Theatrical agents accused of charging illegal 'up-front' fees

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Aspiring and established actors, extras and models are being charged thousands of pounds up-front by agents in breach of legislation introduced two years ago to ban such fees.

Hundreds of them are left feeling ripped off after the agents then fail to secure them work, according to a new survey by The Stage newspaper.

New laws from April 2004 made it illegal to charge up-front registration fees, although did allow agencies to charge a "reasonable" sum to include someone in a publication or directory.

But responses from more than 700 readers of The Stage made clear that the majority of performers were unaware of the new laws from the Department of Trade and Industry. Moreover, the rules were being flagrantly breached by many agents.

Forty-five per cent of performers had at some point in their careers paid a fee to a person or organisation in advance of their finding the performer any work - and nearly 60 per cent of those had been asked since the change in the law.

Sixty people had even been told they had to pay for photographs to be taken in order to join an agency. This is illegal. More than nine out of 10 respondents felt they had been let down by the agent or agency they signed with.

When up-front fees were charged, aspiring actors, extras and models were asked to pay more than £100 when they joined but saw only two days' work a year in return for their investment, The Stage found.

Three-quarters of those charged fees of up to £2,000 were offered no work in their first 12 months on the agent or organisation's books.

Alistair Smith, The Stage editor, said: "What is apparent is that legislation introduced in 2004 needs to be tightened up and industry bodies must work with the Government to stamp out those who are abusing the system.

"The overriding impression is one of ignorance, not of malice, with much of the sector unclear as to just what constitutes acceptable practice when it comes to charging artists money in advance of finding them work"

It was important that legitimate operations, such as the casting directory Spotlight, were not damaged by these revelations, he added.

Vikki Slater, one of the respondents, said her agency had boasted of securing work with the BBC, Sky and ITV television shows.

"They stated that there were no up-front fees, but more of a membership fee, so in order to be represented, it would cost you in the region of £199 for a year ... It also gave photos and success stories of normal everyday people who were on their way to stardom through them, although I've never heard of them, before or since."

Christina Cooke, told how she was "spotted" on Oxford Street, London, by a model scout who claimed he could get her work. "He said I needed to pay £100 up-front and the work would come flooding [in]."

Although it is understood the Department of Trade and Industry, has received a steady stream of complaints, the scale of the problem still seems to have surprised many in the industry.

Spencer MacDonald, of the broadcasting union Bectu, said: "We thought we knew the situation was tough out there but we never dreamt it was as bad as this, with three-quarters of people getting no work at all.

"We weren't aware of the scale of the problem of people being charged money."

The DTI is currently considering whether to introduce a cooling-off period for anyone signing a contract, during which they could demand their money back.

But Mr MacDonald said the fees themselves needed to be examined to assess whether they should be capped or abolished.

Sarah Dickinson, chair of the National Association of Supporting Artistes Agents, said that most legitimate agencies were happy to take their fee out of the first day's work.