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Have you ever heard of a Coogan Account? It's a requirement by the state of California for every child under 18 working in the entertainment industry. Prior to beginning work a special bank account must be established. The account can not be accessed by anyone except the actor when they become an adult.
The special type of account is named for Jackie Coogan (John Leslie Coogan) whose film with Charlie Chaplin, The Kid, made him one of the first child stars. Jackie's earnings were believed to be about $4 million, however when he turned 21 he found that his mother and stepfather had spent nearly all the money on luxuries for themselves. He sued them and after a protracted legal battle received a paltry $126,000.
But Jackie's plight drew important attention to how child actors are treated and highlighted the need for protections. In 1939 the Golden State enacted the California Child Actor's Bill, commonly known as Coogan's Law, which required at least 15 percent of all monies earned be placed into a trust account by the employer. The law also protected time allowed on set, required schooling and mandated time off.
Today the state also requires child actors have a California issued work permit which must be renewed every six months. It's free to obtain and must be signed off by the child's school. An on-set "studio teacher" must also be present and sign off on the permit. All these requirements are there to protect kids in entertainment and it's a good thing.
But having an aspiring child actor comes with lots of twists and turns especially for the novice mom.
I once found myself on a "set" which consisted of a motel room in outlying Greater Los Angeles. The producer had auditioned my child a week earlier in his "office" in Studio City which was a rented garage filled with sets and film equipment. It was a legit independent film that was being attempted at the big leagues with B list actors on a shoestring budget. They'd already filmed the entire movie, they just needed a kid to portray the lead in some added flashback scenes.
They loved his audition so off we went to film on "set." We were crammed into a one bedroom motel room with the producer, his camera operator, sound guy, an actor playing the "dad" and two makeup/costume stylists. The producer/director explained we'd be shooting four scenes and what they were. They laid everything out very clearly for us. They were very nice and respectful, constantly asking if my son was okay and comfortable. We played along and got every scene shot in under two hours. It was fun. Good experience and potential reel material.
But was it safe? The only protection in place for the child actor was me—maybe the makeup ladies if it came down to it. Security at the motel? Probably not. No one requested to see his permit when I offered it. There was no studio teacher (although it was summer the teacher is really there to supervise and ensure the child's safety—not teach a class). And payment came in the form of a personal check with the entire amount addressed to me. It barely covered my gas.
Would I do it again? No. I'd researched the movie so I knew it was real, but I also knew it likely wasn't very good. The amount they were paying him was very low and the information was poorly communicated. While kids, and parents, get excited about actually getting paid to act it isn't worth the risk. The laws in California are there to protect child actors—not just from nefarious stage moms—but also from novice parents with all the best intentions.