Class Claims Talent Agency Cheated Kids

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – A talent agency charged thousands of dollars in advance from California families, claiming it could set up “showcase” auditions with high-profile directors and casting agents that would turn their kids into stars, though California law prohibits such agencies from charging fees in advance, according to a Superior Court class action.

     The class claims that owners of the “Be” agency hired one of their own companies, Dynamic Showcases, to set up auditions with movie directors and casting agents, to try to sidestep the state law aimed at stopping agencies from taking advantage of would-be artists.
     The law prohibits talent agencies from taking fees in advance. The class claims that Be acted as middle man, taking the money, while “contracting” with Dynamic Showcases.
     Be and Dynamic Showcases owners – defendants Eric DeSando, Barry Falck, Ryan Falck and Jacob Steinbeck – only took on kids whose parents could pay their exorbitant fees, then paid talent agents to attend “auditions,” where they had no real incentive to hire any of the kids, according to the complaint.
     The class claims Be and Dynamic Showcases had to hire the agents because they had no real industry connections.
     Named plaintiff Trisha Drago says the parents “might as well have pooled their fees together and paid these professionals the same fee to show up to an audition – Be provided no value.”
     Since established agents and directors charge steep fees to attend, Be and Dynamic Showcases sometimes hired “less-established” and even “unlicensed” agents to sit through the auditions, hiding the agents’ true identity from parents, Drago claims.
     “When news reporters pointed out the link between [Be and Dynamic Showcases], and the clear violation of law from collecting such advance fees, defendants purported to switch the ownership of Dynamic Showcases and other assets to defendant Ryan Falck,” the complaint states.
     The class claims that Be offered allegedly discounted acting classes to parents who paid its membership fees. But Drago says the “discounted” rate was the same rate anyone walking in off the street would pay the independent acting schools.
     The complaint claims that defendants DeSando said in a 2008 San Francisco newscast that Be’s advance fees did not violate the California anti-fraud measure agencies because although Be took fees in advance, it contracted with Dynamic Showcases for the auditions.
     But Drago says the purpose of the Advance-Fee Talent Services Act was “to prevent and prohibit essentially the exact conduct alleged here.”
     “‘We are not governed by 1701,'” Be Productions owner Erik DeSando allegedly told San Francisco ABC affiliate KGO-TV, according to the 86-page complaint.
     “DeSando says Be Productions, formerly known as My Artist’s Place, does charge fees up front and does help kids get into show business, but it is not an advance fee talent service,” the complaint states, citing the newscast.
     “‘Those things you’re talking about, they’re being done, but they’re being done by outside companies, not ours. So, in other words, if you want to meet an agent through us, you can’t meet an agent through us. You have to meet an agent through the showcase company we contract with,'” DeSando said, according to the complaint.
     But an ABC legal analyst told the station “using outside vendors would not exempt Be from the law,” according to the complaint.
     “‘They take an advance fee and for that fee you get access to essentially everything that an artist would want to develop his or her career, analyst Dean Johnson told the station. “That is the kind of service that is exactly what the authors of the talent service agencies statute intended to cover.'”
     State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, who wrote the law, agreed, telling ABC: “They do fall under the definition of advance-fee talent agencies … We made the law very broad in order to snare these kinds of folks.”
     According to the complaint, two other former Be customers sued successfully under the Act in San Francisco Federal Court last year. The court issued a constructive trust over the money the customers had paid to Be. But the court declined to extend the constructive trust to the other defendants in that case and in the current case “without an additional showing of irreparable harm beyond what is required under (1985 California precedent) Heckmann v. Ahmanson.”
     Drago says this lawsuit is an attempt to take advantage of the Superior Court’s lower standard for a constructive trust.
     Drago sued Be, Dynamic Showcases, MTS Holdings Group Inc., 1901 Co., DeSando, Barry Falck, Ryan Falck, Steinbeck and Vitaly Rashkovan.
     She is represented by Ethan Preston of Chicago; Robert Bramson and Michael Strimling with Bramson Plutzik Mahler of Walnut Creek, Calif.; and David Parisi and Suzanne Havens Beckman with Parisi & Havens of Sherman Oaks.

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