Thursday, December 17, 2009

Will you work for food? For free?

Oprah is filming a pilot here in Chicago for her new OWN network.  I've been contacted by a friend who will be an extra who suggested I join him and another friend. 

Apparently extras can now recruit other extras, avoiding the need for a casting director or even knowledge of who/how many will show up at the appointed times and locations.  And apparently there's no pay, just meals.  It seems O/her production company are banking on the fact that people are so eager to say they're involved with her in any way they will work for free.  So they can earn bragging rights instead of cash.   

What precedent does not paying extras set?  If someone at Oprah's level expects freebies, will other TV shows and feature films stop paying us? 

I've worked as an extra on dozens of productions and expect to make $65 or $75 for 8 hours plus time and a half overtime, usually excellent meals (and parking).  Many think even that is insufficient recompense for the effort required.  Insufficient pay to endure long hours (usually at least 12) and occasionally unpleasant physical conditions...cramped holding areas, not enough restrooms, standing outside for hours in extreme cold or heat, walking long distances from parking to holding carrying the requisite changes of clothes, days where we aren't even given coffee and donuts or water while the (union) crew is constantly provided all sorts of tempting fare, and often right under our noses.  I choose to look at it this way:  I'm getting paid to observe famous stars/directors up close and in action, or to read/talk on the phone/email/hang out with fun people when I'm not in the scene.  

Being an extra isn't brain surgery, for sure.  Nor it it as difficult as being the star.  But it does require some skill...even an extra can screw up a shot by walking too slow or fast and running into the star, or by overreacting or looking at the camera.  For scenes shooting multiple days, you need reliable people for continuity. 

Certainly there can be reasons to work for no money.  If you don't have any acting experience whatsoever, student films, for example, can be one way to get some.  They can be a way to learn what it's like to be on set and take direction.  However, it's my understanding that these films and extra work even on a major motion picture aren't really considered acting credits by agents or those who hire talent for pay.  Better than nothing, perhaps, but not as good as other things.

For example, many non-Equity theatres in Chicago don't pay their actors, but offer a wealth of experience and the opportunity to be seen.  This "free" acting can count as credits; I've often heard agents like to know their talent also does theatre/improv and some will go see the shows.  And in the corporate world, many companies offer internships (often for college credit, which is a form of compensation) to help those just starting out get their feet in the door. 

Some free work assignments can be worth it in pursuit of a goal: a viable credit, networking and/or experience that should pay off in the future.  If you think being an unpaid extra will provide sufficient benefits, have at it.  But if you think you deserve compensation for your time, if you believe the old adage 'they won't buy the cow if they get the milk for free,' stay home. 


1 comment:

EilisFlynn said...

Sounds like they're expecting a lot of kids with nothing better to do to show up, as opposed to people who DO have better things to do. Sort of reminds me of the advance-no advance thing, but not quite.

I think Oprah of all people will have a lot of reconsidering to do for OWN! Good luck, Ruth!