Child actor legions swell, jobs hold steady

As the terrain for adult actors toughens, will child actors begin feeling the pinch?

“A lot of adult actors will tell you things have been slow during the last two years,” says Mark Locher, national director of communications for the Screen Actors Guild. While 1992 earnings for SAG members rose slightly from 1991 –roughly 1% to $ 1 billion–the figure is still shy of 1990’s earnings, which were a percent higher.

While cable television movies, first-run syndication, commercials and industrials have expanded, there have been fewer network pilots and an even greater drop in the number of theatrically released films. Name actors are not only working for less money, they’re taking parts that previously went to unknown character actors, making for more competition for mid-sized roles, adds Locher.

So far, the recession-weary entertainment industry has been kinder to actors under the age of 18 than it has been to their adult counterparts in both theatrical and commercial arenas.

“I think there’s a constant with children in that casting directors always want to see a lot of kids for each role. With adults, they don’t need to feel they’ve seen everybody,” says Meredith Fine, who heads Coast Kids, the children’s division of Coast to Coast Talent Group in North Hollywood. Her clients include “Full House” twins Blake and Dylan Tuomy-Wilhoit, as well as Trever and Travis Gruhot, twins who play Max on “General Hospital.”

Another advantage kids have is that they don’t stay within the same age range for years the way adults do, so there’s always a need for more children to fill the spots left by those who’ve aged a year.

“Plus, there are a lot more name adults than kids,” adds Fine. “I can count on both hands who the hottest kids in Hollywood are. Also, adults will get used over and over, but they’re always looking for the next breakthrough kid and children are more easily introduced as newcomers. My friends who handle adults have a harder time getting appointments for their clients than I do for kids.”

Fine offers the casting process for the upcoming film “The Flintstones” as an example.

“They had in mind who they wanted for Fred and Wilma, but they did a major search for Pebbles and Bam Bam,” says Fine, whose twin clients Elaine and Melanie Silver landed the role of Pebbles.

“The same is true in television. An adult newcomer who hasn’t done anything has a better chance of winning the lottery than booking a pilot. But they’ll see all the new kids for one.”

That’s the good news. The bad is that the landscape for child actors isn’t without its problems. While there may be more work for kids, there are even more children vying for those positions. Five-hundred more minors joined SAG this past year, and now comprise about 7,200 of the union’s 80,000 members. Within those ranks, the industry affords more opportunities to boys than to girls.

“It hasn’t gotten worse for kids, though I don’t know that it’s gotten better ,” says Fine. “There are still a lot of opportunities for children, although every year it gets more competitive. I think that studios are finding that kids can be big moneymakers, so more and more projects are being done with kids. But as kids stay hot in the business, more kids want to be in movies.”

So much so that more families are moving to Hollywood from other states just so their kids can make their marks in show business, says Jean Page, the owner of Page Management. Her clients include Brien Robinson, Davin Carey and LaMyia Good, who appear, respectively, in the TV series “Sirens” and pilots “Daddy Dearest” and “Tall Hope.”

“We don’t have enough work to go around for the children who live here,” she says.

In the two years since this influx began to increase, Page has seen a related industry crop up to take advantage of it–that of the scam artists.

“I have never seen so much of it go on as now,” says Page. “I’ve heard of people who’ve been taken for $ 5,000 for photos. Then there are the ones that send you letters saying you have been chosen from among hundreds to be represented by them, but you have to let them know that afternoon. The families come in with $ 500 for photos that afternoon and when they call the agency back, they’re not there. They’ve reopened somewhere else under a different name.”

Production companies seem to be attempting more cost-shaving measures with minors than with adults. They include combing schools for nonunion children, interviewing children in case a deal with a child star falls through, and upgrading extras to principals at scale wages.

“Rather than get the slick Hollywood kid who’s worked, the trend now is to find fresh talent who hasn’t worked,’ ” says Page. “Casting directors think they come across as more real.”

Other times, she adds, “They’ll hire 15 children, then decide on the set which is the principal player, and pay that person the bump in salary. That means all the kids have to interview and go for callbacks only to get hired as extras.”

Such tactics aren’t just reserved for the industry in California. Recently, one of Page’s young clients endured three callbacks to land a role in the upcoming television movie “Terror in the Tower.”

“He was all set to fly to Oregon, where it was shooting, when the production company cancelled, because it realized it could avoid hiring an on-set teacher by casting local children instead,” she says.

The problem is that representatives for unknown child actors have little recourse for complaining. “Kids are more easily replaced than adult actors,” says Page. “It’s been known that if you ruffle feathers, you’re out.”