Is Working as an Extra Worth It?


LA Weekly Article about Screen ExtrasSeveral weeks ago, LA Weekly had an amazing article by journalist Hillel Aron titled, Some Hollywood Extras Suffer, But Others are Rolling in It. Aron’s article deals with the huge difference in earning potential and working conditions between those extras who are members of the Screen Actors Guild, and those who are not.

If you are a working actor, especially one who accepts background gigs, take the time to read the article. It’s a bit of an eye-opener to anyone who didn’t realize the many “layers” involved in working as an extra!

My family lives in Texas, where few actors and no extras I know are union members because of the scarcity of jobs for union members. Production companies, by and large, come to states like Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Mississippi to film because of the low cost of hiring non-union talent.

No one is ever going to get rich working as a non-union extra in the southern U.S. But lately, I found myself wondering if working as an extra is ever worth it at all. The LA Weekly article had started me thinking about the working conditions and pay for non-union extras, and the train of thought continued based upon conversations I had with several parents who had driven their teenagers long distances for roles as extras in a TV pilot filming near my house in Dallas.

I spoke with parents who had driven from Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, New Mexico and Arizona so their kids could spend two days filming a high school dance scene for a pilot featuring some well-known characters and actors. Over 200 kids between 14 and 18 were hired for the scene – a very, very rare occurrence as jobs for teen actors are few and far between. It’s simply far, far less expensive to hire actors over 18 who look like high school students because of the work rules, limitations on child actors (even those who are 16 or 17 are considered “children” for the purpose of the rules), the requirements to provide on-set tutors and chaperones, and the higher cost of insuring a production with kids on the set. So roles of any kind decline rapidly once kids enter puberty.

So it’s easy to understand why this project attracted such huge interest from so far away. It has a famous director, a known “franchise”, famous characters, and well-known lead actors. And they were looking for kids of all types, in hard-to-cast age brackets.

Kids lucky enough to be selected for background roles were paid the local “going rate” for their time — $8.80 per hour (88/10 is how the casting call reads — $88 for 10 hours work) – and provided with on-set food. Those under 16 were allowed to work 8 hours, then sent home, while those 16 and over were allowed to work until the shoot was done, earning time and a half pay ($13.20 per hour) for time over 10 hours.

It was a fun shoot, and for many of the kids, it was their first experience working on a major film studio project. If they hadn’t signed iron-clad non-disclosure agreements, it’s the kind of project every one of the kids would be bragging about to their friends on social media for weeks to come.

But here’s the question I was thinking about: is it worth it for the parents to drive from Tupelo, Mississippi to Dallas Texas – a distance of about 560 miles that Google estimates will take just over 8 hours to drive – for a weekend job that requires three nights in a hotel for an adult chaperone and the teen actor, three or four days of meals, and at least one missed day of work or school? All for a job that will pay (at most) $334.40 before taxes?

For me, the answer would be “no”. But obviously a lot of parents felt differently, because here they were, by the carload.  So I asked them why they did it.

Chasing a Dream

Color Me You Extras in the holding area

Extras spend a lot of time waiting — sometimes in nice holding areas like this one from the film Color Me You, sometimes under a bridge or by the side of a road. But they’re paid for all the time they’re on set — including the wait time.

One mother from Mississippi said that in their small town, there just weren’t any opportunities for young actors. So she was used to driving her daughter to Atlanta, New Orleans, Charlotte, Austin, or Dallas for jobs. “A lot of parents spend this kind of money on their kid’s activities – sports, dance, or whatever. We spend our money on helping her chase her dream of becoming an actress.”

I said, but is a two-day gig as an extra really doing anything to help her achieve her dream? I mean, once she’s been on the show as an extra, she can’t come back later and audition for a bigger part.  “No,” the lady said. “But it’s another line for the resume, maybe another clip for her demo reel, and most of all, she’s excited and happy and she’s getting experience on a major film studio set. She wouldn’t get that in our little town.”

Another woman who’d driven three and a half hours from a Louisiana town just across the border said the same, adding, “We do it because our kids want to do it. It isn’t about the dollars and cents. If we looked at it as just money, she’d be better off waiting tables at the local country club this weekend. But it isn’t her dream to work at the country club. It’s her dream to be an actress, so here we are.”

Both women said they scanned the casting calls published by Central Casting, MyCastingFile, Actors Access, Backstage, Casting Frontier and the other reputable online sites. “We submit for anything that she fits,” the Mississippi mom said. “And if that means driving to Texas, we drive to Texas.”

Making the Value Decision

Some families don’t have the luxury of driving long distances and staying in hotels in support of a child’s acting dreams. Does that mean their kids have no shot at stardom? No. It just means they’ll have to do it without the extra gigs that might be available outside their immediate area.

Our family decided some time back that we would not spend money on hotels and long-distance trips for roles as an extra for our 15-year-old. A commercial filming in New Orleans? Sure, we’ll make that trip. A feature film in Georgia? We’re there. Even if it means working as “local hire” (no travel reimbursement). But a gig as an extra? No.

Our young actor does take gigs as an extra in our area – we’ll go as far as Austin or Shreveport for them, too, because we have family in those areas where we can spend the night if necessary. But, as much as it might please his older sister, we won’t go to Georgia so he can be an extra on The Walking Dead or any of the other productions filming there. It’s just too far, and too expensive.

Like any other decision a family makes about where to spend money in support of a young actor’s dream, the decision about working as an extra is highly personal. We choose to invest in headshots, training, and a long-term goal. What will your family choose?

For some, geography dictates that travel is essential unless the family wants to pack up and move to a locale where more production work is available. For others, it means talking to state legislators about increasing the rebates and incentives offered to production companies who film locally. There’s a reason so many productions are filming in Georgia right now: Georgia offers the best incentives to producers who do business there, while Texas and Louisiana have slashed their budgets for film incentives, even though the Texas film rebate program returned $4.79 in revenue for every dollar invested. (If you live in Texas, write your legislator NOW and ask them to restore film incentives for Texas and support. Visit the Texas Motion Picture Alliance for information on who to contact and what to say in support of the Texas film industry.)

For now, for us, though, we’ve reluctantly reached the conclusion that working as an extra just isn’t worth the expense of travel outside our local area – and there are times when it isn’t worthwhile at all.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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