Note: Most of the information in this article pertains to working in Los Angeles, since background work in smaller markets tends to be handled by the local agents and casting directors. The terms “extra” and “background” are used interchangeably, and no offense is meant by either term.
Many parents ask if working as an “extra” or background player, is a good way to get started in the business. The answer isn’t an easy one. Working in the background has some great benefits including:
- Learning set etiquette, industry terminology, working as a team to produce a great entertainment product.
- Deciding if a child has the temperament for the entertainment industry. Can they handle the waiting? Can they obey strangers?
- Learning basic job responsibilities such as being on time, following directions, etc.
- Low stress for the child. A $1M commercial is not riding on their back, and they can make mistakes without extreme consequences.
- Few auditions…you just get called to work!
- Earning money. This can be used to teach kids basic money management, and used to save for future union initiation dues, headshots, acting classes, etc.
- Possible (not probable) upgrades to principal status.
- Provides a creative outlet for kids who might not be ready or interested in principal auditions.
- Socialization with other kids, exposure to other cultures and places.
Twenty years ago, working as an extra was a GREAT way to get started in the business. But things have changed since then, and now we believe parents need to weigh the risks and benefits of doing background work more than ever. This is truly a situation where there should be a big flashing light saying “APPROACH WITH CAUTION”.
Background players were originally part of their own labor union, the Screen Extras Guild. In 1992, the Screen Actors Guild absorbed that union and background players were allowed to join SAG via their work.
At that time, Central Casting handled all the union background actors. Actors called in for their roles and were booked directly. CHILD actors were handled slightly differently, with just a couple of licensed agencies specializing in children’s background work. These companies were licensed as talent agents, and they held SAG franchises. As such, they were limited to 10% of the actors’ pay as a commission, had to pay in a timely fashion, and were prohibited from having a conflict of interest (being paid by producers on the other end of the deal). Two major kids’ agencies handled all the background work in Los Angeles , Screen Children’s and Academy Kids.
In the early 2000s, several new companies opened up to specialize in kid’s background work. The business model changed drastically. The “agencies” gave up their SAG agency franchises. Some companies started calling themselves “managers” so that they could avoid state licensing as a talent agency, pay on their own schedule, charge registration fees, check fees, etc. Lawsuits ensued over late payments, non-payment, illegal operation as an agency, etc. Parents were threatened with blackballing if they didn’t cooperate with the company’s new rules. This controversial atmosphere still exists today, and these companies still have a good chunk of the work out there.
In 2017 Central Casting decided to open their doors to children once again. In LA and NY, children can now access jobs like adults always did — jobs directly from Central Casting or from similar background companies by calling into their individual hotlines. Adults don’t pay commissions to these companies. Rather, the companies are paid by production to find the actors that fill their scenes. Today, there is really no reason to contract with any company exclusively, or to pay commissions to a “management” company. It is an option, but not required.
What You Need to Get Started
The beauty of background work is that there are no prerequisites. All you need to start is:
- A valid Coogan account
- A valid work permit
- Social Security card
- A company to find you work, or the ability to search for local work on your own
- A cell phone with text messaging so they can contact you
- Wardrobe that always fits — no logos, no thin stripes or patterns that distort on camera, no white or bright green (conflicts with green screen). You will need to bring 3 – 5 outfits to each job.
The Kid Companies
In Los Angeles , there are three main companies that handle the vast majority of background work for children. Buyer beware: to our knowledge, none of them are licensed as talent agencies in the State of California . None are SAG franchised. This means that they are NOT YOUR AGENT. They do not have your best interests in mind, and should not legally be negotiating anything. They are simply a booking service, a broker, and you need to become knowledgeable on your own about labor laws, union regulations, upgrades, conflicts, etc.
In addition, those that are charging registration fees would likely fall under the 2010 Krekorian Act in California …so they are operating illegally by taking a percentage and an advance fee. Even if they decide to simply “list” talent, they would be regulated by the Krekorian Act, and they would have to post a bond (see our article under the Law tab above). Unfortunately, we cannot endorse any of these companies, as we have had complaints about all of them, but offer them here because it is the current reality of the business.
Kids! Management, (661) 964-0131
Studio Kids Management (562) 902-9838
Elite Kids Talent (818) 922-7909 or NY/DC/PA (718) 662-3523
Some require registration fees of $50-$100 a couple of times a year. They all take a percentage of the child’s earnings which ranges from 15% to 20%. Some require pictures. One takes a check fee from each check, cancellations fees, and more. Most will require you to sign a contract (be CAREFUL—read the small print) but it is possible to register with several services at a time..
An Alternative—Finding Your Own Work
There are ways to hustle your own jobs without the use of a background “broker”.
Central Casting, historically the largest background company out there, takes children directly. They have offices in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and New Orleans. Registering will require a visit to their office with your I-9 information (including a photo ID for your child). Each office has specific registration days. Registration is FREE.
Extrasaccess Owned by Breakdown Services, the company that issues the majority of principal job notices, this side of their business allows self-submissions on background roles. Sandi Alessi (extras CD for many major films including Pirates of the Carribbean, The Fast and The Furious, Zodiac, War of the Worlds, etc) uses Extrasaccess. This company has roles all across the US , but seems to be heavy on LA and NYC. Registration is FREE, and you pay to submit yourself electronically on jobs.
Other sites that allow self-submissions and list background roles occasionally:
Watch the trades, specifically Backstage. Notices for background players are often listed among the other casting notices.
Check out the adult casting companies (eg. Prime Casting, Bill Dance Casting) These are similar to the kid brokers listed above, but do not take a percentage of the actor’s pay. Most of them have “hotlines” where you call in to see if you fit the description of the day. Many of these companies will put kids on file, but don’t have regular calls for them. It’s hit and miss.
Non-union background actors can be paid any amount from nothing up to the union wage. Unlike principal work, this is true even for non-union actors working a union job. In Los Angeles , it used to be standard practice to pay the non-union kids the same rate as the union kids. This is no longer true, thanks to the degradation of the background system (see history above). Make sure to ask what the pay rate is before accepting the job!
Union pay rates per day:
TV/film: $174/8hr day until 6/30/20 (Overtime available if legal in your state. In California it is illegal for a child to work overtime).
TV/film Stand In/Photo Double: $204
Commercial: $388.40 (as of 2019 contract)
*Additional pay can be had via “bumps” (a flat fee) for items such as using your own wardrobe, working in water or smoke, doing a stunt, or using a prop of your own such as a musical instrument. Background players working on location are also eligible for “per diem”, a cash allowance for living expenses
*Note that SAG and AFTRA merged in 2012, but there are still some AFTRA contracts out there, and some variable contracts by the type of show. These shows are negotiated individually. Soap operas, network variety shows, and kids cable (like Disney and Nickelodeon) for example, often have lower rates of pay. Make sure to ask for the pay rate when you book a job!
Coogan Accounts and Payroll Deductions
Out of the income listed above, your child will have some expenses:
- Thanks to a new law in California, background actors are exempt for Coogan with holdings. In New York, 15% with still be withheld and placed into a trust account. Other states vary and some have minimum earnings thresholds before Coogan kicks in.
- They will have to pay taxes. It is a myth that children do not pay taxes or that background work is not taxed. Sometimes your individual checks are so small that they did not withhold taxes, but that does not mean you won’t have to pay later! Plan for it!
- They may have to pay 20% or more to a children’s background “broker”.
- If you have a manager, they may commission extra work as well as principal work. Beware—it could be another 15%.
- You will need gas to get to the location, along with other travel expenses.
Bottom line: You could be walking away from a day of extra work with $40 in your pocket. Is it worth it?
Entering SAG-AFTRA via Background Vouchers
Most people have heard that you can become eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild by accumulating 3 SAG background vouchers. This is true, but probably not for long. Child actors also have special considerations.
A SAG voucher is marked “SAG”. Please note that even on a union job, most background actors will NOT receive a SAG voucher. There are a limited number of union vouchers available. Specifically, on a fully funded feature film or TV show, the producers must hire their first 50 background actors with union vouchers and pay them union pay. Any additional extras can be hired for whatever the producer can negotiate for (right down to volunteers). On a Low Budget film (defined as up to $2.5M budget), the required number of union extras is 30. For films with budgets of less than $625,000, they do not have to hire union extras at all. In NYC, the numbers are slightly more favorable.
As you can surmise from the numbers above, union vouchers are tough to come by. Most are given to adult actors, and within that world corruption abounds (buying vouchers, favors from the Assistant Directors, etc). It can take a year or more to garner enough union vouchers to be eligible to join SAG.
But times are a changin’. SAG-AFTRA voted to eliminate the voucher system due to the corruption, but the replacement system has yet to be defined. This is one reason that we would not advise children to do background work solely as an entre’ into the union. By the time you get enough vouchers, the system could have changed.
Additionally, joining SAG-AFTRA through background work just doesn’t make financial sense. Initiation dues are now upwards of $3000 plus minimum dues every 6 months. A child working background would not make enough in net earnings to justify that expense. Further, since background work cannot be listed on a resume, it would leave the child with a weak resume competing in a pool of advanced actors.
Upgrade to Principal
An “upgrade” is when an actor working background is promoted to a principal role on a union job. Woo hoo! This is cause for celebration! It means more money, possible residuals, and recognition. It is rare, but it happens!
In SAGAFTRA, there are different upgrade rules for different kinds of work. In TV and film, the SAG contract says you must say a line by yourself. It doesn’t matter how much time you are on camera—it’s the WORD that counts. For a commercial, no lines are necessary. You just must be recognizable, or doing a recognizable stunt.
Sometimes upgrades happen on set. An assistant director will ask to speak to the parent, or the director may simply ask the child to do a particular task. Sometimes, an upgrade happens AFTER the shoot, in the editing process, or the parent may see the finished product and believe that the child deserved an upgrade. When that happens, you must call SAGAFTRA and file a claim. It’s a hassle, so it is MUCH better to solidify the upgrade while you are on set.
There are some things that all young background actors should be taught.
- If the director asks for volunteers and you think you can do it…VOLUNTEER! Often these are upgrade opportunities.
- If you are asked to say anything by yourself on a theatrical job, or if you are asked to do anything unusual (like a stunt), tell mom right away (not when you get home)!
- If you are asked if it is OK to cut or color your hair, tell mom right away!
Parents: Stay with your child at all times. It is not just for safety, but can mean the difference between getting an upgrade or not. They don’t want to go find you to ask permission for something. And they won’t upgrade your child if they can avoid it…if you are watching, your child is much more likely to be treated fairly.
And don’t forget…everything is negotiable in an upgrade situation. It is a very wise idea to call in a licensed agent to do the negotiating for you. Things like screen credit are often overlooked by parents.
Background Work on the Resume / IMDb
The short answer is…don’t. Background work does not belong on a professional actor’s resume, and most casting directors recognize it when they see it. Putting it on your resume is severely frowned upon in the industry, and is considered dishonest by many. IMDb does not officially allow background work either, although you will sometimes see actors skirt that system with credits tagged as “uncredited” or “featured”. Nobody is fooled by this.
NY acting coach, Denise Simon has this to say about why background work doesn’t belong on a resume: Backstage Expert Denise Simon.
Still, background does show that your child has on-set experience. We suggest placing a generic statement under the TRAINING section of the child’s resume (“Worked as a background player in over 20 productions”). This way, you are showing the casting director that you have that experience, but aren’t trying to pass it off as a principal work.
Juggling Extra Work and Principal Work
Outside of smaller markets, Casting Directors for principal and background players are USUALLY different people. So doing background on a job is not likely to get you “seen” by a principal CD. For this reason, it is rare for a background job to “turn into” a principal job or a new opportunity. You aren’t going to be discovered doing extra work.
By the same token though, the myth of “once an extra, always an extra” is not true for children. Since the CDs are different, it is unlikely that they will peg you as an extra for life.
So can you do both? Yes, but it is tough. Most parents don’t attempt it. Here’s why:
- principal agents want you to be available every day for auditions. If you are working an extra job, you aren’t available for principal auditions. Not good.
- since most principal casting is on-line these days, casting has become very fast. You must be available for same day auditions. Extra work conflicts with that.
- many agents believe that if you are a principal level actor, a guest star level, a lead…that you shouldn’t be lowering yourself to be seen on set as an extra. Whether this is true or not, if your agent believes it, it will be a problem for you.
School, On Set Safety, Permits, Work Hours and more
The union rules and state by state laws for background players are generally the same as for all other performers. In other words, if a studio teacher is required for the principals, it is required for the background actors as well. Please explore our site for information about these issues.
What might vary is the quality. For instance, lunch breaks are mandated for all workers. Principals may get a catered lunch, while the extras get a brown bag. Principal children generally get trailers, while extras are held in a tent (if you are lucky). Wise parents prepare for this stuff and insulate their children against it. Bring snacks, bring school work, bring beach chairs. Know the laws and regulations that apply to your particular job.
“Training” and package deals offered by less than scrupulous companies. The usual pitch involves a company offering to “get you into show business” “make you a star” “work on shows LIKE (insert hot Disney show here).” They tout their connections within the industry. They ask for $2000 to $5000 to “get you started”. You assume they will be setting you up with legitimate auditions for principal jobs. They aren’t…they are connected to a background company and that is the only work they can offer you. RUN!
Companies that advertise on social media, Craigslist and other non-industry publications. They are usually looking for a hefty registration fee, after which you will never get called.
Online companies that list all the projects their “clients” have been involved in. If only you register and put your picture and resume up on their website. They don’t tell you, but most times this is extra work.
On-set cons. These aren’t really scams but are dangerous none the less. Since you really don’t have an agent looking out for you, you must become a savvy parent. Common things that people will try to talk you into include working overtime (without pay), working non-union jobs after you have joined the union (they tell you that it doesn’t matter with extras—IT DOES!), accepting a non-upgrade with the logic that “if you make it in the final cut, we’ll upgrade you”, or leaving your child at another location because “there isn’t enough room” (Remember—you MUST be within sight and/or sound!) Again, a wise parent learns the rules. You are on your own in the extra world!
Final Tips for the Set
- Make sure your cell phone numbers are always correct on casting sites and with reps
- Make sure your handwriting is clear and that forms filled out on set are legible
- NDAs — Non-disclosure agreements — NEVER talk about the project you worked on. Really.
- Don’t ask for favors or special treatment on set
- Make production’s life easy
- Be on time, all the time.
- Communicate with production, call back quickly
- Keep your work permit up to date
- Make sure to bring school work and extra things to do
- Do not bring extra children to set — EVER.
Highly Recommend: Download the current SAGAFTRA Background Digest and keep it on your phone so you have it on set. It has a summary of all the union contracts relating to background work, pay rates, along with rules and restrictions. Download at Issuu HERE.