked a representative with The if we could get an interview with one of these former participants. They denied our requests, saying our information was muddled with misinformation. They also said:
"I will not subject our happy clients to receive publicity in a light that is unattractive or controversial."
Your chance to meet with top casting directors, agents and managers
Perhaps the main reason kids go to conventions is the chance to be discovered by top dogs in the industry. Henry said what they are meeting usually isn't the best of the best.
The first thing Henry pointed out is that the top people in the industry are in California. Why would they travel to Orlando when they already have thousands of options available without ever leaving their office?
managers in Hollywood have stacks of submissions on their desk from actors who would like them to hire them and are interested in working with them. They don't need to go out to conventions and most of them, why would they be going to conventions to find people who have no experience?" she asked.
Suzanna Massingill owns local agency Barefoot Models. After The was getting questioned so much in Mobile, they extended an invite to her.
"She asked if I wanted to go and find kids from Mobile that I could book here," said Massingill.
Massingill is sending two of her employees to the convention to check it out. Massingill said the travel accommodations are paid for by The.
Hank Langlios has casted over 50 movies in California and Louisiana. FOX10 asked him if he would ever go to one of these conventions in search of talent. He said no, and that he doesn't think the top agents and casting directors in L.A. would either.
"No! Because the casting directors in LA that are casting the main roles for these things don't do that," said Langlois.
The parent companies of The, which court records show are New York Studio, Inc, Atlas Intellectual Properties and Rise of the Phoenix, have been in the middle of several legal battles.
They have filed lawsuits against various branches of the Better Business Bureau including Seattle, Phoenix and Maryland.
Most recently, New York Studio, Atlas Intellectual and Rise of the Phoenix filed a motion to dismiss a $75 million lawsuit against the Better Business Bureau of Greater St. Louis for warnings the company issued prior to The stopping in their town.
The would not comment on the cases, saying:
"Because THE is in active litigation against several Better Business Bureau organizations and franchises, in various jurisdictions throughout the country, the owners have been advised by their legal counsel not to answer any questions of this nature. This action is also pending in federal court and in the spirit of compliance with the rules of federal evidence and to increase the likelihood of obtaining a fair and impartial trier of fact, again the attorney's have requested that I do not respond to press or publicity questions that relate to the case against the BBB, which is in the best interests of all parties involved."
The Better Business Bureau of Greater St. Louis told FOX10 News they stick by their original warning .
BizParentz was also sued by the The owners for issuing warnings. That case was dismissed.
Michael Palance is listed as the directors of New York Studio, Inc., Rise of the Phoenix and Atlas Intellectual Properties. Court records show New York Studio acquired the The trade name in 2009. Its former director, George Gammon, operating the company NedGam Productions had been subject to numerous unfavorable media reports and consumer complaints .
Gammon also owned a company called DGS Productions. The company owned the rights to the trade name ACT, which was a series of acting schools. They were was also scrutinized by the media and was subject to numerous complaints .
DGS filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and a company called MDP Worldwide, Inc took over. Michael Palance is listed as the director of the company.
Henry said although they are separate entities, ACT and The have more in common than the director.
"The big picture business model, no matter what they are calling themselves this week, no matter what if it's The or any of the other conventions or anything else, the general business model is still the same they are targeting kids and offering or at least giving the impression that they can sell them something they cannot deliver; that they're just incapable of delivering," said Henry.
Court records show that the parent companies of The said they have "invested significant resources in improving ' The's' reputation" since acquiring it in 2009.
The radio and television advertisements drop the Disney name over and over again. Disney said they have no affiliation.
In a statement from The Disney channel, it said:
"Representatives from Disney Channel do not participate in THE showcases. Further, we do not authorize any independent casting agent to represent that he or she is participating in such showcases or acting workshops on behalf of Disney Channel."
Henry said like a lot of things the conventions do, this wouldn't be evident to just anyone.
She said for example with The, they hold their events at the Disney Swan and Dolphin Hotel, which gives the appearance Disney is involved. But Henry said Disney may own the land, but has no control of the hotel, which is owned by a separate company.
Is this the only option?
Langlois said this is not the only way to get your kids in the business.
"You don't have to throw a bunch of money down to make your kid an actor, you just don't have to. I don't think you have to. It's not going to make them any better," said Langlios.
Louisiana is now the third largest producer of films in the country, only under New York and California.
recommends starting small.
"Learn the basics, audition techniques, what to do, how to do improve, how to think quickly reading a scene and knowing what's going on and how to interpret a scene," said Langlois.
Henry said in her experience, having a talent convention or competition on your resume can actually hurt your career.
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