Friday, July 17, 2009

Canon Fodder

W. Free's plan to participate as an "unpaid extra" through makes me queasy. It's like wanting to get into the textile industry as a skilled professional, but first agreeing to make Nikes in a Thai sweatshop "for the experience." It's called "exploitation."

Unfortunately, use of the tactic shows signs of beginning to spread in the industry. Here's an example from my area (Baltimore). A large car dealer chain, whose name I won't mention but rhymes with "Barn Axe," recently engaged a local casting agency to shoot a TV commercial. The agency sought "six burly, biker-type men," one of whom was to speak a single line. "Non-union" was specified. The pay offered was a "flat, one-time fee" of, as I remember, around $75 for the day. I may be wrong about the precise amount, but it was well below market rate.

I recently saw the commercial. It's a national, or at least a multi-market regional, spot. The non-speaking actors should have been paid between $150 and $200 -- the guy with the line should have gotten around $800. If the spot runs for a few more weeks, they should also receive residual checks for each time it airs. You can check these rates, which I'm quoting from memory, at the AFTRA or SAG web sites (both unions have jurisdiction over TV spots).

What makes Barn Axe's tactic truly insulting is that payments to "talent" (the industry's term for anyone who appears on camera or speaks in a radio spot) are a tiny fraction of the expense of making and airing a national commercial. Barn Axe is a multi-billion dollar, nationally franchised concern. It can easily afford to pay actors decently -- it simply chose not to in this case. I suspect the company might offer the excuse of "The Economy" (like the sweatshop outsourcers). But their practice is emboldened in part, I'm sure, by the cynical assumption that many people will do almost anything to get on camera, however fleetingly. I don't know anything about, but its title alone suggests this as the prime belief behind its business model as well.

Most beginning actors will do a great deal of unpaid work. I've done lots of it -- it's called "paying your dues," to gain experience, to build a resume, to make contacts. But there are better outlets for this besides feeding a greedy corporate machine. Student films are often a good bet -- so are many low-budget independent films. The newspaper Backstage and the web sites and Craigslist are full of ads soliciting actors for these. Often, the roles available are substantial and interesting, and actors are offered copies/footage for their audition reels. Usually you'll at least be fed, even if it's pizza for everyone.

"Extra" work (now customarily called "background") is also fairly easy to get and more widely available than you might think. Central Casting and most other legitimate agencies have separate registries/web sites exclusively to fill background jobs. Non-union, non-speaking actors get from $75 to $100 per day (you are paid, and required to be available, for the whole day even if your scene lasts thirty seconds) on average. Most of your time will be spent waiting around for your shot, so bring a book. This is a different sort of work, as your job is to NOT attract attention to yourself away from the principal actors. You are simply part of the scenery. The idea that you might be "discovered" by some harried director or producer, probably running behind schedule or worried about shifting light conditions, who isn't likely ever to SPEAK to you directly, is a joke. The assistant director or lackey who does speak to you is more concerned with not pissing off the director by wasting time than he is with scouting the crowd for Promising New Talent. Under these circumstances, every second of time equals hundreds of thousands of dollars. You may as well buy nosebleed tickets for a Lakers game in hopes that the head coach, down on the floor, will pause during the final 5 minutes of play to admire your physique and enthusiasm from afar, and be inspired to recruit you on the spot for the team.

Some morning when you have time, tune in the "Today Show" or "Good Morning America." Look at the yawps who cluster outside the studio windows, shrieking and waving "Hello From Michigan!" signs whenever they appear in frame. Do any of them imagine that some producer will pop his head out the door and say, "Bryant Gumble is feeling under the weather today. Would one of you step in for him? You, there -- I like your propeller beanie." That's the position you're in as someone with a "ticket" to "be in a movie" for nothing.

The "experience" you get as a paid movie extra will be just as good as, probably much better than, any you acquire as a "volunteer." And you won't be sending the explicit message that you place no value on your time (so why should anyone else?). And you won't be encouraging exploiters by undermining, in your small way, years of hard-won professional respect and pay schemes negotiated over years by industry talent.


W. Free said...

I registered on Mandy.comn: thanks for the suggestion.

Lord David said...

Thanks for that. I recently bailed on a 'background' part in Jonah Hex, with Josh Brolin & Megan Fox, realizing I would be sitting in the Louisianan sun for 12 to 16 hours or more, at a rate of about $6 an hour.
I would get more respect (and money) and less heat rash standing over the Fry-o-later at Mickey D's.

Your clever analogies, while certainly amusing, also bring it home quite clearly; this is a fool's errand unless done with forsight in to the eventual career path and an awareness of how far the Screen Actors Guild has come in standing up for hardworking talent, recognized or not.

This used to happen in commercial art, as well. Mega Corporations would hold 'Logo Contests', asking artists to submit their designs for free, eventually choosing a 'winner' who's work would be then be purchased at a fraction of standard rates.

Until an organized majority portion of any skilled labor group refuses this method, they are exploited for their hunger to work, and multitudes of the untrained are fed through the mill simultnaeously as camouflage, baited by the dream of association with their objects of interest.

You shoulda seen 'em line up when Miss Fox's name was dropped. Nobody mentioned that she'd finished filming and left town ovewr a week before.