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Thursday, Nov 30, 2023

Setting Stages

Performers come from around the globe to Los Angeles to try their luck at becoming a star in the entertainment capital of the world. But in addition to talent, would-be entertainers need logistical support – visas, housing, credit management, etc. – and that’s where Protea Group International hopes to help. The North Hollywood business management company specializes in guiding foreign entertainers – actors, musicians, athletes and even companies – through the visa process to establish themselves in the United States. Founder and Chief Executive Paloma Felisberto Bilson said she personally empathizes with her clients after her experience coming to the United States from Angola in the 1990s. “I paid 20 percent interest on my first car,” said Bilson. “I had no credit and I didn’t know what I was doing. I get a lot of satisfaction from helping others avoid similar situations.” She said Protea receives the majority of its business through attorney referrals and word of mouth. Many of the foreign entertainers who have used the firm’s services tell their colleagues and audiences back home about Protea, which can bring in new clients. This has led to many of Bilson’s clients coming to the United States in waves from different parts of the world. For example, at one point she had a few successful clients from Australia, leading to more talent migration from that country. Because of confidentiality agreements, Protea cannot disclose the names of its clients. Bilson said the company serves about 300 individuals and companies annually, including Oscar winners and others with large audiences in their home countries. However, foreign appeal doesn’t always mean much in Hollywood. “One of the issues I have is I never know how to vet them,” said Bilson. “I never know whether or not people are going to make money when they come here. Just because they are famous where they are doesn’t mean it’s going to translate here.” Global appeal With the globalization of the entertainment industry, Protea said its management business has quadrupled in the last three years, both in client volume and profits. Once a client in a foreign country contacts Protea, the company will consult an attorney to see if the person might qualify for an O-1 visa, which is for an individual who possesses “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics” or who has performed and been publicly recognized for “extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry,” according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Candidates must prove extraordinary ability or achievement in their fields in order to obtain the visa, which can be very difficult to do. “(Obtaining an O-1 visa) is less of an assembly line and more of a customized documentation process,” said Fariborz Ghadar, a professor of global management at Penn State University. “There is a much higher burden of proof and burden of documentation (compared to other visas), which can be tedious.” Protea works with clients from the time they first consider coming to the United States on a visa until the process is complete, which typically takes three years. During that period, the company will manage a client’s U.S. finances, assisting with travel, investments, relocation and anything else needed to successfully transition their careers to the states. The first challenge is getting a visa. Documentation can include evidence of awards or recognitions, membership in industry organizations, published material in professional or scholarly publications as well as testimonial letters from industry experts. Along with the paperwork, candidates need a sponsor in addition to an employment contract to qualify for an O-1 visa. That presents a chicken-egg dilemma. “You can’t get the job offer without the visa, and you can’t get the visa without the job offer,” Bilson said. In some cases, an entertainer might have a U.S. job lined up, in which case the production company becomes the sponsor. If Bilson believes in a client without work, Protea will either act as an agent to secure a sponsorship or sponsor the individual itself. Sometimes, the company will even create or co-produce projects to provide clients with work to fulfill the visa requirement. After the visa is secured, Protea helps with relocation. Because renting or buying a house requires a credit history, the firm helps customers fill out the paperwork for credit, legal residency, insurance, schooling and anything else that’s needed. The company manages finances for clients by paying bills and taxes and helping them navigate a complicated system that’s often very different from their own. “The biggest challenge to working internationally is with taxation and securing the appropriate work permits,” said Idowu Koyenikan, principal consultant at business strategy consulting firm Grandeur Touch in Raleigh, N.C. “Unless you plan on spending your time studying tax codes, it would be worth your while to get professional help.” Future production Protea works on commission, collecting 5 percent of a client’s gross U.S. income over the course of the three-year visa term. The firm does not individually charge for specific services. The arrangement means that if a client doesn’t have a sponsoring company, Protea takes a risk by obtaining the visa – which can cost around $5,000 – before the client makes a dime. Utimately, Protea doesn’t make money unless a client does. While the business model is similar to other talent management firms, Bilson’s niche focus on foreigners sets her apart from competitors. Protea has eight employees in NoHo, plus one each in Miami and London. Bilson declined to disclose revenue figures. “There are a lot of business managers, but no one that I know of specializes in foreigners like I do,” she said. Eventually, Bilson wants to grow her company by moving into film production. She is renting out space in her North Hollywood office to a production company that has built two editing bays at the site. Having such facilities readily available is beneficial for Protea’s clients as well as Bilson’s future goals. She’d like to seal some partnership deals as a way to help her clients get work in the industry. “One of the things that’s missing is the talent agent component,” she said. “Most don’t have agents here, so I think it would be good to explore partnering up with some agencies to accommodate that.”

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