Chasing a Hollywood dream: Saskatoon parents share experiences with Undiscovered Talent Group

Chasing a Hollywood dream: Saskatoon parents share experiences with Undiscovered Talent Group

Saskatoon parents are sharing their experiences with the U.S. talent company Undiscovered Talent Group, including two families who say they will pay to register their children despite online criticism about the audition process.

Last month, UTG used social media to advertise acting and modelling auditions in Saskatoon on March 18.

After attending the audition, aspiring actor Brookelynn Tetzlaff took to the internet to voice concerns that the company should be more up front about its fees, some of which are in the thousands of dollars.

The post launched an online discussion about the company's practices. The Better Business Bureau said it had received five complaints about Undiscovered Talent Group. All were filed under the category "problems with product/service."

Now Saskatoon parents are speaking out about why they did and didn't register their children with UTG.

Family says company has been upfront about costs

Ryan and Karen Cross have allowed their 16-year-old son Zac to sign up to the UTG program, which includes a stint in Los Angeles to attend a talent showcase called iPOP.

Zac auditioned in Saskatoon and received a callback to attend further auditions before the family registered him for the full program.

Karen Cross said the costs were somewhat unclear at the first audition that attracted the negative feedback online.

But she said the company had been up front about the costs from that point on. 

'Not pushy'

"Our [consultant] that we had was not pushy; she gave us the time to think about it and talk about it as a family and us as parents together," she said.

"So I don't feel that we felt that we were rushed by any means with any of the decisions that we had to make."

Ryan said the family had decided it was an opportunity for Zac to gain new skills, adding that he saw it as an educational opportunity for his son.

"It's just like any kid that goes to a hockey school, like even if you go to a Wayne Gretzky hockey school, doesn't mean you're going to go to the NHL," said Ryan.

Documents handed out at the first audition show the fee to participate in the Masters II program, which includes the iPOP event, is about $11,800.

Photo shoots cost between about $330 and $870 and are required for all of the company's clients.

The Cross family said they were aware of the fees and, having done their research, had decided the program was worth the cost. 

An opportunity beyond Saskatoon

Dale Hanley said he had weighed the pros and cons before signing up his nine-year-old daughter Taylor. He said he has since been forced to defend his decision to pay for his daughter to attend the program.

"Did my kid get picked off of her talents or did she get picked because we have enough money? I don't know. I can't answer that," he said.

"I guess we'll find out once we get to iPOP."

He said he also consulted a friend in the industry before making the decision to sign up for the program. Hanley added that he had realistic expectations about whether his daughter would become a "star" but wanted to give her an opportunity beyond what was available in Saskatoon.

"At very worst, our child is going to have an experience that she probably won't forget, and was it expensive? Yeah, it was a little bit expensive, but you know what, that's what parents are for," he said.

"We're here to give your kids experiences and that's basically what we are doing with ours."

Some parents opting out

Some parents say they opted out of the program because they felt it was too expensive and money-driven.

Amanda MacKenzie, a friend of the Cross family, said her daughter was invited by the company to go to the iPOP showcase for the listed fee.

She decided against the program, saying it seemed too expensive.

"I think that they are delivering what they say they are going to deliver, it's just for an astronomical cost," said MacKenzie.

"And basically when you do your research it's kind of like 'OK, you don't have to go this route.'"

​Costs too high, says Saskatoon parent

Michelle Steadman said she signed up her daughter Katie for one of the UTG programs under pressure at the audition, knowing that the paperwork said she could cancel if she changed her mind.

Steadman said she did initially want to send her daughter to iPOP but has since reconsidered and cancelled her daughter's registration. She said the company has refunded most of the $5,600 deposit she paid. 

She said UTG did offer to reduce the cost through a "scholarship" of $1,500, but she still felt it was too much.

"They're going on and on about how special they think Katie is but the most of the scholarship they are willing to offer is like $1,000, and I think they went up to $1,500 at one point, and still keep asking for money even though I'm telling them we can't afford it," said Steadman.

Fees pay for services, says UTG

In an email to CBC News, UTG said as far as the company knows, all performers have had a good experience. The email says the company would take steps to remedy a negative experience if UTG was made aware of it.  

Previously, the company told CBC that the fees associated with the programs go towards services, including flying coaches, photographers and agencies in from Los Angeles.

"All of our talent over the years who have completed any program have been happy with our services," UTG owner Brandon Harlow said in an emailed response last month.

Harlow said it offers to market some clients, such as those with sufficient training and longer resumés, without a fee.

He also said UTG provides college-style scholarships to some aspiring performers who are "special" but not ready for the Los Angeles program.

"We have performers who go on to work on Disney, Nickelodeon, Family Channel, major movies, etc, yes," wrote Harlow.

"We scout and develop talent to be ready to audition for all networks, shows and movies.

"NO we are not paid by the networks. NO we are not employees for those networks. YES we do work with them in placing kids and adults on their networks, shows, etc."

According to its website, iPOP is a talent event that promotes emerging talent to leading agents, managers, casting directors and record label representatives.