Survey reveals ‘shocking’ fee results

Nuala Calvi

Three-quarters of people paying up-front fees to agents in the entertainment industry receive no work from them in the following 12 months and in more than 90% of cases find that they fail to live up to expectations, according to The Stage’s nationwide survey, completed this week.

Our research, prompted by the Department for Trade and Industry’s warning that some agencies are using hard-sell tactics to persuade people to pay high fees for the provision of ‘services’ which never materialise, also reveals cases of performers being charged up to £2,000 for the privilege of having their details included in alleged casting directories or for compulsory photographic services.

When up-front fees are charged, on average, aspiring actors, extras and models are asked to pay £104 when they join up with an agency but only see two days’ work a year in return for their investment.

Up-front fees – those charged in advance of an agency finding performers work – were banned in April 2004.

The only exceptions are where the charge is a “reasonable” estimate of the cost of producing a publication such as a casting book or where such a book is the only work-finding service provided.

Our survey, which was completed by more than 700 Stage readers, reveals almost half are still being charged a fee when they join an agency and that 63% of those are told this is purely for registration purposes – a clear breach of the law.

Where a charge has been made for inclusion in a directory, the vast majority of people have also been told that this charge is compulsory, which goes against industry codes of practice.

Some 36% of people were also asked to pay even more money for photographic services provided by the agency, with the majority – 64% – saying they were illegally told that they must use such services in order to join up.

Broadcasting union Bectu described the results as “shocking”. National official Spencer MacDonald 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.”

He added that the DTI’s proposed solution of introducing a “cooling-off” period, during which people could demand their money back if they believe they have been scammed by a bogus agent, was unlikely to fully address the problem.

“We need to look at the charges themselves and see whether they need capping or abolishing completely,” he said.

“There is no magical answer but we are pleased the government has signalled they want a discussion about this and the results of this survey will add weight to the arguments the unions will be putting forward.”

Matt Payton, Equity’s research and parliamentary officer, said it was particularly worrying that 61% of respondents were unaware of the law on up-front fees and that three out of four did not know who to go to for help if they felt they had been ripped off.

The vast majority had not heard of The Agents’ Association, National Association of Supporting Artistes Agents, National Entertainment Agents’ Council or Personal Managers’ Association.

“There also probably needs to be a more concentrated effort to ensure agents are more aware of their responsibilities under the law,” he said.

For the time being, the advice from NASAA and others is to avoid agencies that demand money before securing you employment.

“Most legitimate agencies are happy to take their fee out of your first day’s work,” says Sarah Dickinson, NASAA chair. “My advice is not to pay fees up front.”

What the DTI says

“We are concerned to learn that people are apparently being charged illegal fees for registering and we are grateful for The Stage’s help in responding to our call for information on this very important issue.

“We are also concerned about hard-selling tactics to persuade would-be performers to pay high fees for services which don’t materialise and this is an area we have promised to tackle in our Success at Work paper.

“If any person feels they have been charged an illegal fee or that an agency has behaved improperly they should contact the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate on 0845 955 5105.”

Reader’s experiences

“They boasted that they had provided roles for the BBC, Sky, ITV and all sorts of programmes. 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 stated that once you parted with your money you would never look back as you would be inundated with offers. 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.” – Vikki Slater

“I responded to an advert to go to a hotel to register to be a model/TV extra. I was told I was one of the lucky ones and was accepted, so I paid them £159 to take photos and introduce me to three other agencies, which I also had to pay separately to join, costing a total of nearly £500. I never had any work from them. I have taken the matter to the DTI and Trading Standards, as I felt I had been ripped off, but to no avail as work isn’t guaranteed and no law has been breached.” – SA

“I was taken on by an agency… within a couple of days they sent me to get a showreel done, as they said they had three castings for me. I went to get one done – this was organised by the agency. I paid £200 for the session and £45 for a copy for myself. I did not receive a copy, nor hear from the agency again. I called and left a lot of messages for the agency and also the man who did the showreel but nothing. I told no-one about this as I was embarrassed and thought no one would help as I had agreed to it all.” – Anon

“It annoys me that agencies call [up-front fees] a different name and they get away with it. More and more companies ask you to pay, even the traditional ones are doing it now. I don’t seem to get much work as I now refuse to pay them. It’s Catch 22.” – CN

“I was ‘spotted’ on Oxford Street by a model scout claiming he could get me lots of work. He took a photo and then told me to go to the website to check it out. I received a phone call the following day and he said he had work for me already and would I be interested. He said I needed to pay £100 up-front and then the work would come flooding.” – Christina Cooke

“I paid over £100 in representation fees, yet the agency has had no contact with me since then. I am doubtful that I will ever hear from them again.” – Anon

“In spite of the recent law, some casting agencies seem to justify up-front fees for photos and other costs, without the guarantee of any work. I responded to a local advertisement for actors and extras, went along to a hotel where there were numerous young girls prepared to fork out the required expenses to get on the agency’s books, unaware this was not the right practice.” – Anon

“It would seem that only by licensing entertainment agents, as happened in the past, can both the performer and the law be protected. The culture of celebrity is giving rise to greater exploitation of those seeking a brush with fame.” – Anon

“It was two months before my photo and details were put onto the website, and only because I chased them about it. Couldn’t get hold of them on the phone and in response to my polite e-mail questioning why this was the case, having paid them already, I received many unbelievably rude e-mails back. When I finally did speak to someone on the phone and demanded my money back they refused but at the mention that I would be taking this matter to the TV programme Watchdog, my photo miraculously appeared on the website the very next day. I am so pleased that these sort of crimes are now being recognised and action is being taken by you. It’s about time these crooks were shown for what they are. Thank you.” – CCH

“Performers are being exploited all the time as they are vulnerable and desperate for more work. There needs to be more education about authentic agencies and bad agencies in all training colleges, as many recent graduates are often the target for scams. The internet has sparked many new problems of control, including new scams on the web, for example ‘pay just £150 and we’ll make you a website that loads of people with view’, or ‘pay just £200 and we’ll shoot a showreel and edit it for you and it will get you loads of work’. These tools are useful but only if the actual material used is of a very high quality.” – MAS

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