Talent agency sued over illegally taking money

Mason Fang likes the idea of being onstage, even if he is just playing Rock Band with his mom and sister.

Mason thought he was getting his big chance when a talent scout approached him on the street with a pitch that Be Productions of Emeryville was casting for TV shows.

"Wow, I'm going to make it on television, maybe a movie," he said.

He took a screen test, got a call back, and then his mother found out Be Productions required a $2,500 fee up front. Dongna Fang did pay, but soon after, regretted it.

"I find out, we end up paying I pay more and more money down the road," she said.

Fang tried to get her money back. But Be Productions said she missed a three-day deadline to cancel her contract.

She was among dozens of parents who complained to 7 On Your Side, saying what they thought was a TV audition turned out to be a costly sales pitch.

"I got slammed with the price," said Sandra Flores.

"After I came home, the reality kicked me in the butt. I can't do it, I can't afford it," said Corina Flores.

"It went to the thousands and really that's a lot of money," said fourth grader Arthur Poggenburg.

Now Be Productions is facing a federal class action lawsuit filed on behalf of an estimated 6,000 children who signed up just like Mason did.

"I was approached by consumers who had a bad experience with Be," said attorney Ethan Preston.

Preston is the Los Angeles area attorney handling the case, which he says was sparked by a 7 On Your Side investigation.

"I think it got consumers activated and empowered and it probably ultimately led to this lawsuit being brought," he said.

The suit says: "one of the best summaries of the case can be found in a newscast investigation into Be Productions by the ABC affiliate station for San Francisco."

In our report, we pointed to a tough state law that provides broad protections for consumers.

It says advance fee talent companies must follow a lot of rules such as:

  • Register with the state
  • Post a $10,000 bond
  • Give consumers 10 days to cancel and refund all money if customers don't get expected services
Be Productions did none of those things and the suit says contracts signed by Dongna and thousands of others "violate the law and cannot be enforced."

"It's surprising it went on as long as it did, because they were so flagrantly in violation of the law," said Preston. "The contracts didn't comport with the law. The law said they had to do certain things and they just didn't.

Be Productions isn't even operating anymore. The offices in Emeryville shut down last May.

Customers were referred to a phone number in Southern California, now that phone is disconnected and the website is shut down.

"$2,500 it's not small money, plus we didn't get any service," said Fang.

Be Productions co-owner Barry Falck did not return our calls. We did reach co-owner Erik DeSando and he said only "I haven't been served" and he ended the call with an expletive.

In July 2008, Desando told 7 On Your Side his company is not an advance fee talent service. Yes it charged fees up front, but it didn't provide the actual talent services, such as classes, photo shoots and auditions.

"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 can meet an agent through the showcase company we contract with," said DeSando in July 2008.

But our investigation showed DeSando and Falck in fact owned the showcase company, Dynamic Showcases.

The lawsuit also says Be Productions also was getting paid compensation for referring kids to classes and photo shoots -- something the law forbids.

The suit also says those initial screen tests were misleading -- kids were selected not for their talent but for their financial ability to pay.

"A lot of kids dream of being in the entertainment industry and those dreams are very easy to exploit for people who are not scrupulous," said Preston.

Kids and parents paid up to $5,000 apiece to Be Productions. The attorneys are trying to locate what could amount to more than $20 million families paid to be.

"There are a lot of angry, very angry consumers," said Preston.

"And now we're trying to get our money back as well as maybe thousands of people," said Poggenburg.

"I really hope we can get money back," said Fang.

A federal judge has now frozen the assets of be productions until all of this is sorted out.

If you want to be a part of the class action lawsuit, you do not have to do anything. If you were are customer, you're automatically a part of it. You only have to take action if want to opt out of the lawsuit.

**If you are a Be customer interested in the class action lawsuit you can send an email with contact information to plaintiff's attorneys at: gonnabe@eplaw.us. Note: The plaintiffs attorneys will not contact you at this stage of the case unless records identifying Be's customers have been lost or destroyed.

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