They are the anonymous hotel clerks, courtroom jurors and store patrons who populate countless movies, TV shows and commercials.
Hollywood’s background actors, better known as extras, are accustomed to keeping a low profile — blending in, doing what they are told, and avoiding the limelight reserved for the stars.
But a recent action by local and state officials has thrust the entertainment industry’s least recognized performers into the spotlight.
Last month, the Los Angeles city attorney’s office and California labor commissioner took the unusual step of issuing a cease-and-desist letter to Central Casting in Burbank — the largest company for extras — ordering it to stop charging an upfront fee that they said violated state law. Similar warning letters were sent to 13 other L.A. casting companies.
The action stunned many at the casting companies who said they were unfairly targeted and that the fees were necessary to cover their costs. But the warning struck a chord for those in the extras community who have complained for years about being squeezed by fees for casting firms and job listing services at a time when work has grown increasingly scarce.
“When you’re the weakest, least visible group of people without any clout, it’s easy to take advantage of you,” said Russell McConnell, a veteran extra who chairs the background actors committee at the Screen Actors Guild. “A lot of background actors live on the financial edge, and it doesn’t take much to push them over, so any additional costs and fees they have to incur is critical.”
Concern about fees has been heightened by the fact that many extras, especially those living in Los Angeles, are having trouble earning a living.
Most extras earn the minimum wage: $64 for an eight-hour day. Union extra jobs pay a minimum of $139 ($142 as of July 1) but have become more scarce in the last decade as producers have resisted attempts by SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists to expand the coverage. For example, as of July 1, the first 21 extras jobs on a TV show in the Western region must be covered under a union contract, down from 75 jobs more than two decades ago.
“When I started as an extra 10 years ago, I was working every day and making $30,000 to $40,000 a year,” said Mobin Khan, 58, whose recent background roles included that of a casino manager in “Inception” and the groom’s father in “Valentine’s Day.” “Now, if you make $10,000 as an extra, you’re considered a big-time actor. There are too few jobs and too many background actors.”
SAG, which resumed representing West Coast extras in 1992 after the Screen Extras Guild disbanded, has nearly 23,000 members who classify themselves as background artists. Like actors, the vast majority don’t work regularly and only about 1,100 of them make enough money — a minimum of $14,800 a year — to qualify for the union’s health plan.
Demand for their services has declined in recent years because of the growing use of computer-generated effects, the proliferation of reality TV shows and budget cuts by film and TV studios. Los Angeles-area extras have been further pinched by migration of work out of the state. At the same time, competition for jobs has grown more fierce partly because of the recession, which has caused many laid-off workers in other fields to seek acting jobs.
The out-of-pocket costs extras pay to find work has mushroomed over the last decade because of a proliferation of companies that have built lucrative businesses supplying services to help background performers find jobs. It is not uncommon for an extra to be registered with as many as 10 casting companies at once.
In addition, extras typically also hire a calling service, which charges a monthly subscription fee of $45 to $95 and acts as a middleman, managing their schedules and making sure they are available when jobs come up. Then there are online services that charge monthly fees of $50 or more that allow extras to post photos and gain access to casting information.
“With these fees, it’s pretty much impossible to make any money in the industry,” said David Dedinsky, a retired auto parts company executive from Long Beach whose extra roles have included a weapons officer in “Star Trek” and a Vatican cardinal in “Angels & Demons.”
In its latest crackdown, the city attorney’s office focused only on casting companies, not the listing and Internet services that generate most of the complaints. Listing services are exempt from a provision in state law that bars companies from charging actors advance fees for procuring employment, said Deputy City Atty. Mark Lambert. They do, however, have to post bonds and provide various consumer protections.
“We’ve heard from most of the companies, and they’ve told us they are going to stop the practice of charging extra fees,” said Lambert, whose office has filed criminal charges against several talent services companies that are suspected of flouting the state’s law against talent scams. “We appreciate the fact that the industry has recognized this is a wrongful practice and that they intend to comply with the law.”
Ron Cogan, marketing director for Entertainment Partners, which owns Central Casting, said the city attorney’s letter was misdirected.
“We definitely feel like we didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “But we ceased this photo fee because we certainly want to maintain harmony with our legal officials and avoid any unnecessary concern among our partners.”
Jeff Olan, who owns a casting company, said he was “appalled” by the warning, insisting that his one-time photo processing fee of $25 was modest and necessary to cover costs.
“I’ve tried to do things by the book,” he said. “I would never try to rip people off.”
The warning letters were supported by SAG, which receives daily complaints from extras about fees, said Terri Becherer, director of the union’s background actors department.
“I don’t want to make casting companies out to be the bad guys here — there are far more egregious companies out there and people that are taking advantage — but this is definitely one solid step in eliminating the money that background actors have to pay in order to have access to work,” Becherer said. “It’s something the community has been outraged about for as long as they’ve been with the guild.”