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MY KID OUGHTA BE IN PICTURES

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by Fran Alexander

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How many times have you been told your child could be a model? Or dreamed of seeing that adorable face on the screen? It would be easy enough to answer an ad announcing an open call for kids — "all types needed, no experience necessary." But first you would be wise to get some very basic information on the business of kids in front of the camera, including representation, compensation and even education, according to those in the know. Jeff Mitchell, president of J. Mitchell Management in New York City, talks about the importance of parents educating themselves to avoid "show biz scams" as well as the pitfalls of their own egos. The first thing parents have to understand, he says, is that "anyone who asks for money up front for any reason is someone to stay away from ... real agents and managers only charge if your kid gets work." The second point is that to get work you have to be near a major city, especially New York or Los Angeles. Finally, if you're prepared to do a lot of running around with no guarantee of actually getting jobs, and willing to stop if your child is not enjoying the trip, then you're ready to start. All you need is a simple snapshot of your child and a cover letter inquiring about representation to be mailed to legitimate managers and agents, all of whom are listed in industry guides such as Ross Reports and Hollywood Creative Directory. Mitchell suggests the Drama Bookshop in New York City as a great place to find all kinds of sources.

PRINT MODELING Lisa Johnson of Greenwich answered an open call for baby models that a friend found posted on the Internet. She brought in her 8-month-old son, Izzy, just for the fun of it, filled out some paperwork, and provided a photo of him in a pumpkin patch to be sent out for open calls at modeling agencies. Within a week they had a "go-see" (audition) for Carter's, and several weeks later they were sent out by Wilhelmina Agency for a Lord & Taylor ad in The New York Times. Before she knew it, Johnson was caught up in the excitement of seeing her child in print, having added Parents magazine to Izzy's short resume. But she learned that even with big agency representation, a contract doesn't necessarily mean your child will get a job. And if he is hired for a shoot, there's no guarantee he will be used. "It's not just a question of looks,” she says. “It's a matter of whether your baby will sit still." While you will be paid for your time ($60-$90/hour with a two-hour maximum law for baby models), preparation and transportation are your responsibility. Susan Heller of Chappaqua has a daughter who also met with success early on in her print modeling career. One of a non-identical twin pair, Alexandra's strawberry blond hair was her ticket into the business, which included work for Fuji Film, Parents and Family Fun. She even got a buyout with Fuji, whereby she was paid $1,000 for a day's work and the client had use of any of the photos for up to two years. Unlike the Johnsons, the family was urged to have professional photos taken through their talent agency, at a cost of $300. Despite their initial success and enjoyment, both mothers found that when the thrill wears off, you are left with travel time, sitting time, more travel time — and not a great deal of money for all your effort. The fun also fades as awareness grows of the intensely competitive mothers on calls and the slightly jealous ones at home. As Izzy and Alexandra got older, their mothers felt that the go-sees and shoots were not the best use of their time or that of the kids. Johnson recalls that, "Izzy's last job was awful. He caught a stomach virus from a one-year-old there. There was nothing for the kids to do but play with oversized backgammon chips, which they were all putting in their mouths. After that one, there was a go-see for Time magazine with kids standing on a pedestal without parents’ help!" She soon realized the children’s safety was not a priority and that it was up to the parents to intervene on their behalf.

PARENT'S ROLE "It's the parent's job to know that they are the ones in charge of their children and are responsible for their safety," warns Jeff Mitchell. He explains that even if you feel somewhat intimidated on the set, you can never be turned away or told that your child has to eat, do, or say anything that you do not feel is in the interests of your child. "You can't be held in violation of a contract if it's for your child's safety," he says. He tells of one girl whose chest was bound with cellophane tape to mask her development, which proved to be painful to remove. Her mother allowed it, perhaps out of over-eagerness for her daughter to keep the job or unawareness of her prerogative to say no. The parent is always allowed to be within the child's sight on a set, Mitchell emphasizes, whether the job is union or non-union, print or television. The only exception is an audition, when the parent is not permitted in the room. (In fact, Mitchell warns, another sure sign of a scam is if the parent is allowed into an audition).

BROADCAST WORK The glamour and money factors heighten when you move from print to television. "If you can do TV, that's where you can make money," Heller says. Mitchell explains that children who do commercials earn about $500 a day, and if the commercial runs, residuals can be from $10,000 to $70,000 per year, depending on whether it is national or regional. “So if you do a bunch, it can pay for college," he says. He adds that film and television work can pay $2,000 a week for work on a set (Broadway work pays $800-$1000 per week), but you can expect to pay 15 percent to a manager and 10 percent to an agent. Meg Hosey, a Larchmont mom with a background in acting, has two sons with commercial and acting careers. When 17-year-old Anthony was a toddler, everyone thought he looked like a Michelin Tire baby, so no one was surprised when he was actually hired as one. Hosey reports that six other babies were hired for that shoot, and that Anthony was not the first choice. But he happened to have napped well that day and made it onto the air on Super Bowl Sunday of that same year. Her younger son, James, was less placid on the baby modeling route, but his red hair and freckled face opened doors when he got older. James's first commercial, which aired nationally, was for MCI; he went on to do spots for Papa Gino’s (Boston), Office Depot and Tide (national). James also auditioned for movies, and was cast in “School of Rock” in 2002. After two auditions he didn't get the job, but right before Thanksgiving, they received a call saying that one of the kids had been fired and asking whether James could replace him, starting the next day. It would mean missing 10 weeks of school and James was initially ambivalent, but he can now be seen in the movie as one of Jack Black's students (Marco, a roadie) with four lines and lots of screen time.

LEGISLATION A new act signed into law by Governor Pataki this past September addresses child performers' wage and education protection, similar to California's Coogan Law, which is designed to protect child actor earnings (see sidebar). Private tutors on the set and informal cooperation on the part of the school have historically alleviated the concern over missed classroom time, but kids attending New York State schools were always marked absent when on location. Alan Simon, founder and president of On Location Education in Mt. Kisco, provides teaching services for professional child performers, including on the set of “School of Rock”. He explains that the new Child Performers Education and Trust Act of 2003 (effective at the end of March 2004) encompasses two relevant changes: 1) it requires school education for children on set regardless of how many days there, versus the previous union provision that a three-day minimum was required; and 2) students in New York State schools being taught on a set will no longer be marked absent from school. This applies to all children on any set, whether for print, commercials or feature films, and all are required to have work permits. Provisions will be enforced by the New York State Department of Labor and Department of Education.

RESOURCES • A Minor Consideration (AMC): child advocacy group for young performers and their parents. www.minorcon.org • Actors Equity Association (AEA): union representing actors and stage managers in theater. www.actorsequity.org • American Federation of TV and Radio Artists (AFTRA): union representing professional actors. www.aftra.org • Screen Actors Guild (SAG): union representing screen actors. www.sag.org

BOX The Coogan Act Jackie Coogan, born into a vaudeville family, was the child star of the 1920s. Discovered by Charlie Chaplin and featured in his movie, "The Kid" (1921), Coogan became one of the most highly paid stars in Hollywood by 1923. When he later tried to get the money he earned, his mother and stepfather refused his request. He sued them for $4 million, but was awarded only $126,000 because he had no rights to his earnings under California law. The California Legislature subsequently passed The Child Actors Bill, aka The Coogan Act, to protect child actor earnings with trust funds. The bill has since been amended to mandate a 15 percent set-aside of child actors' income. Coogan later appeared as Uncle Fester in the 1960s television series, "The Addams Family”.


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