Coronavirus: Hollywood Extras are At Risk of Disappearing From Sets

Close-up on a red closed sign in the window of a shop displaying the message
Close-up on a red closed sign in the window of a shop displaying the message "Closed due to Covid-19".

Background Actors are at risk of not returning to the film industry once the Coronavirus related Hollywood shutdown is lifted.

According to a new report by Deadline, background extras, whose job is to make scenes more realistic, may not return once productions start filming. Many recommendations for safety protocols during the Coronavirus pandemic were released. Nearly the common denominator among all of the recommendation lists is to get rid of large crowd scenes of background extras, or replacing extras with crew members on set. Necessarily, the new safety sets are only to have essential staff working on set.

Deadline interviewed Rick Markman, a 20-year veteran background actor explains, “It is the Background Actor that fills the stadiums for the sporting events and concerts, we eat in restaurants and coffee shops, we shop the retail stores, we attend weddings and funerals, we are the pedestrians on the sidewalks,” he says. “In short, Background Actors make up the crowd scenes that convey the reality of life to TV shows and feature films.”

“In short, Background Actors make up the crowd scenes that convey the reality of life to TV shows and feature films.”

Even if extras are hired to work on a project, Markman argues that safety protocols may not translate to background actors hired to work on productions. “Until needed on set, Background Actors are kept in a ‘holding area,’” Markman says. “Many times, these holding areas are equivalent to a ‘can of sardines.’ It would be virtually impossible to impose 6-feet social distancing from each other under the conditions we worked pre-COVID-19.”

SAG-AFTRA background actors are at more significant risk of not working enough to get benefits. “SAG-AFTRA Background Actors are dues-paying union members, and we must meet certain criteria based on our earnings to qualify for health coverage and pension credits,” he says to Deadline. “If numbers are cut, many members will not be able to make their health coverage and pension credits.”

The biggest question is moving forward, will productions even want to hire background extras to work on productions. Deadline reports scripts re being written “to include the bare minimum of background performers if any…  eliminating BG and/or using CGI,” Markman says. “We are being written out of existence.”

“We are being written out of existence.”

It is important to note when it comes to crew members working as background extras, Markman explains that SAG-AFTRA offers exceptions in certain situations, and it is impractical.

“First and foremost, contractually, crew is not allowed to work as background actors. There are exceptions which require a waiver approved by SAG-AFTRA but will not take away from the contractual number of SAG-AFTRA BG,” he says.

“Using crew as BG is unproductive as they have enough work of their own to do. Imagine a lighting grip that is up on ladders adjusting hot lights and moving heavy equipment around the set wearing work attire, or the customer with flaming pink hair and multiple tattoos. It just wouldn’t work,” he says. “Once set is ready for filming, crew would have to clean up and change into proper wardrobe for the scene being shot. A huge waste of time, resources,  and money.”

Markman also explains CGI scenes will not always work. “CGI is fine for large stadium/crowd scenes (aka ‘A Cast of Thousands’) in a wide shot where spectators/crowds have little action and/or are not important to the storyline,” Markman says. “If, however, there are principal actors in the stands or in the middle of a crowd, you would want real people behind them, not computer-generated people whose actions are computer programmed. Same principle with restaurant-, shopping-, church-type scenes. CGI background would be computer programmed, so there would be no spontaneous reactions and/or movements which would look very unrealistic.”

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