Bret Dawson and his parents, Gina and Shawn, spent thousands at Pacific… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
Rachel Prieur and her brother Ryan were captivated by a radio commercial flooding the airwaves in Dallas. It offered children a shot at stardom — maybe even a part on a Disney show — and all they had to do was show up for an audition.
The teenagers begged their parents to take them. Crammed into a hotel ballroom with 200 other children, they took turns reading short monologues in front of a judge.
Their father, Bruce Prieur, said a representative for "The," the company that staged the event, told him his children had talent and had qualified to participate in a larger showcase at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, where they would meet top talent scouts.
The Orlando competition, however, wasn't free of charge. Prieur said the woman from "The" recommended a package that included acting workshops for about $6,000 for both children. With airfare, hotel and professional photos of his children, he said, he paid about $10,000 for the weeklong trip.
"My kids were really gung-ho, thinking they were going to get a chance at something," said Prieur, 44, an air traffic controller.
But Prieur said there were no meetings with agents or leads for auditions. All his children got, he said, was disappointment.
Since Hollywood's earliest days, families have come to Los Angeles to chase stardom for their children. In a departure from that tradition, companies such as "The" (pronounced "tay") are marketing the Hollywood dream in towns and cities across the U.S., offering children a chance to be discovered — for a price.
The companies blanket radio and TV stations with ads that use the names of Disney stars to draw children and their families to free auditions. Parents are then pressured to buy packages of acting workshops and other services that they're told will make the children more appealing to talent agents and casting directors, according to court records and complaints filed with state attorneys general and the Better Business Bureau.
"I've talked to parents who've spent their children's college fund to make this dream a reality and have nothing to show for it," said Zino Macaluso, a national director of the Screen Actors Guild.
The talent businesses have thrived because the proliferation of children's TV programs has created a large pool of children eager to become the next Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez.
"The money has become huge," said Anne Henry, co-founder of BizParentz Foundation, an advocacy group for child actors and their parents. "It's happening on a level we've never seen before."
"The," which now goes by the name the Event, is one of the most visible companies in the field and holds auditions across the U.S. and in foreign countries. The privately held business, which does not disclose its revenue, has been the target of most of the complaints against talent services firms filed with the BBB, records show.
In May 2009, "The" paid $25,000 to the Connecticut state attorney general to settle an investigation into the company's business practices and agreed to offer refunds to nearly 350 families who paid money for a large talent competition in Stamford.
"The" "appeared to use high-pressure sales tactics" and charged excessive cancellation fees that were not properly disclosed, said Brendan Flynn, a Connecticut assistant attorney general. The company denied wrongdoing and revised the contract.
Michael Palance, the owner of New York Studio, which operates "The," declined to be interviewed, but he issued a statement defending the company.
"The Event, like any other business, gets complaints. But relative to the scale of the business, it is a fact that the number of complaints is minuscule when compared to any other business of the same size," Palance wrote.
"The" is careful not to guarantee that children will find agents or secure jobs, but it says many participants have had successful careers, including Landry Bender, who starred in last year's Jonah Hill comedy "The Sitter."
Still, in Delaware, where New York Studio is based, "The" received an "F" grade from the Better Business Bureau in response to complaints. Better Business Bureaus in several states and in Canada have issued warnings to consumers about "The's" business practices.
In affidavits recently filed in an Arizona court case, eight former customers said the company made false promises and used deceptive tactics. One of them, a Boston mother, said a "The" representative told her 90% of those selected to attend the Orlando showcase would "receive a contract of some type" to become a professional entertainer.
Betty Cook took her granddaughters, ages 8 and 12, to a "The" audition in July 2010 at a convention center outside St. Louis after hearing an ad on her favorite country radio station.