In many cases, the people hanging around in the background on television and movies — never saying anything that the audience can hear — are placed there by the directors and producers creating the film. They’re called extras. For the TV and movie producers, these extras provide a meaningful sense of reality while allowing the production crew to maintain control over the set. You can’t, for example, have a major venue go unpopulated during a movie shoot, or the audiences viewing won’t believe what they’re seeing; at the same time, you don’t want to have to shoot take after take because of uncontrollable chaos behind the actors. Extras, for their part, sometimes get a small stipend, but often work as volunteers, simply for the thrill of being part of something larger than life and, at times, for the access it provides.
And if you don’t mind wearing a tuxedo or ball gown, this may be your best way to watch the Academy Awards. Just be prepared to sit on command.
Each year, Hollywood celebrates itself in an hours-long award ceremony best known as the Oscars. The event occurs at the Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theater in Los Angeles, an expansive venue which seats over 3,000. And if you watch it on TV, you’ll notice that there doesn’t seem to be an empty seat in the house.
That’s seemingly impossible. The ceremony lasts seemingly forever (really, it’s only about three and a half hours) and even Hollywood stars need to avail themselves of the restroom once and again. So the Academy provides a solution: well-dressed extras called “seat fillers,” hired for the sole purpose of occupying the empty seat until its rightful tushie returns. Reports vary on what the gig pays — some sources claim it’s entirely done on a volunteer basis (and you need to provided your own evening wear) while others report a stipend in the ballpark of $250. But either way, it’s no vacation. A travel writer named Joshua Crouthamel told the UK’s Daily Mail about his experience as a pro seat filler:
‘There was a lot of shouting and we were told the rules: don’t speak to anyone unless they speak first; no waving at the cameras; do not exude any hint of personality. We had to crouch in the background or fold ourselves into the side curtains so we were out of sight.’
Seat fillers were also forbidden to take toilet breaks, but Joshua needed to make a quick dash to the gents: ‘I found myself next to a man who said he was enjoying his night “apart from all the getting up and down”, so I assumed he was a seat-filler, too. I asked him if he had got any good ones so far — meaning star sit-ins — and he said yes, one or two.
‘I then told him that I’d almost done Nicole Kidman and was waiting to do Orlando Bloom. He looked at me strangely — and then I realised he was Elijah Wood. He’d been up and down getting Oscars for Lord Of The Rings. I blurted out: “You’re not a seat-filler — you’re a Hobbit.” He made his excuses and left.’
Despite the low pay and seemingly deplorable work conditions (you can’t use the restroom?), demand for these roles is high. There are a few agencies which producers work with to source and ultimately hire these extras (even if they’re volunteers). A Huffington Post report discussing one seat filler’s experience (not for the Academy Awards, but for a different show) found the compensation ($0) hardly matching the demands put forth by the agency she worked with, down to mandating the outfit she had to wear. But regardless, the agency had no problem filling the 827 open seat-filling positions — not a shock, given that it boasted a database of over 33,000 volunteers.
And when hiring for the Academy Awards, these agencies often want someone with experience sitting in other people’s seats. So if you’re interested, be prepared to build a resume for your behind. An AOL reporter suggested that applicants start with a lesser show or awards ceremony to gain that valuable trade — “you’ll probably have to work your way up the ranks by doing smaller, less-interesting events at first,” she asserted.
From the Archives: Oscar de la Rental: You can give up your seat, but you can’t sell your statuette.
Related: A history of the Academy Awards.