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Why the Business of Child Actors Isn't Child's Play

Twelve-year-old Ciara Bravo was just about to give up.

It was September 2009 and she had spent the past two summers in L.A. with her mother, Tammy, auditioning for acting parts. There had been some close calls, including a shot at a regular role on CBS' "Gary Unmarried," but no bookings.

"We knew there was something there, but no one was biting," says the elder Bravo. "So we went back home to Kentucky and said, 'It's time to throw in the towel and be a regular kid.' "

That was when Ciara's manager, Frederick Levy of Management 101, asked her to videotape an audition for the role of younger sister Katie on the Nickelodeon series "Big Time Rush." Producer Scott Fellows liked what he saw, and had her do a second read with him on Skype. Satisfied, Ciara left on a two-day field trip to Amish Country in Ohio. Then at 10 the next morning, Levy called Tammy and told her they wanted Ciara to read again with new direction.

"I said, 'Are you kidding me? She's 250 miles away,' " Tammy recalls. "He said, 'You have to go get her.' So I jumped in the car with my Flip video camera, drove to Amish Country, and filmed her in an Amish grocery store with flour and cornmeal bags in the background."

Tammy sent the video to Nickelodeon and Ciara booked the job. Within 48 hours of their Amish adventure, the duo was on a plane to Los Angeles to start shooting the first season of "Big Time Rush."

It's a fantasy scenario for the thousands of child actors around the country who have watched Miley Cyrus or Miranda Cosgrove and dreamed they could be the kid in spotlight, with millions of fans, a fat TV contract, record deals and studios clamoring to create big-screen roles them. Now, with new Hasbro network the Hub and the Cartoon Network branching out into live action, there could be even more opportunities than ever for young thespians and the people who rep them.

"Every year, this area of talent gets more and more exciting," says Mitchell Gossett, an agent at UTA specializing in young actors like

Victoria Justice, star of the Nickelodeon series "Victorious" and a Sony Music recording artist. "Also, these are challenging economic times.

If a child has a distinctive talent, it could potentially help the family with some revenue. There's a fine line between exploiting and delivering for your child, but I think that these days it's OK, because families need help around the country."

California law (namely the Coogan Act) states that a child actor's income is 100% theirs, making it difficult for parents to use the money to support the family. But the issue is largely rendered irrelevant when one when examines the earning potential of the typical "successful" child actor. According to Anne Henry of the nonprofit support organization BizParentz Foundation, it's not nearly as much as one might think.

A child booking a handful of movie roles and TV spots every year, along with a voice-over spot every month, might make $50,000-$60,000 a year.

Kids who are regulars on a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon series don't fare much better, typically making $5,000-$7,000 a week on a 22-week series. On top of that, Disney and Nickelodeon usually have clauses that block kids from working outside the series.

Then there are the expenses. Lacking the classic adult deductions for home ownership and dependents, kids often lose as much as 40% of their pay upfront to taxes, on top of the 10% that goes to their agent along with 15% to their manager and 5% to their attorney, if they have them. Then there's all the money spent on union dues, head shots, acting classes, gas for driving to auditions and, for those from out of town, rent for a hotel room or an apartment.

In the end, "The kid is being paid $5,000 a week and taking home $500 to live on," says Henry, a former city administrator who has three kids in the business. "So, if you moved here from out of state, good luck to you, you ain't living on $500 a week. That's why we tell people, 'Don't sell your home in Dallas and hope that you're going to make it in L.A. Your odds aren't really great and even if you do "make it" and get on that Disney series you so covet.' "

Children on a network series working under a SAG contract (an increasing rarity) will make more, and while there are rare exceptions like Angus T. Jones of CBS' "Two and a Half Men," who is reportedly earning $250,000 an episode, the glory days of the 1980s when young sitcom stars like Kirk Cameron were regularly pulling down $100,000 a week are long gone.

It's a problem for agents and managers as well as the children themselves. To compensate for the reduced earning power of their average, non-superstar clients, reps have become volume dealers.

"The Internet and other things have allowed them to take on a thousand clients, where they used to have 200," Henry explains. "They're throwing masses of kids at the wall and hoping one or two stick."

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Agencies have also widened their net geographically. The Osbrink Agency in North Hollywood gets many of its client referrals from sister agencies around the country, including Jordan, Gill and Dorbaum in New York, the Stewart Agency in Chicago and the J. Pervis Agency in Atlanta.

"Once they feel like one of their clients has outgrown their regional territory, they'll call us and say they're L.A.-ready," says agency topper Cindy Osbrink, who discovered marquee client Dakota Fanning through one such referral from Atlanta.

How do the reps separate the wheat from the chaff? Levy says the No. 1 thing he looks for is personality.

"If they're animated and have energy and are real and grounded and can carry on a conversation, that's half the battle," Levy notes. "The second thing is confidence. The third is some talent potential that I know with the right training and coaching they can get to the level of being competitive. And, of course, looks. Either they're a great-looking kid or they're really interesting, quirky-looking."

Levy believes that acting classes are mandatory for juvenile actors, but Jeff Goldberg, who won an Emmy for casting ABC's "Modern Family," cautions that "The kids with the most experience turn out to be too slick, too polished, too rehearsed and not real. I was reading a guest role for the role of a Halloween trick or treater and one adorable 7-year-old came in and he was working too hard, so I gave him that note, 'You're doing too much.' He said, 'You mean, don't act?' I said, 'Exactly.' "

Finding the exceptional child with talent and enough charisma to carry a series is another matter entirely, says Sean McNamara, who's produced such hit Disney Channel shows "That's So Raven," starring Raven-Symone, and "Even Stevens," which launched the career of "Transformers" star Shia LaBeouf.

"Anytime you audition kids, out of every 100, only five can act, and only one in five or 10,000 are like a Shia or a Raven," he notes. "When they walk in, it's like electricity. They're not like other kids. They're in another stratosphere. You think, 'We have to sign this person before another studio gets them.' "

Too often, parents are convinced their child is "the one," despite strong evidence to the contrary, and will stop at nothing to have that talent recognized, even if it means bankrupting their families. Unscrupulous operators know this.

"We've heard of story after sob story about how these people have been taken for $20,000 or more before they ever arrived in Los Angeles," Henry says.

A company typically comes to a city and runs print ads and radio spots announcing an open call for a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon show being held at a local hotel.

"They give the impression the child is auditioning for an agent or a casting director, and it always ends up that they want them to pay for something -- classes, a showcase, photos," Henry notes. "But you don't usually find that out until the call-back level, till they've decided if you have the money to pay or not."

One of the most high-profile cases involves Pacific Modeling and Acting Academy, which staged "open auditions" like these in 10 cities in around the country in 2008, then closed shop. In November 2009, the company filed for bankruptcy, naming about 2,500 families as creditors.

Inspired by cases such as these, BizParents helped spearhead the passage of AB 1319 in 2009, a California law that, among other things, prohibits people from charging upfront fees for talent representation. Of course, it has no effect on those who operate out of state. But agent Meredith Fine of Coast to Coast Talent says that most potential scammers can easily be weeded out.

"If you're approached by someone in the mall who tells you, 'Your kid is so cute, he should be in commercials,' you've got to Google them up with different words like 'scam,' 'problem' and 'complaints,' " Fine says.

But parents must be on guard even when dealing with legitimate employers.

"There are many agencies out there that will hold your money," says Te-See Bender, whose 8-year-old daughter Ella Rouhier has been a working print model and commercial actress since she was a year old. "You will have been paid, but they'll keep telling you haven't been paid, so they can roll over the interest. If you don't hound them, it will take forever to get your money."

Parents also need to be vigilant that their morals and their child's innocence don't get trampled in a blind rush to score the next job, according to Keri Shahidi, who has two children in the business (both repped by Fine), 10-year-old Yara, who played Eddie Murphy's daughter in "Imagine That," and 7-year-old Saheed, who can be seen as Blair Underwood's son on NBC's "The Event."

"A former agent gave us a script where the girl finds crack in the glove compartment of a car while the dad is in the bathroom at the park doing who knows what," Shahidi recalls. "This is why we left the agent. She kept e-mailing me, 'Are you going [on the audition]?' I kept e-mailing back, 'Are you kidding me?' Then she said, 'Oh, I just read it. I'm so sorry.' I was so offended, because, morally and ethically, I'd never let my daughter audition for this. The good agent tells you, 'I know this isn't your cup of tea, but I always want you to know what's out there.' "

There have been no such problems for Ciara Bravo, who's experience on "Big Time Rush," now wrapping production on its second season, has remained an unadulterated dream come true. But, while she loves acting, it's not the be-all and end-all of her existence.

"I'm really big with animals, so I definitely want to own my own barn and take care of that and stuff," Ciara says. "And I'm definitely going to take four years off from acting for college."