Bretton Manley has no use for hockey. His brother and sister play it, and his father coaches it, so the Newton boy tried it, but he soon begged off. His parents knew their youngest son liked hamming it up around the house, so they tossed him into an acting class. This was new territory for his father, who owns an electrical company, and his mother, a nurse. But they found a program run by Boston Casting, and Bretton took to it quickly. That was a year and a half ago.
If you’re interested to see how the 9-year-old’s acting has progressed, you can check him out this summer — at the multiplex near you. The brown-haired boy plays Mark Wahlberg’s character as a child in Ted, the motion picture debut by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. As far as launches go, Bretton could have hardly scripted a better one. On the first open casting call of his life, he landed a multi-scene role in a big Hollywood release, and, because it was shot in Boston, he didn’t even have to leave town. Actually, he did need to spend a week in Los Angeles. That turned out to be one of the biggest highlights for him, though not because he got to hang with bold-facers Wahlberg and Mila Kunis. It was more because his LA tutor arranged for him to visit the set of the Disney Channel show A.N.T. Farm. Many adult actors toiling away on cable long for the kind of big-screen break Bretton got right out of the gate. For Bretton, though, the Holy Grail lies on the small screen. “My dream acting job,” he says, “is to get on a Disney show.”
That ambition is shared by 12-year-old Salvatore Santone of Holbrook. Despite having to learn how to do boxing moves for his role playing a young Micky Ward in Wahlberg’s 2010 movie The Fighter, Salvatore has spent more time aping the wand-waving movements that Disney Channel stars use in promos to draw the familiar mouse ears logo.
And it’s shared by 9-year-old Sophie Hastings of East Longmeadow. Even though she scored a role in the ABC television pilot Gilded Lilys, entitling her to a scene with veteran actress Blythe Danner and a tricked-out set trailer of her very own, she views Disney star Selena Gomez as more of a model than Danner or even her famous daughter, Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow.
It’s not altogether surprising that these working child actors would all have Disney dreams. Every generation has a subset of kids who set their bright eyes on becoming a STAR, like Lea Michele’s “Rachel” character from Glee. And thanks to its epoxy hold on youth culture, Disney has become the definition of success for this crowd.
What’s remarkable is that, thanks in large part to Disney and aided by our Idol-fueled performance culture, this aching ambition to be discovered is no longer harbored by a select group of kids. It has been mainstreamed.
You can see that yearning in the countless posts on websites masquerading as talent feeders for Disney, like the appeal from best friends Julia and Rachel, who boast of their great chemistry together and their credentials as ninth-graders from “the prestigious Boston Latin School.” You can see it in the throngs of kids who sign up for any number of suspect acting schools fronted by some actor trying to pump up the slimmest of Disney credentials. And you can see it in all the hopeful kids and their parents who pack into hotel ballrooms in cities across the country, enticed by radio commercials that promise: “A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Picture yourself on the Disney Channel!”
You can also see it on the Disney Channel itself, where the pursuit of fame drives the action in signature shows ranging from the recently retired Hannah Montana to newer offerings like Shake It Up. A 2011 study by UCLA researchers found that fame — not the community feeling or benevolence that television shows promoted 40, 30, and even 10 years ago — has become the most important of the values communicated by the TV shows most popular with tweens.
More than just the No. 1 cable network for kids, Disney Channel in March became tops in total viewers among all cable channels. Leaving little to chance, Disney staffers conduct focus-group research almost daily and report that most kids tell them they hope to become famous — and feel fame is attainable. In a technical sense, it is more attainable. With the growth of Disney, Nickelodeon, and other kid-focused networks, there is greater demand for child actors. And when international pop star Justin Bieber can get discovered by uploading a few grainy clips of himself to YouTube, kids from every corner of the country feel they, too, can catch their big break without much effort. What’s more, given the arms race of tax credits being passed out like pizza-joint coupons by Massachusetts and other states trying to lure Hollywood productions, there is a whole category of local acting opportunities that simply did not exist just a few years ago. Angela Peri, owner of Boston Casting, says that when she started her company more than 20 years ago, she had a couple of hundred child actors from New England in her database. Now that figure is 9,000.
The House of Mouse promotes this heightened sense of stardom-within-reach in its casting by favoring the relatable over the exceptional. Its stars — whether Hannah Montana’s Miley Cyrus or her face-of-the-franchise replacement, Jessie’s Debby Ryan — are not flawlessly gorgeous, but rather funny, cool girls who register somewhere on the attractive side of regular. In other words, they’re just like you! Each year, Disney Channel holds its own massive open auditions, attracting up to 2,000 kids to Nashville or Richmond, Virginia, or, this weekend, to Kansas City. Yet the reality of how Disney finds the vast majority of its talent has absolutely nothing to do with these frenetic cattle calls. And in this murky no man’s land between myth and reality, young aspirants and their parents can find themselves making decisions they will come to regret.
If you have children who control the radio dial in the car, you’ve heard the pitch. “Hey, kids. Do you love the Disney Channel?” the commercial airing on Kiss 108 and other pop stations begins. “How about superstars like Selena Gomez or Justin Bieber? Well, how would you like to be on the Disney Channel?” The ad promises a “world-famous agent” will be coming to town. “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 superstar could be you.”
In one 60-second spot, the Disney Channel, Selena Gomez, and Justin Bieber are each mentioned four times. Putting aside the fact that Bieber has nothing to do with Uncle Walt’s empire (apart from dating Gomez), it would be logical to assume that Disney was somehow behind the event being advertised.
That’s certainly what Bernadette Golas thought when she and her daughter, Brittany, heard a version of the ad in late 2009. A few days later, they left their home outside Worcester and headed to the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, where they were herded into a ballroom with hundreds of other hopefuls.
This talent search was run by a company called “The” — pronounced “tay.” Asked on her application why she had come to the audition, Brittany, 14 at the time, neatly wrote, “The opportunity to be part of Disney Channel.”
From there, events unfolded this way, according to interviews with the family and an affidavit Golas would later file in connection with a court case. Brittany was told to stand before a video camera and deliver a few lines for a mock commercial. After that, a “The” representative asked Golas for her income. Caught up in her daughter’s excitement and the electric atmosphere, Golas, who is a product manager for a communications company, provided it.
Good news came the next day when Brittany received a callback. Returning to the Westin, they met with a “The” scout named Lily, an attractive woman who spoke in accented English. Lily offered Brittany a spot at a four-day talent-scouting event to be held in March 2010 at a Disney World resort in Orlando. There would be numerous training sessions and a competition before scores of powerful agents and casting directors, she said, such as those from Disney. According to Golas’s affidavit, Lily told Golas that her daughter was one of only eight children in the 14-to-17 age range from Boston being offered an invite to Orlando and said that of the 500 kids at the Orlando event, 90 percent were expected to receive a contract of some type.
Golas was proud to hear this praise heaped on her daughter. She figured if the stars aligned and Brittany got steady work, she could build up a healthy college fund. Still, she had her doubts. Although the Boston audition was free, Lily explained that they had to charge for the Orlando event, to cover the costs of all the high-powered industry officials they were flying in. There were different packages available, ranging from $1,950 to $4,900 (not counting lodging and travel), with the costlier ones offering more opportunities to be seen by the right people. In addition, Golas would be required to accompany her daughter, incurring an additional $895 charge.
Golas asked if she could have a few minutes to think it over. She had earlier phoned her brother-in-law, a lawyer, who did a quick check of the company. But he couldn’t find much. Then again, you try Googling the word “The” and see how happy you are with your search results.
“I have an MBA,” Golas says. “I can do stats.” And the number that reassured her most was eight, the small size of the pool of Boston kids her daughter’s age invited to Orlando. “I didn’t want to be standing in the way of her one big break,” she says. So she handed over her credit card and watched as she was charged $5,795.
Golas and her husband and daughter swallowed an additional $2,000 or so for airfare, lodging, and other expenses. In Orlando, her daughter was thrilled when she got the chance to walk a red carpet for an awards extravaganza hosted by actor David DeLuise, who played Gomez’s father on Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place.
Still, Golas was concerned that Brittany’s opportunities to be seen by industry heavyweights largely seemed to consist of her walking around a banquet room that looked like a college fair, adding copies of her head shot to the towering stacks in front of the talent representatives from companies she’d never heard of. Contrary to Lily’s assurances, Golas estimated there were about 50 Boston kids around her daughter’s age in Orlando, and the total number of kids was a lot more than 500. Even Brittany, despite her excitement, had to admit there was precious little training going on during the training sessions.
On the final morning, each child received an envelope. If any of the talent reps were interested in seeing them, there would be an invitation inside. Golas saw girls jumping up and down all around them, ecstatic with their callbacks. Brittany’s envelope was empty, except for a “thanks for participating” form letter. She was crushed. “I want to leave!” she said, fighting tears. Even though it was morning and their flight wasn’t until 8 p.m., the family hopped on the shuttle to the airport. “I wasn’t good enough!” Brittany told her mother. Golas tried to comfort her daughter, but she could tell the girl was embarrassed.
She wasn’t the only one. “For a while, I was in denial,” Golas says. “There was embarrassment on my part.” Back in Massachusetts, she did some digging and was appalled to learn there was absolutely no association between “The” and Disney. She decided to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, choosing the Arizona office because she found other complaints about “The” on file there. “This event was merely a scam to collect money from middle-class families hoping to give their children . . . a chance,” she wrote, demanding a refund.
She and her daughter were originally drawn to the Boston audition by the radio commercial that mentioned Disney and a “world famous agent.” But they met no one like that in Boston. Instead, they dealt with Lily Neda, the scout who is a key official at “The.” Documents I obtained from the State of California reveal that Neda is a former real estate agent whose license was revoked in 2007, following her conviction on petty theft charges.
Even former Disney star DeLuise, who was paid $4,000 to host the event in March 2010, has problems with “The,” complaining to the Los Angeles Times this year that the company continues to use his name without permission. “It’s nothing but a big scheme for them to make money,” he said.
In response to Golas’s complaint, an unnamed “The” representative denied the refund request and disputed her narrative. “I have not heard of a 90 percent contract rate being quoted from any of our talent reps,” the reply read, stressing that the correct figure is 60 percent and that is for callbacks, not contract offers. “This is the ONLY complaint we have received from the 650 participants and feel that perhaps the reason for the complaint was because her child did not receive a callback.”
In fact, the BBB received enough complaints in response to other “The” events to give the company its lowest rating of F. The owner of “The,” Michael Palance’s New York Studio Inc., filed lawsuits against BBBs in three states, claiming it was being unfairly blamed for the actions of previous owners. Palance’s company had taken over “The” in August 2009, shortly after its previous owners had agreed to pay a $25,000 fine and offer refunds at a Connecticut event as part of a settlement with that state attorney general’s office. Golas followed up her complaint by submitting an affidavit that the BBB used as part of its defense in the “The” lawsuit. All of the lawsuits against the BBB were either dropped or dismissed.
Michael Kranitz, a Colorado businessman and former corporate reorganization lawyer, was among the many unhappy customers who submitted affidavits. After paying $8,400 for his daughter to attend a 2010 Orlando showcase — the price for the top package jumped dramatically that year — Kranitz contacted several of the agents listed on the attendance roster. He wrote that those industry pros told him even the children lucky enough to get signed by an agent or manager would simply have their names entered into a database, “and the odds that any of them would be pulled out of that database for paying acting or modeling jobs is minuscule.”
Chris Durbin, a Newton father of four and a private-equity executive, gave serious consideration to signing up his then 11-year-old daughter after she earned an Orlando invitation at a Boston audition in 2011. He admits that his built-in skepticism eroded as he heard a “The” scout tell his daughter, “You’ve got it,” and then watched his girl’s image appear on a giant ballroom screen.
“The hardest part for a parent is when your child hears she is chosen and then you have to be the one to stand in the way,” he says. “What the company does extremely well is make you think it’s a very narrow funnel that you’re getting through, when, in reality, it’s a really wide funnel.”
Disney Channel spokeswoman Patti McTeague stresses that the channel has no affiliation with “The” — which began going by the name The Event about a year ago — or with any acting workshops “and has not authorized talent searches or casting through these entities.” Although Disney vigorously protects its intellectual property, she says, it can’t prevent “The” from using the word “Disney” when it describes the venue for its Orlando event. The Swan and Dolphin Resort is currently the only non-Disney-owned property in Orlando allowed by contractual agreement to have “Walt Disney World” as part of its official name.
Officials with “The”/The Event declined to answer questions for this article, instead issuing a statement stressing that they run “family friendly competitions” that teach kids about the entertainment world and allow them to network with scores of industry professionals. “We are proud of our many success stories,” the statement reads, giving top billing to actress Landry Bender, “who attended our event in 2009” and “is currently starring as a lead in a major feature film The Sitter with Jonah Hill, which was released in December 2011.”
However, when I reach Amy Bender, the 11-year-old actress’s mother, she tells me, “It’s unfortunate that ‘The’ is using my daughter in an inaccurate way.” She confirms that Landry attended a “The” event in 2009, but she says she did not pay to attend. Amy, a TV sports reporter, had been hired by “The” to emcee the opening-night ceremony and says the company’s then owner encouraged her to bring along her daughter for free. At the time, Landry, who had spent four years acting in community theater, already had an agent in Phoenix, had done a couple of local commercials, and had been invited to become a client of a Los Angeles manager if she chose to move there. Landry and her parents eventually made the move, though she still went on 60 auditions before she got a bite. Her mother sums it up this way: “I put ‘The’ at 20th on the list of important things Landry went through to get to where she got to.”
If Disney executives don’t discover their stars of tomorrow through operations like “The,” how do they find them?
For answers, I went to Judy Taylor, who over the years has become a child star-maker in a category of her own. She got her start nearly 40 years ago, as an assistant at the agency handling casting for Chinatown and Godfather II. But her legacy rests with names like Miley Cyrus, Zac Efron, and Demi Lovato and franchises like High School Musical and Camp Rock. As Disney Channel’s senior vice president of casting and talent relations, Taylor has established a remarkable track record for plucking young actors from obscurity and watching as they became ratings-grabbers for the network’s sitcoms. Often, they also become chart-toppers for Disney’s record label and product-movers for its $3 billion consumer products division, which licenses the likenesses of its stars on everything from lunchboxes to underwear.
Over the past decade, Disney Channel has doubled its audience and become a basic-cable dynamo that helps define youth culture. Long the ratings champ among kids ages 9 to 14, it unseated Nickelodeon last year to assume the top spot for 6- to 11-year-olds as well. It has the No. 1 show for both age groups. It has added stand-alone sister channels, the boy-focused Disney XD and the preschooler-focused Disney Junior. And it can now claim more than 400 million households worldwide.
Through her long tenure in the business, Taylor, now 60, has managed to stay ahead of trends. “There was a time when you looked for kids in Los Angeles and New York and maybe Chicago, and that was it,” she says. Nowadays, actors from around the country can audition by uploading video, and at least once a year Disney officials, like American Idol judges, venture from Los Angeles to a different city to hold a massive “open call” audition. There is never any charge for these auditions, with the only requirement being a willingness to wait in very long lines.
Taylor loves talking about one of these open calls, in 2004, when she came across an 11-year-old in Austin, Texas, who simply blew her away. “It was evident that this was somebody who possessed a certain star quality,” Taylor recalls. “You wanted to spend time with her.” And she has. That girl would become multi-platform acting and singing megastar Selena Gomez.
But when I press Taylor about just how pure a discovery this was, she concedes that Gomez was not a complete unknown. She had been a cast member of the PBS show Barney, and she had an agent. As it turns out, Demi Lovato and Debby Ryan — the other stars with back stories that hew closest to the plucked-from-obscurity plotline so popular in Disney scripts — both had a Barney credit to their name and an agent at the time of their Disney discovery. Meanwhile, the majority of hopefuls who show up at these open calls come with neither representation nor paid acting gigs on their resumes. When I ask Taylor for an example of a Disney diamond-in-the-rough discovery who came without an agent or any resume to speak of, she can’t recall a single one.
Taylor actually finds the bulk of Disney Channel talent another way, through regular meetings she and her colleagues have with a small group of casting directors in Los Angeles who are subcontracted to cast Disney shows. These professionals work primarily with agents in Los Angeles to find the right actors for the right roles and then bring their top choices to Disney executives. If Taylor likes certain actors but they are not right for the parts being cast, she will add their photos to a “talent on the radar” chart she keeps in her office. The fact is, most of the actors on Disney shows have been working in Los Angeles for years before they make their Disney debut. “It’s rarely instantaneous,” Taylor says. Even Selena Gomez was cast in two failed Disney pilots and spent about 2½ years in the Disney system before executives found the right match for her in Wizards.
Same for Spencer Boldman, the 19-year-old star of the popular new Disney XD show Lab Rats. Growing up in Dallas, he got involved in local theater and, at age 16, began working with an acting coach there. Within a few months, his coach arranged for him to meet with casting people in Hollywood. Boldman tells me Disney executives, learning that Nickelodeon was interested in him, pounced first, putting him under contract. He acknowledges that it seldom goes so smoothly. Still, like Gomez, he waited more than two years and was cast in two failed Disney pilots before being attached to one that made it onto the air.
Boldman understands the powerful appeal Disney has with children. “They see Disney actors as the cool kids,” he says. Now that he’s on the inside, he has a clearer perspective. “Disney is definitely a machine, but it gives you opportunity,” he says. “I’m trying to make the most of it.” He scored a small role in the movie 21 Jump Street and is taking classes with the famed Los Angeles comedy troupe The Groundlings.
He hopes to follow the path of Shia LaBeouf, the 25-year-old movie star who got his break on the almost-forgotten Disney Channel show Even Stevens. But no one has to remind Boldman of the many other Disney stars who’ve had a much harder time transitioning to adult acting.
For some, that transition has been a nightmare. The other night I sat down with my three daughters to watch a Disney movie on a DVD they had borrowed from the library. As its adult leads, the film featured a Tony Award winner and an Emmy and Golden Globe nominee. Sharing scenes with them was an 11-year-old girl making her big-screen debut. The movie was satisfying in that Disney way, as reliable and unchallenging as a McDonald’s french fry. And despite the acting chops of the adults, the 11-year-old fresh face of freckles carried the whole thing.
My girls could relate easily to her, since their ages hover right around hers, and she had the familiar look of so many girls streaming through their school corridors. Yet they weren’t the only ones being reeled in. In one of the DVD’s on-set interviews, the perky star-in-the-making spoke of her plans to follow the path of former child actor Jodie Foster, going to a good college and becoming a director. I found myself nodding in agreement, impressed with the good head she had on her shoulders. Then I had to check myself. The Disney flick we had just watched, The Parent Trap, was released 14 years earlier, so I knew what had actually become of that 11-year-old fresh face of freckles. She had turned into the 25-year-old bleary-eyed bag of mess we all know as Lindsay Lohan.
So how do working local child actors make a go of it? Sure, there have been around 40 movie and TV shoots in Massachusetts in the past three years, but that’s hardly enough to keep a young actor busy or build up a college fund. Even if they’re being shot here, studio films tend to cast major roles out of New York or Los Angeles. And doing background work as an extra means a long day of waiting around, for the standard Screen Actors Guild rate of about $140.
To make money, actors try to book local and national commercials, such as those for Hasbro, the Rhode Island-based toy company. To expand their acting experience, they take roles in films by college students.
Sophie Hastings, the 9-year-old girl with auburn hair and a role in the ABC pilot Gilded Lilys (which the network declined to pick up), has lots of flexibility to go on auditions in both Boston and New York. That’s because she is home-schooled and lives in Western Massachusetts, making it a relatively easy drive to either city. She has one agent for New York and another, Model Club Inc. in Boston, for her New England work.
Hunter Wilichoski, a 12-year-old from Wenham, has been acting for five years now. When he worked as a stand-in on the set of Knight and Day, Tom Cruise made small talk by asking him whether it was his first film. Hunter replied, “This is probably my 32d film.”
Cruise smiled. “This is my 32d film!”
“Yeah,” Hunter said with a smirk. “But I’m only 9.”
Still, few of those films in which Hunter had a speaking part were seen by people unrelated to a member of the cast or crew.
In January of this year, Hunter made a big leap. His parents took him out of school, rented an apartment in Burbank, California, and enrolled him in middle school there. For six weeks, Hunter went on as many auditions as his agent could line up, joining hundreds of other kids descending on Los Angeles for “pilot season,” the frenzied period when casting decisions are made for the TV shows that will fight for a place on the fall lineup.
Hunter booked one commercial and got some callbacks, but not much else. At one audition, as soon as he opened his mouth, the casting director said, “OK, that’s enough.” Hunter has braces, which casting directors tend to detest as much as teenagers do.
While he was in Los Angeles, he hung around with a young actress who’d made an even bigger leap. Last fall, Julia Ruff, who has been performing since age 4 and had sung at Carnegie Hall, had made the permanent move with her mom from their home in upstate New York to Santa Monica, California. “I’ve always dreamed of Disney Channel or Nickelodeon,” the 14-year-old says. Still, she felt guilty. “I kind of felt like I was tearing the family apart.” That’s because her dad remained in New York, holding onto his job to keep the family finances sound.
Yet, Julia says she has no regrets about the move, especially since her father has been able to make regular visits. There’s been just one source of disappointment.
With her curly blond hair, blue eyes, and acting and singing abilities, Julia would seem perfect for Disney. Problem is, there are a ton of girls like her in Los Angeles. While she was recently chosen for a highly selective choir, she says acting has been “a lot slower than I expected.” That’s even after her parents replaced her $5,000 standard braces with $6,000 Invisalign teeth straighteners.
Working against Julia is simple supply and demand, says Anne Henry, cofounder of the BizParentz Foundation, a nonprofit clearinghouse of information for parents of child actors. Year-round, there are more than 20,000 actors ages 0 to 16 in Los Angeles who have agents, Henry says, and that number jumps during pilot season. Last fall, only 11 new series had a regular cast member who was a child, meaning only about 25 kids got new-series roles, including on Disney and Nickelodeon shows, and most of those kids had notable previous credits. These numbers have been fairly consistent since Henry and her cofounder, Paula Dorn — both parents of child actors — began tracking them in 2006. The foundation estimates that more than 95 percent of the kids who come to Los Angeles for pilot season leave empty-handed. Henry says there’s a particular glut of pretty blond girls, and work is especially scarce for kids ages 14 to 17, because producers will often opt instead for young-looking 18-year-olds, who can work overtime and don’t require on-set tutors.
Even the lucky few who hit the lottery and book a Disney or Nick show will probably be surprised at how relatively small the payoff can be. While the series star might make $5,000 to $7,000 an episode, Henry says, the pay for others is far less, “as little as $340 for two days’ work for a speaking role.” Factor in all the payments to agents, managers, unions, mandatory trust fund withholding, and taxes, and the child’s take-home pay will be less than a third of the gross.
In light of these odds and obstacles, Henry advises young actors to maximize the work in their home states. “Bloom where you’re planted,” she says. Disney Channel’s Taylor cautions kids and their parents, “Don’t set yourself up for failure.”
Then again, sometimes you’ve got to move the plant to a bigger pot to get a full bloom. Consider Bretton Manley. In one year, the 9-year-old boy went from a whimsical sign-up for a local acting class to a good-size part in a major motion picture. His parents are low-key, trying to let his interest level guide their decisions, much as they’ve done with their older two children’s participation in sports. Now that Bretton has a well-connected New York agent and a big credit on his resume, interest in him is spiking. He’s been to New York repeatedly in the last month, auditioning for a Nickelodeon show, reading for the role of Eddie Munster in a planned reboot of The Munsters for NBC, and going for a part in a Ben Stiller pilot for HBO.
Bretton’s parents have taken turns accompanying him on these auditions. But what if he ends up getting cast in a series that is shooting in Los Angeles or Vancouver, British Columbia? What will be the best course of action for their son? For their other children? “We’re taking it one day at a time,” says his mom, Lee. Lately, they’ve been having family discussions around the dinner table she never thought they’d have. “I don’t know if we could pick up and move,” she says, “but the five of us would always stay together.” In the next breath, she says, “If it’s a chance of a lifetime, I think we’d have to take it.” Then she pauses. “I don’t know.”
These are the kind of real-life complexities that Disney Channel plotlines never prepare you for.Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.