Young, famous and in control

Emancipation can mean big money for moppet thesps

Amanda Bynes’ career was on the upswing as she was starring in such projects as the WB network series “What I Like About You” and the Warner Bros. pic “What A Girl Wants.” Then her agent at Endeavor, her manager at Tollin Robbins and her attorney at Myman, Abell, Fineman, Greenspan & Light were all fired by her parents.

“People change representation all the time,” says her father, Dr. Rick Bynes. “We just didn’t need any at the time, so we decided to not have any. We just got rid of everybody.”

But her reps contend that they were caught in the middle of a family squabble: The young star, now 17, was seeking legal emancipation from her parents, who were furious when they discovered that the reps had concealed this fact from them.

The Bynes case points up a new twist in Hollywood’s biz dealings. For decades, everyone in Hollywood has carefully tiptoed around its dealings with child actors, facing a slew of government, state and guild rulings over the little nippers.

But now that nervousness has grown into mild panic as the teens have become media superstars after building auds on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel.

Thanks to the success these networks and films such as “Agent Cody Banks,” “Lizzie McGuire” and “Big Fat Liar,” there is a sudden explosion of young stars — meaning an increasingly tangled world for studios, agents, lawyers and managers.

The lure of working with teen stars seems irresistible — at first glance.

“A kid actor with a built-in Nickelodeon or Disney Channel audience is a home run,” says one producer. “These kids have followings you can’t believe.”

And they come cheaper than adult stars.

“Instead of paying some actor $10 million and 10% of first-dollar gross, you’re paying a kid a million or two million dollars.”

But young stars bring another factor to the bargaining table: parents.

After the success of the “Lizzie McGuire” TV series and feature film, Disney this month went into negotiations with star Hilary Duff, 15, to create a second “Lizzie” pic, hoping for a new ABC series as well. But those huddles ended in well-publicized recriminations and finger-pointing between her Team Duff and Disney execs.

In theory, studios and reps are in business with the young actor and no one else, but parents are naturally part of the bargaining. And everyone can get caught in the middle when the family doesn’t agree on what’s best.

Most kids who have battles with their parents simply slam the bedroom door and crank up the stereo. But teen stars seeking to assert their independence are able to speed-dial their attorneys and initiate divorce proceedings from Mom and Pop.

And they can get a lot of encouragement to pursue such divorces. Under-18 performers are subject to strict laws regulating work hours and schooling. But legal emancipation removes all these barriers, making life much easier for the studios and production companies.

“Agent Cody Banks” producer David Glasser himself a former child actor, notes that the stumbling block isn’t just schooling hours on set: It’s the amount of hours that a kid can work in one day that concerns producers. A regular production day frequently can be 18-20 hours, but child labor laws put a cap of six to 10 hours on kids’ work. Only emancipated minors can legally exceed that limitation.

Duff’s attorney Michael Fuller frets: “I’ve had studios say, ‘The (under-18) actor would probably receive the role if he or she were to work adult hours.’ They never say ‘only if he or she were emancipated’ — but it’s implied.”

“Half of all emancipations, if not greater, are obtained with the parent’s consent,” says Fuller. “And two-thirds of them come not from difficulties in the relationship, but because of difficulties in seeking employment with producers and what’s in the best interest of the minor’s business entity.”

While emancipation eases legal restrictions, it can bring emotional complications.

About a year ago, Bynes indicated a desire to become emancipated from her parents, Dr. Rick Bynes, a dentist and his wife, Lynn, his office manager.

The actress’s former reps say that when her parents learned she wanted to “divorce” them, the parents felt doubly betrayed: Her reps knew about these plans but kept mum for months.

Does an attorney have a legal obligation to inform parents when a minor expresses a desire for emancipation?

“I don’t know,” admits one top attorney, “but if I were to go to the parents and tell them about her desire to emancipate, a very good case could be made that I violated my obligations of confidentiality to my client.”

For agents, managers and lawyers, the client is technically the minor. Yet the parent still has control over the minor’s estate and business life.

“They were pretty eloquent about it,” says one representative on the old Bynes team. “They were like ‘You work for us, not her.’

“But in many ways, that’s not true.

“She was evolving as an actress and as an individual and had her own ideas about where she wanted to be. So that relationship started to evolve, and I was looking at the relationship as much more direct than the parents wanted me to.”

Clearly, any studio or rep involved with a young star has complications. Here are two other cases and the issues they raise.

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Teresa Caldwell, the mother and manager to rapper-actor Bow Wow (aka Shad Moss) says she “always wanted to protect Bow’s funds” but didn’t want to administer the money herself.

Back in the mid-’90s, when he was still Lil’ Bow Wow — long before he was earning millions for his records and for pics like “Like Mike” — Caldwell went to probate court in Columbus, Ohio, where they were living. She was granted a court-appointed guardian for her son’s estate “because I thought that would protect him.”

She says the arrangement has turned into “a nightmare.” Caldwell says that it’s not just Bow Wow’s money that’s being controlled, but all areas of his professional life.

“They’re starting to act as his parents,” she says. “We’ve almost lost certain deals because we had to go through the court, which was holding up the deals for weeks.”

The guardian’s hourly fee is set at $250 an hour; by contrast, she maintains her multimillionaire son is limited to drawing $500 every two weeks from his estate — hardly bling-bling time.

Caldwell says she has spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” trying to reverse the arrangement, but so far, no luck.

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At least in theory, Bow Wow still has his millions, if not full control over them.

Such cannot be said for a recent case of financial mismanagement that resulted in emancipation for minor Jena Malone. It seems the 1939 Coogan Law, which requires 15% of a child’s income to remain in trust, is not always enough to protect kid-earned coin.

Malone shot to prominence after starring in “Bastard Out of Carolina,” and will soon appear in “Cold Mountain.” She emancipated from her mother, Debbie Malone, in 2000 after her insolvent mom racked up huge losses and more than $120,000 in back taxes, with no plans to pay them off.

According to one attorney: “…What many parents don’t realize is that they have a fiduciary obligation to their child. The money isn’t theirs to hold in trust for the minor, it’s the minor’s money, which they hold in trust for him. The conflicts come when the parents have salaries paid out to them, and they begin to think that it’s theirs.

“The move to emancipation is all about marketability,” says SAG assistant general counsel Vicki Shapiro. “When they get to their mid- to later teens, the producer is going to opt for someone who is already 18 and can play 15 because they won’t have all this restrictive (legal) baggage.”

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The battle joined for the hearts and wallets of minor kid talent appears to have left a sour taste in the mouths of both reps and child stars.

As former child star and current SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert pointed out at a recent SAG Foundation kids event: “Our business is a business where everyone will tell you how fabulous and smart and funny you are — until they don’t need you.”