EXCLUSIVE: You may have seen their talent scouts roaming malls and shopping centers in cities across the country, handing out flyers for acting classes and telling kids as young as 6 that they could be the next big breakout movie star. Headquartered in Chicago, the International Performing Arts Academy bills itself as “the most prestigious facility of its kind,” and claims it’s “built and maintained a strong reputation among the top agents, managers, casting directors, choreographers and record executives in the entertainment industry.”
But an IPAA training manual that recruiters use to sign kids up for classes, and a class action lawsuit filed last year, paints a different picture – one of greed, cynicism and false claims made to unsuspecting children and their parents.
“IPAA has developed many of the top stars and models that you see today,” the manual instructs recruiters to tell wannabe child actors, who are told that the school’s “success stories” include the likes of Halle Berry, Jennifer Garner and Chris Hemsworth. “Please use ALL of these success stories as it really builds credibility and excitement!” the manual instructs recruiters to tell prospective students.
But a spokesperson for Berry said the actress never had anything to do with the school, and Garner’s rep insisted Garner never had any involvement with the school either. A rep for Hemsworth said that the Thor star had never heard of the place, and that his client is “appalled” that his name was used this way.
Recruiters are also instructed to tell children that a well-known Oscar-winning actress is among IPAA’s many other “success stories.” But the actress, who prefers not to be named, never attended the school, according to her spokesperson.
“They are using all these people’s names and it’s totally false,” a former IPAA instructor told Deadline.
Seven other “success stories” cited in the IPAA manual, including actress Lyndsy Fonseca, are actually graduates of the Barbizon School, which is closely associated with the IPAA. Fonseca’s rep confirmed the Nikita and Kick-Ass co-star had attended Barbizon classes as a kid.
IPAA and Barbizon share more than just the same “success stories.” Up until just recently, IPAA and Barbizon International, which licenses Barbizon franchises nationwide, shared the same national director of development for the past 6½ years.
According to a lawsuit filed last year seeking class certification, IPAA conspired with the Barbizon School of San Francisco to mislead children and their parents through unlawful and unfair advertising in the furtherance of an illegal advance-fee talent representation scheme – a charge the schools vehemently deny.
“Plaintiff’s mere incantations – no matter how numerous – that defendants are ‘talent scams’ do not make them so,” the defendants said in a demurrer filed with the court, noting that the 2009 Talent Scam Prevention Act “was not intended to, and does not, prohibit talent training services, talent counseling services, and talent listing services that comply with the provisions and prohibitions set forth in the Act.”
The lawsuit, the defense argues, “Is devoid of any cogent allegation as to how Barbizon is an ‘unlawful’ advance-fee talent scam and instead focuses largely on its actions of ‘referring’ students to Showcase. Despite this, Barbizon is named directly in the first cause of action as a ‘talent scam.’ ”
Founded in 1939, Barbizon is one of the nation’s oldest and most famous acting schools for children and young adults, with franchises all across the country. Its most illustrious graduate is former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who enrolled for a summer in 1974 at age 19. “Actually, I learned a lot,” she says in her autobiography. “I learned how to walk more gracefully; they taught you how to do your makeup.”
The lawsuit was brought last year by Angelica Cosio, the mother of a child who attended Barbizon classes in Sacramento at a cost of $2,000. And like every other kid who attends, after graduation, her mother was pressured to lay out another $8,000 to attend the International Performing Arts Showcase in Los Angeles, where the kids are told in promotional material that they will be “showcased before the best talent agencies and management companies in Hollywood. You will read for casting directors, producers and directors who are currently working in the industry. You will be exposed to VIPs that you could only dream about! You could be traveling the world as the next top model or star!”
A 2011 letter written by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa welcoming the showcase to town and “recognizing IPAA’s efforts to assist new talent in realizing their dreams and goals by creating an arena where they may want credible industry professionals to help in furthering their careers” is used in the showcase’s promotional materials.
Personal manager Paul Bennett, the former president of the Talent Managers Association and a frequent judge at IPAA showcases, said he currently has two clients on his roster that he found through the showcases. “I don’t know how they recruit, but think their showcase is really well-run, and they do everything they can to get the participants in front of as many professionals in the entertainment business as possible. I have nothing negative to say about them. I think they do a great job.”
According to the lawsuit, however, “Defendants ‘accepted’ or ‘selected’ their victims without regard for the victims’ propensity for professional success in the entertainment industry – but rather on the basis of their ability to pay defendants. The defendants’ ‘selection process’ was used to create an impression of exclusivity that would motivate the defendants’ victims to pay defendants in pursuit of an entertainment career.”
The IPAA recruiting manual instructs recruiters to tell children that admission to the academy is limited only to a select few, when in fact it’s open to any kid whose parents are willing to plunk down $2,395. “They take anyone who has the money,” the former IPAA instructor said.
That’s borne out in the manual.
“I am only able to select a very few young ladies today, so you’ll want to tell me all about yourself, and I am making decisions today,” the nine-step training manual instructs interviewers to tell wannabe child actors.
“Remember,” the manual tells interviewers, “you are always looking for reasons to logically accept them today.”
After the initial greeting in the interview room, “The Warm Up” portion of the script calls for the interviewer to “project an image of an expert both in personal development and modeling/acting in the entertainment industry.” Then, parenthetically, is says: “If you need more expertise in these areas, please request a training session with the education department.”
“Recognize that your client is probably very nervous,” the manual tells the recruiter. “In most cases, this is the first professional interview or audition he or she has ever been on. Therefore, put them at ease, laugh with your prospects – have fun with your prospects. But always recognize that you are consistently building a strategy towards developing a reason for your prospects to ENROLL today. Always maintain client control. They must see you as the expert, someone with whom they would like to impress.”
Then the hard-sell begins on the child, who’s generically referred to as “Susie” in the manual. “Ask a lot of ‘Pulling Questions.’ These will help to begin to allow the prospects to sell themselves. ‘Pulling’ rather than ‘pushing’ is the best way to complete successful sales. Remember, when we’re doing all the talking we’re just talking! When they do the talking they are selling THEMSELVES.”
“Now,” the interviewer is told to tell the child, “we wish we could accept everyone who tries out at our IPAA talent searches, however, we can only choose a select few. You may not be accepted.”
The ruse of exclusivity continues: “Alright, well, I really like you and feel that you have what it takes, but I don’t make the final decision by myself,” the interviewer is told to tell the child. “I’m going to take your application and photo and talk about your application with my executive director. Keep your fingers crossed!! I’m going to go to bat for you. But I promise you that when I come back I’ll give you our final decision. I’ll be right back.”
“Now,” the recruiter is told, “take her application, your phone with her picture on it and take it to your manager. Go over everything about Susie, as well as develop a strategy.”
And that strategy is always the same – offer the dream and get the money.
“Use the strategy ‘money, dream, money, dream, money, dream,’ the IPAA’s Nine Steps to an Effective Interview tells recruiters.
When the recruiter returns, there’s always good news for the child. “Well, I have great news for you!” the recruiter is told to say – and in aside, is told, in all capital letters, that “THIS NEEDS TO BE EXECUTED WITH GREAT ENTHUSIASM AND SINCERITY!”
“I spoke with our executive director,” the manual continues, “and I told her all about why I feel you should be accepted and told her that I was particularly pleased about your _________, _________, and________” – and here the interviewer is told to “name the three that are the most striking about them: good grades, height, enthusiasm, lots of activities, etc.”
“And I have great news for you,” the recruiter goes on. “Of course you need a lot of training but you did it!!! I’m choosing you for my exclusive modeling (or acting) team!! You did it! You made it! You’ve got it!!! Congratulations! I’m so excited for you! Give your Mom a big hug and thank her for bringing you here today!”
And then the manual reveals the truth. “Let it all sink in for a moment before you go to the next step,” it tells the recruiter. “After all, you knew that they were going to be accepted but your prospect didn’t. So pause for a moment so your prospect and parents can feel the full impact!”
And then comes the money-pitch. “You must be prepared to close at least 10 times,” the recruiters are told. “Use the strategy “money, dream, money, dream, money, dream.” Don’t just keep going for the money. Show how much you care about their child by leaving the money talk alone for a minute and just talking about how exciting this is going to be for Suzie, why you DO NOT WANT HER TO MISS THIS OPPORTUNITY, ETC. Using this strategy you will have a minimum 60% close rate and will change many, many, many young people’s lives!!”
“Carefully and persuasively close,” the manual instructs. “Using technique of ‘money, dream, money, dream, money, dream’ as long as it takes to enroll the family. Make sure to go to your manager or trainer if you’re having trouble closing. No family can leave without enrolling. :) (Smiley face). Remember, this training is priceless, and will change and transform the young person’s life forever!!! Get receipt, then fill out enrollment agreement. This step should take anywhere from 5 minutes to 20 minutes, depending how well you sold them value and had them sell themselves.”
Once signed up, the kid is offered instructions – for a few hours every Saturday for six months – on how to succeed in show business and life. “The education part is good,” said the former instructor who criticized IPAA’s recruiting practices. “All the instructors are from the industry.”
Both the Barbizon School in San Francisco and the lawsuit’s co-defendant Lion Management, which runs the International Performing Arts Showcase, are operated by Larry Lionetti or members of his family. “Defendant Larry Lionetti, who has not yet been served, is Barbizon’s longest-franchisee, first acquiring San Francisco’s Barbizon Modeling and Acting Center almost 43 years ago,” his lawyers said in a demurrer filed last September in San Francisco Superior Court.
Larry Lionetti could not be reached for comment. Michelle Landry, an attorney representing all the named defendants, declined comment on the pending litigation.
Lionetti was CEO of Lion in 2014 and his wife, Lena Q. Lionetti, was secretary and chief financial officer. The corporation’s latest filing with the Secretary of State shows that she’s now the CEO, with offices at 420 Sutter Street in San Francisco – the same address as his Barbizon School. Their daughter, Lena M. Lionetti, is a managing member of Lion Management, and their son, Anthony Lionetti, runs the IPAA’s Chicago office, where IPAA is now headquartered after leaving the offices it had for many years at the Los Angeles Center Studios, where Barbizon now has offices.
In a declaration filed with the court January 27, Lena Q. Lionetti stated: “I am the sole member of defendant International Performing Arts Academy,” which state records show is listed as a domestic nonprofit. “After this action was filed, I learned that IPAA had been suspended by the California Secretary of State. While it had paid annual taxes, it had apparently failed to file a required statement. At significant expense, I caused IPAA to be revived for this action. IPAA does wish to defend on the merits of this action. IPAA is now in good standing.”
Attorneys for Cosio, who’s represented by the law firms Parisi & Havens and Broslavsky & Weinman, also declined comment for this story.