Growing film industry creates job opportunities for movie extras

October 18, 2011
Maria Clark, New Media Specialist

Long before tax incentives made Louisiana a hot spot for film production, Susie Labry was already working as a movie extra.

The Baton Rouge resident and self-proclaimed political science buff took her first extra role on the set of “The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish,” a 1977 film that detailed the life and murder of Gov. Huey P. Long.

She and dozens of other extras spent three days dressed in 1930s era costumes outside Our Lady of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge waiting for the director to OK their scene. The film crew tailgated in the parking lot, dishing out red beans and rice, which Labry remembers eating very carefully to not stain her costume.

The long hours didn’t impede her from returning to the set and haven’t since. She has worked as an extra on 250 films since 1975.

Louisiana’s film industry has experience drastic changes since Labry’s first role. A 30 percent tax incentive geared toward the entertainment industry, which took effect in 2003, has increased the number of films produced in the state exponentially. It has also made the film industry ripe ground for people looking to break into movies.

Film production hubs have developed in cities throughout the state, including Shreveport, Lafayette and Baton Rouge. This year alone, 35 projects have filmed in New Orleans generating about $417 million for the city, said Katie Williams, director of Film New Orleans, the department under the mayor’s office of cultural economy that handles film and video projects.

So far this year, the city has seen a 28 percent increase in what production crews have spent on local vendors, crew and extras compared with 2010, she said.

The number of extras and local film crews has grown tangentially with the number of movies being filmed throughout the state. Labry heads an online group of about 2,000 people in the Baton Rouge area interested in working as movie extras. Similar groups have developed in other cities, including New Orleans.

“Being an extra you see the nobodies, the middle-class people, the politicians, poor people, millionaires. It’s a fascinating group of people,” she said.

Her acting resume is extensive with titles that include made-for-TV films, TV shows and small movie roles. She is constantly striving for more in her work — an additional second in front of the camera or a chance at a speaking role. She has worn the hat of an extra, a production assistant and most recently a casting assistant.

Labry carpools around the state to get to filming locations. Friends she has met on set in different cities are always willing to lend a hand or a couch to sleep on.

The pay is far from great. An extra who is just part of a background shot will make $65 to $85 for 12 hours of work, plus time and a half for longer hours.

A featured extra – someone who is in focus in the scene — can make $75 to $150 for 12 hours of work. A specialty extra — someone with a special skill that is necessary for the movie — can make up to $250.

One movie required a specialty extra who was willing to get a tattoo. Wayne Morgan, who started taking on extra roles in 2004, was strongly considering going through with it but decided not to when the film producers wouldn’t give him a credit in the movie.

“A strong community has developed from all these movies. You get thrown in with a group of people and you have nothing but time with them,” said Morgan, who has since become the co-owner of a production company. “Before you know it, you’re making friends on every set you work on.”

Morgan was inspired to create the HURD Casting Network after working on the set of “Dreamers” in 2004 as a way of keeping everyone informed about future casting opportunities.

“As soon as the filming was done, everybody was running around trying to find out where the next movie was going to be shot,” he said.

HURD and meet-up groups such as the one Labry runs in Baton Rouge help the extras community stay informed about production companies that are slow to pay extras or mistreat them. Extras don’t enjoy union protection and cannot join the Screen Actors Guild unless they have had a speaking role.

“Being an extra is fun, but they can corral you like cattle,” said Barbara Balentine, who started out as an extra 15 years ago. She works full-time in the pharmaceutical industry, dedicating her time off to working in commercials and taking acting classes.

“If you are going to stick with this line of work, you have to educate yourself by taking acting classes, communicating with other extras and local film crews through the meet-up groups about job opportunities,” Balentine said. “It’s like a full-time job all on its own.”