I’m going to tell you a story about a guy I know, and with whom I once worked, some time back. This story is unpleasant, but it is suddenly terribly relevant, hence the telling. A few years ago, after he and I worked together, he was offered a gig on what he was told was a six-month job, which would pay him enough money to get him out of debt and essentially give him two years’ worth of rent on top of that. The thing was, though — and you knew this was coming — they needed the first few payouts to vendors and services to come from him.
I asked him, after it all went down, why this made sense to him. What about this concept of him putting up his own money sounded like anything legitimate? His answer was that they were finalizing their incorporation process and didn’t want to have one of the “producers” pay out any money for technical reasons. The fact that they had no issue with a line producer or unit production manager doing it seemed to be lost on him, and he responded that they had given him a check to deposit, and that, rather than wait for it to clear, he immediately wrote checks from his own account for a little over $5,000. After all, considering how much money was coming to him, what was a few grand?
Then their check bounced, and the “vendors” to whom he gave his money turned out to be bogus, and he realized he’d been scammed. This is someone who hires himself out to be in charge of handling other people’s money on film projects, yet he could not even manage his own. A guy who somehow thought it would be okay to open his own wallet in order to get a job that always seemed a little too good to be true.
When he told me this story, I was aghast that he had fallen for such a thing, and whether it was helpful or not, made that clear to him. “You’ve been in this business for 15 years,” I said. “Don’t you know you never have to pay for a job? That any time someone asks you to do that, they’re almost certainly scamming you? How could you fall for something like that?” He was indignant, insisting that they sounded real and the job seemed so great and a bunch of other things that did everything but take responsibility for his own folly.
I hadn’t thought about this event since it happened, since I don’t talk to the guy anymore, but I was reminded of it last week when the news broke about an imposter scamming below-the-line workers in Hollywood. What’s interesting is that the culprit appears to be a woman who comes off very knowledgeable and sounds quite convincing as she rips people off to the tune of many thousands of dollars. She acts as a high-powered producer or executive like Gigi Pritzker, Sherry Lansing, Amy Pascal or Stacey Snider, among others, and does what any good con artist does — convinces their mark that they’re for real, and that they can offer something of value, something so irresistible, it almost can’t be true.
This is because it’s not. It’s a smart and talented flimflam artist talking seasoned professionals out of their hard-earned money, despite the fact that what she is doing violates the first hard and fast rule of this business — never use your own money. You never need to pay to get a job in Hollywood. That’s the second time I’ve made that statement and it won’t be the last, because it clearly bears repeating, especially since this scam is still going on, and it’s entirely possible that potential marks are reading this column right now.
I know this because last week, after the news hit on Wednesday, actor Derek Wilson, who was on the first season of Preacher and is currently on Hulu’s Future Man, tweeted that he had been approached by a scammer, saying, “This is crazy. They called me today. Posed as a high-level (real) producer. I had no reason to doubt it. They were just laying the groundwork. I never would’ve traveled or given money, but some might. So here’s your heads up.” Stuntman Mike Estes — who has more than a dozen credits on his resumé including stints on Fear the Walking Dead, Ash vs Evil Dead, and The Orville — posted on Facebook that he’d gotten a call, too, so this isn’t a case of the culprit having made a clean getaway, leaving us all to stand in the dust and wonder which way they went. This person is still out there pressing their luck, and they might just be brazen enough to continue, even though the cat is out of the bag. Which means she, or they, can be caught.
This apparently started as a U.K. scam, with makeup artists being taken for nonexistent film work, before spreading like a cancer to America, with bigger targets in mind. The “producer” finds men who have been “recommended” to her, pretending to be one of those aforementioned high-powered women, and promises them big money, often shuttling them to other countries like Indonesia, where they are put up in nice hotels and shown the proper deference. The key to the whole thing appears to be the use of non-disclosure agreements, as she gets her marks to sign them, thus preventing the men in question from talking about the potential gig or asking his associates about the “recommendations” they gave on his behalf. There are a series of calls and emails — the former from cell phones rather than office lines, and the latter apparently coming from domain names very close to those of the real women — that convince the mark this is legit, and eventually, the victims are swindled out of their own money. This part happens when they are shown “wire transfers” that look real, but which “take a couple days to clear,” at which point the guy is asked to front his own money for expenses.
Sound familiar? Then it should come as no surprise that the “wire transfers” end up being fake, and that once the mark spends the money, the people with whom he’s been dealing disappear. It doesn’t take more than a few phone calls to the offices of the real power players before they realize they’ve been scammed. Meanwhile, as they’ve been working the victims, the perpetrators have also been getting recommendations for other professionals they can target, and the victimhood spreads like a virus. Of course, since there is an NDA in play, none of them talk to each other until it’s too late, and the vicious cycle continues.
You might wonder how and why a professional can fall victim to this kind of con, and the answer is actually simpler than you might think. As with my former colleague, when enormous sums of money are being offered, the idea of fronting a few thousand dollars doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. That’s how they get you, because the promise of more money makes it easier to part with a little bit of cash. It may seem reasonable at the time, even though a true professional knows that you never need to pay for a job.
There’s more to this, of course, and there are plenty of stories out there we haven’t heard yet from people who are too embarrassed to come forward, people who blame themselves for their own gullibility. At this point, all you can do is be prepared in case your phone rings and a woman claiming to be someone like Amy Pascal calls offering the moon and the stars. If something like that happens, the first thing you should do is call the actual office of the person in question, and verify that the offer was legit. Then, when it proves not to be, call the FBI. Despite all the victims thus far, authorities are apparently no closer to finding the imposter than they were in the U.K., so Hollywood must be vigilant in reporting its suspicions, since they just might be the break the authorities need.
There’s a famous story about a Nigerian prince who asks people for money, promising millions if the targeted victim would just front the prince a few thousand dollars to speed up the process of freeing his finances. It has taken on a whole new life in the internet age, and in the process, it has become something of a joke. I get an email about this very thing at least a couple times each year. Sometimes I post about it on social media, because it’s funny.
There’s probably a joke to be made along the lines of, why give your money to a fake African prince when you could give it to a fake Hollywood producer? And yet, there’s nothing funny about this. This is a real scam that is costing people thousands of dollars, and I’m not talking about millionaires, I’m talking about Hollywood’s rank and file.
The sad truth is, there are a lot of different types of predators in this town, and almost all of them prey on your dreams, knowing full well how many people aspire to work in showbiz and will do anything for a job. For Harvey Weinstein and those like him, that meant sex in exchange. For others, like this cowardly scammer, that means money. Just know that you don’t need to give up either for a job, and honestly, neither is worth it.