Talent search under fire for use of Disney name

Published: Jun. 5, 2012 at 8:08 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 19, 2013 at 9:56 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - A star search for child actors or a high priced sales pitch? The WAVE 3 Troubleshooter Department went undercover to investigate a local acting audition put on by a company plagued by questions about its claims and results.

Troubleshooter Eric Flack started getting calls and emails from parents as soon as the radio ad for the talent search hit local airwaves.

Radio Announcer: If you want to be on the Disney Channel or on one of your favorite TV shows with Selena Gomez or Justin Bieber, be one of the first 200 callers right now and the next kid super star could be you!

"It seemed like Disney was sponsoring it pretty much," said Cedric Bridges, who heard that radio ad and brought his 5-year-old daughter Miracle out to audition.

Megan Cooper, who brought her 6-year-old twins, agreed. "I thought it was strictly for Disney Channel," Cooper said.

Why wouldn't she? The radio ad mentioned Disney four times.

Radio Announcer: Picture yourself on the Disney Channel!

But WAVE 3 Troubleshooter Eric Flack didn't find anyone from Disney at a talent search called The Event held at a local hotel on a Saturday morning in May. He did find organizers who didn't want to answer his questions.

"You can't record here, there's no cameras," said a worker who refused to identify herself when the Troubleshooter team showed up.

In a statement to the WAVE 3 Troubleshooter Department, Disney spokesperson Patti McTeague wrote:

Disney Channel is not affiliated with any acting school or acting workshop, and has not authorized talent searches or casting through THE Event. Disney overall has no role in THE Event and does not evaluate talent at any event.

Despite what we, and all the parents who showed up at the audition heard, Louise Worth, spokesperson for The Event wrote:

We have never claimed affiliation with Disney. In fact, every single person who interviewed with us this weekend signed a document BEFORE being allowed to audition that clearly states who we are and our NON-affiliation with Disney.

When we pressed Worth on the legality of the using the Disney name, she vehemently denied wrongdoing.

When has telling the truth become illegal? We have kids who have booked work or auditioned for almost every major show on television.

We also talk about shows on Nickelodeon, HBO, NBC, ABC, CBS, and major motion pictures. The celebrities who we hire for our event have credits on all of these various shows as well. If we had used the name "PBS" in our marketing referencing work credits from our success stories, would you even be caring to run a story right now? You are going to get ratings for your station because YOU are using the Disney name in your reporting. So do you think it is "legal" for you to run a story talking about Disney?

"But the presentation overall is deceptive," said Anne Henry, co-founder of The BizParentz Foundation, a non-profit watchdog for child actors in California. "It makes it sound like this is a real path to Hollywood, and in reality it's not."

Henry said what The Event actually leads to is an overpriced talent show. The disclaimer given to our undercover mom referred to it as a "fee/based event competition".

Along with that disclaimer, we were also handed a brochure covered with pictures of successful actors. We later discovered none of them ever competed in The Event.

Again, Worth said The Event was not trying to mislead.

These people were not discovered by the event nor has that ever been claimed by our company. These celebrities are a part of The Event experience and illustrate accurately and truthfully the type of event someone would expect to attend.

The celebrities are paid to attend the five day showcase held just outside the Disney grounds in Orlando. Parents get a phone call the day after the local auditions telling them their child has been selected then find out they have to pay thousands of dollars to attend.

Participation packages range from $1,975 to $7,900 or more when you add in the $895 Family Pass which is required for minors.

Henry, the mother of a child actor who has worked to reform the industry, said The Event and other fee based talent competitions are a sham, profiting off parents but unable to deliver a Hollywood ending.

In fact, The Event has come under fire nationwide. In Connecticut, the attorney general took action after parents claimed they were misled in 2009. And that same year in California, lawmakers passed a law regulating companies that hold fee based talent competitions.

Worth told the Troubleshooter Department that law had nothing to do with The Event.

That law was put in place to stop agents and managers who pretend to work with actors as their representation to use that as a guise to sell classes or other products and services. This law has nothing to do with legitimate acting schools, conventions, etc. that do business in California. The Event is bonded in California as a convention and follow the guidelines of this law to a T.

But there is no law in Kentucky, where hundreds of parents lined up for what they believed was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Henry said in her experience it would be "very rare" for the audition, or investment, to lead to a performing career.

"So rare I don't think I've ever actually heard of it happening," Henry said.

Worth put us in touch with Michelle Byerly, the mother of a child actor who said The Event helped launched her son. Hayden Byerly got small roles in the NBC drama Parenthood and Zeke and Luther, as well as a starring role in the straight to DVD horror movie 11/11/11 after the Colorado family paid $8,000 for Hayden to be in The Event in 2010.

"The Event can fast track your path to Hollywood and open doors especially if your kids have talent," Byerly said.

Louisville dad Julius Evans hopes an Event audition for his 6-year-old son Jayden will lead to the same opportunities, even if that hope comes at a hefty price.

"I will get a second job if we have to come up with that money," Evans said.

Henry said the best way to get your child discovered is still the old fashioned way, start with performing at the local level, then work your way up. The BizParentz Foundation website is dedicated to guiding parents through the process. To find more information about finding a legitimate Disney audition, click here.

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Copyright 2012 WAVE News. All rights reserved.