Trading in dreams: the US company that promised to make Australian children Disney stars – for a fee

·8-min read
<span>Photograph: cool D’zine room/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: cool D’zine room/Getty Images

It’s many a tween’s dream: to be plucked from obscurity and transformed into a sparkling young Disney star – the next Selena Gomez, Hilary Duff or Zac Efron.

Earlier this month, it seemed Perth’s junior theatrical talent pool was being offered just such an opportunity, with parents in Western Australia’s capital blitzed on Facebook in a campaign asking: “Does your child dream of being a YouTuber or on Disney+? Kids aged 4-18 will be auditioning for TV shows in Perth.”

The campaign, launched by a US streaming service called Premiere+, attracted hundreds of parents and their hopeful youngsters, who queued at Perth’s Ritz Carlton on Saturday 11 June. Parents were told if their child received a callback, they would be required to return the following day.

But the event had no connection with the Disney organisation, and angry parents say the organisers proposed to charge up to US$15,000 (A$21,700) for children who auditioned successfully to appear in a US-only streaming show.

Hannah Moore’s nine-year-old daughter was ecstatic to receive a callback, even though her Saturday audition lasted only a few minutes and consisted of memorising just two lines of dialogue.

The man who appeared to be running the auditions identified himself as an executive producer for Premiere+, parents said.

The advertisement posted on Facebook in the week of 6 June 2022.
The advertisement posted on Facebook in the week of 6 June 2022. Photograph: Premiere+/Facebook

On the Sunday, the throng of parents and excited children returning to the Ritz Carlton for callbacks appeared to be almost as large as Saturday’s crowd.

But many, including Moore and her daughter, did not end up taking part. Upon arrival, parents were issued with an information sheet setting out a schedule of fees they would be required to pay, depending on what level of role they wished to secure for their child.

The fees ranged from $US3,000 (A$4,300) for 10 lines in an episode of a US-only streaming show called Go Iguanas!, to $US15,000 for a “lead role” (50 lines or more).

Parents said it was conveyed to them that if their child “made it through” the second round of auditions, payment at least in part would be expected on the spot. Payment plans were on offer for families who could not pay the total amount upfront.

“When I got that piece of paper [the schedule of fees] and looked at it properly with my husband, we actually had a giggle,” Moore said.

“I mean, they wanted us to pay money to them for my daughter to be in some kind of movie? We weren’t going to pay four grand for 10 lines. We knew at that point, well, we thought no.

“I guess I ‘bought it’ at first because it had the similar kind of style of writing and design in its advertisements as one of those streaming platforms, like a Stan or a Disney+ or a Netflix.”

When Moore asked an organiser what payment a child would expect to receive for appearing in a production, she was told cast members received “valuable credits” – their name listed in the opening or closing credits of the show.

Premiere’s website says of its casting procedure: “Every actor appearing in a Premiere+ production [receives] an acting credit on IMDb to recognize [sic] their participation. With many of our shows popular in over 100 countries, it gives the actors on our shows quite a fan base.”

She couldn’t understand why and I just had to explain to her that it was actually not real

Hannah Moore

Jenne Alonso took her 10-year-old daughter Camille to the auditions.

“There were hundreds of parents and kids queuing up, but it was quite well organised – we didn’t have to wait long,” she told the Guardian.

“Camille was given two lines to memorise, we went into a room with heaps of other families, her name was called, she did her audition with a man with an American accent. It took all of 10 seconds, honestly. I mean, how can you assess any child’s ability in 10 seconds?”

When they returned home, Alonso’s Facebook feed was already abuzz with sceptical parents who had also attended. By the following day the bemusement had turned to anger, with copies of the Premiere+ material circulating on social media.

“It would have been really expensive hiring out the Ritz Carlton, but that made it seem so legit,” she said.

Disney distances itself

Premiere claims on its website its subscribers “reside in over 100 countries around the world”, but the streaming service does not appear to be available outside the US.

The website makes several references to Disney, without stating explicitly that it has a formal affiliation with the organisation.

“We prepare our performers from the time they are registered to the time they attend the production at Walt Disney World,” the website claims.

Elsewhere, it states: “Premiere has filmed productions at Disney since 2010.”

Photos on the website show young Disney stars such as Paris Berelc (Mighty Med and Lab Rats) and Peyton List (Jessie) making guest appearances at seminars run by Premiere+. These Disney actors do not appear in any shows made by Premiere+, which appear to consist of three low-budget productions – Go Iguanas!, Fun World and Schtick With Us.

Productions appear to consist of a large cast of children and a handful of adult actors – including Premiere’s founder and chief executive, Michael David Palance – who alternate roles between the three shows.

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Disney Casting Australia told the Guardian it had no connection with the Perth auditions or Premiere+.

“The advertised child talent auditions and production processes run by ‘Premiere’ are in no way related to, or endorsed by, the Walt Disney Company,” it said in a statement.

It is not the first time Disney has had to distance itself from Premiere+.

In 2016 the company arrived in Melbourne with advertisements reading: “Does your child dream of becoming a Disney Channel star? We are coming to Melbourne!”

After parents complained, Disney told the online publication MamaMia: “The recent child talent auditions that have been advertised as taking place across Australia are in no way associated with or endorsed by the Walt Disney Company or Disney Channel.”

Walt Disney World theme park
Michael Palance’s company’s auditions took place within the vast Walt Disney World theme park in Florida but had nothing to do with the Disney corporation. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Palance has been the subject of complaints in the past.

According to a Los Angeles Times investigation in 2012, a previous company owned by Palance, New York Studio – trading variously under the names “The” and “Event” – agreed in 2009 (without admission of any wrongdoing) in a Connecticut court to pay $US25,000 to settle action against the company following complaints by almost 350 families over allegedly fraudulent auditions.

It referred to auditions advertised as taking place at “Walt Disney World”, but which were held at the Swan and Dolphin hotel, which is within the 11,000-hectare theme park, but is not owned by Disney.

One father, Bruce Prieur, described to the paper how his two children attended a mass audition in Dallas staged by “The”, and was told his children had “qualified to participate” in a larger competition/showcase at Walt Disney World.

He paid $US10,000 for a week of workshops run by “The” at the Orlando resort, airfares, hotel accomodation and photographs, but the company’s promised introductions to “top talent scouts” never materialised.

Walt Disney World told the LA Times at the time of publication the auditions had nothing to do with the Disney corporation.

“Disney has no business relationship with ‘The’ and does not evaluate talent at these events,” it said in a statement.

‘The event is not a scam’

The Western Australian government’s consumer protection agency said it would investigate the Perth event, although it did not class it as a “scam”.

The commissioner for consumer protection, Gary Newcombe, said in a statement: “We have reviewed the website and the content available and have assessed that the event is not a scam.

“However, Consumer Protection does have concerns about this event and representations made by Premiere Disney Casting to potential clients.

“Consumer Protection will investigate this matter.”

A spokesperson for the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance said New South Wales and Queensland legislation prohibited charging for access to auditions or other acting opportunities, but there were no such laws in Western Australia or Victoria.

Moore told the Guardian she was informed by Premiere that the company planned to begin filming the new series of Go Iguanas! in Sydney in January, but no explanation was given as to why the company was auditioning in Perth.

An hour after Guardian Australia attempted to contact Premiere+ and Palance for comment, the Premiere+ website was no longer accessible..

Moore said she felt her family might have dodged a costly mistake, but it was nevertheless heartbreaking to explain to her nine year-old why they would not be proceeding with the “Disney” opportunity.

“She couldn’t understand why and I just had to explain to her that it was actually not real … it was a tough lesson in resilience, but she’s moved on now.”

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