It is, in many ways, the oldest showbiz lure in the book: some perfectly ordinary people are strolling down a street, minding their own business, when they are approached by a personable, attractive woman with a clipboard who tells them their son or daughter might be the very thing she is looking for to appear in a movie, or a television show. Who wouldn't be a little bit curious, or a little bit flattered, by that?
It's happened to me periodically in the time I've lived in Los Angeles. Usually I say no. Once, I took my son, then aged six or seven, to a ridiculously crowded casting agency office and promptly turned right around and walked out. A few weeks ago, though, I found myself saying yes, and it quickly exposed a whole seamy underbelly to the Hollywood system.
It began on a Sunday when I was in a large shopping mall with my eight-year-old daughter. A middle-aged woman approached, told me how beautiful my daughter was and asked if she might be interested in interviewing for parts on the Disney Channel.
She might as well have asked if my daughter was interested in a free lifetime supply of chocolate-chip ice-cream. Like many girls her age, my daughter adores the Disney Channel and can quote whole chunks of dialogue and song from their made-for-TV movies and sitcoms about aspiring singers and weirdo child geniuses. Her answer: an immediate "yes, please!"
I was more cautious, but we had nothing much to do for the next hour and a half, and the auditioning theatre, a small 50-seat space called the Empty Stage, was right around the corner.
As it turned out, everything was very professionally done. We didn't have to wait long. Nobody asked us for money, or any kind of commitment at all. The staff were kind and deferential. My daughter was put in a group of eight children, who were asked one by one to say their names in front of a video camera and then recite some advertising copy they'd been handed moments before. Hers was for a fictitious brand of toothpaste that tasted like bubble-gum. She took some direction on her facial expressions, did a second take, and then she was done.
For the next two weeks, we waited for a call back. My daughter checked her email every day, while I tried to lower her expectations by saying we were only doing this for fun. When the call back came, my daughter was almost deliriously excited. A very friendly woman called Aly Hartman told us to come back for a second audition, this time in an office building not far from our house, and instructed my daughter to dress "casually cute".
She lavished praise on both my daughter - and my son, who was along for the ride. He ended up doing his own audition - again, with state-of-the-art video equipment recording him. We were told both children could look forward to a future of background parts, walk-on parts, small speaking parts and perhaps more, depending how it went. Everything Ms Hartman said suggested her company, called Parent Guide and Entertainment Studios, was either a talent agency or management company in direct contact with casting agents.
For the best part of an hour she schmoozed us, talking us through the niceties of child actor trust accounts while also talking about all the Disney movies and television series her clients had worked on. My children's eyes grew bigger and bigger.
And then came the catch. Parent Guide's services were going to cost $1,350. We were given a single sheet of paper listing other liabilities, too - a $49 "processing fee" for each photo shoot mandated by the company (over and above the cost of the photographs themselves), a minimum of four workshops on audition technique, costing $10 per workshop, and on and on.
By that stage, Parent Guide had already lost me. My children were begging me to fork over the money, but I knew I wasn't going to pay a penny for representation - especially since Ms Hartman had also talked about a 20 per cent commission fee for each job worked. In fact, I half-suspected asking for money upfront was illegal.
And so it is. Under a California law first passed in 1999, any agency wanting to charge money for entertainment industry services has to be specially licensed by the state Labour Standards Enforcement bureau and post a $10,000 bond. Parent Guide is not listed as having done so on the bureau's website. Moreover, the Advance Fee Talent Services Act stipulates it is illegal to "charge or attempt to charge, directly or indirectly, an artist for registering or listing the artist for employment". It is also illegal to "make any false promise or representation ... that the advance-fee talent service is a talent agency or will procure or attempt to procure employment or engagements for the artist".
When I told some actor friends about my experience, they immediately labelled it a scam. So did officials from the Association of Talent Agents, and from the Screen Actors Guild. What surprised me was how sophisticated the scam was - the company had my children (and, as I later learnt, many parents) eating out of its hand before it asked for the money.
Almost more shocking than this personal experience, though, was learning how companies such as Parent Guide feed the entire Hollywood system, to the benefit of studios, casting agencies and others who rely on a steady flow of child labour to keep their businesses well oiled.
Here's how the system works. Aly Hartman referred a few times to Parent Guide's "Burbank office", but what she was really referring to was a child-actor management company called Kids! Background Talent, which is indeed in the business of finding children work on television and in the movies. Kids! Background Talent charges no upfront fees other than a refundable $30 registration designed mainly to maintain a modicum of seriousness among its would-be clients.
Kids! Background Talent says it accepts no money from Parent Guide and other scam agencies like it. But it does accept the kids they pass along - and willingly. After all, the kids have been pre-screened, and the parents have paid out so much money (the fees can range from $500 to $5,000, according to industry experts), they are desperate to recoup at least a part of their unwise investment.
"Kids that come [from those companies] usually work out pretty well," the head of Kids! Background Talent, Richard Spiker, said. "Because they've spent so much money, they tend to go the extra mile. The kids that come to us directly don't have the same commitment, don't think twice about not showing up for jobs they've been booked for.
"I think it's terrible, the way these companies operate... But I do receive an indirect benefit. There's no doubt about that."
Mr Spiker insisted he was one of the industry's good guys, and argued it was better to take the kids who had been scammed than to spurn them. "We've considered not accepting them," he said, "but all we would be doing is punishing them for making a mistake... At least this way they have some professional pictures."
It's not just Kids! Background Talent that benefits. The studios do too, all the while turning a convenient blind eye to the way their young charges have been scammed. Entertainment industry experts say companies such as Parent Guide tend to come and go, depending how quickly the law catches up with them. (Parent Guide itself appears to have been around for at least three years, although it is listed under various other names, including Slate Entertainment.)
Industry experts say the scammers come in two varieties: the ones who typically operate outside LA, descend on a small town with a blitz of radio advertising and direct mail blasts, rent an office or hotel suite or aircraft hangar for a few days and "recruit" several dozen children and parents with promises of Hollywood stardom - along with demands for serious money upfront. Sometimes, these companies will hire a small-time celebrity for the day - a teenage performer on television, say - to help draw in the crowd.
"In some areas of the country, like Georgia or the Carolinas or South Dakota, these companies will excite their client base by saying we would like to fly you to Hollywood to meet agents interested in representing you," one industry insider who did not want to be named said. "Of course, it is the would-be performers who pay for the entire trip. They do occasionally meet with agents, who are often paid to see the performers. Nothing much happens after that."
These are the families that often end up staying in a well-known apartment complex near the major studios in Burbank and North Hollywood, spending months desperately auditioning for television pilots and small movie roles in the hope of breaking into the industry, while draining away their savings on acting coaches, audition coaches, lifestyle coaches, headshot photographers, stylists, hair consultants, personal trainers and more.
The other kind operate in the shadows in LA itself. "I get calls about this all the time," said Shellie Jelton, administrative director of the Association of Talent Agents. "That's what they do. They get kids in, they have a lot of promises, but typically there's no follow-through."
The lack of follow-through appears to be more than one-sided, however. It seems incredible that Parent Guide and other companies like it would be able to flout the law with such impunity - to the point where their operations have become part of the Hollywood child labour system.
Hollywood's own attitude to child labour is about to cause a major stink with the impending broadcast of a new reality show on CBS called Kid Nation - in which a group of 40 children aged 8 to 15 spent more than month without their parents or teachers living a sort of Lord of the Flies existence on a ranch in New Mexico. The children were on camera up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and yet were paid just $5,000 apiece for the entire stint. Child advocacy groups have accused CBS of exploiting a loophole in New Mexico law to flout every accepted industry standard in the book.
That, though, is just one show - entities such as Parent Guide operate year-round. I put in a several calls to Michelle Zahn, Parent Guide's co-owner, but they went unreturned. Over at the Screen Actors Guild, the national director for agency relations, Zino Macaluso, was very cautious about saying anything - not least because the children handled by Parent Guide are not SAG members.
But he did say this: "Qualified and franchised talent agents never accept or request fees upfront. They only get paid when performers book employment. Parents should be wary of entities separating them from their money by selling dreams to their children."
In the City of Angels, of course, those dreams are alarmingly easy to sell. "The sad part is, that my seven-year-old son is very excited about doing this," said Wendy Bowling, a parent who came very close to forking out the money demanded by Parent Guide. She said she might try contacting Kids! Background Talent directly, still hoping her child might one day end up, however insignificantly, in a movie or television show.
The reality of child stardom
Would-be child actors and their parents imagine they might become the next Leonardo DiCaprio or Jodie Foster, but the reality is that painfully few children win roles of any size on film or television, and even fewer survive the rigours of childhood stardom to go on, like Foster or DiCaprio, to an adult performing career.
Some successful child actors get their start through connections in the industry. Others do it the hard way and audition for commercials and bit-parts before moving on to better things. Haley Joel Osment, who starred in The Sixth Sense, got his first break in a Pizza Hut commercial.
Only a few are talent-spotted by bona fide industry figures. Shirley Temple, the prototypical cute girl on screen, was one such exception - picked out for her dancing talents by an executive from Educational Pictures who happened to be visiting her pre-school when she was barely four years old.
It was the advent of television in the 1950s that turned child acting into a production line. That has only grown more apparent with the growth of cable and satellite, posing considerable risks to children - both the ones who do not make it and the ones who do.
Many successful child actors end up in trouble. Macaulay Culkin, of the Home Alone films, crashed and burnt after his parents divorced and fought over the money he had brought into the family.
Haley Joel Osment got into a drink-influenced car crash last year. Lindsay Lohan's troubles are currently plastered all over the print and broadcast media.
Some former child actors have lobbied hard for industry protections, none more so than Paul Petersen, who appeared on the Donna Reed Show on television in the late 1950s and 1960s, hit the bottle in his 20s, and now heads an influential advocacy organisation called A Minor Consideration.