Deep inside the grove where the Beijing Film Studio is situated, under branches laden with clothes and kitbags, dozens of extras were lounging on the lawn. Gao Feng, a young migrant worker, was one of them.
According to Gao, extras mainly comprise three kinds of people: poor college graduates, film enthusiasts who have been inveigled to Beijing and some unemployed migrant workers.
Gao said that the extras are paid only 20 yuan (US$2.40) for each job, and rarely have more than 10 chances each month to get some work. With income prospects like that, they can hardly afford to pay rent in a metropolis like Beijing. Many of them sleep in the open, and some have to sell blood to eke out a living.
A row of single-story buildings at the Beijing Film Studio is designated for use by the
casting agencies. Before every shoot, the production teams tell the agencies how many extras they will need. The agents also take charge of distributing box lunches and payments, from which they draw their 30 percent fee.
Aspiring bit actors must first hand over 50 yuan (US$6.00) just to be interviewed. After some simple expression tests, the lucky ones who are selected have to pay another 200-yuan (US$24.00) deposit.
Extras are divided into two categories: ordinary and invited, which are further subdivided into minor and major roles. Ordinary extras are paid 20 yuan for appearance only, 50 for appearance with lines, 100 for playing dead, 200 to 400 if they work as stand-ins, and 500 yuan for a slap in the face.
Invited extras can earn as much as 700 yuan (US$84.60) for minor roles and big roles can bring them thousands.
Some of the regulars have worked as extras for several years but have still never attained the much-sought-after invited status. One of the reasons is that many of the deputy directors who are responsible for casting make decisions in accordance with their personal feelings, rather than through any established system.
"Actually, all the extras come here for reputation and wealth," said a staff member at the film studio. "Whether it's summer heat or winter cold, there's always a group of people gathering here, waiting to be chosen by a director. Some leave and others take their place."
Many extras persuade themselves to stick it out because of success stories like those of former extras Chow Yun-Fat and Stephen Chow. But as director Xie Jin once said, "Not everyone can be an actor."
Professor Cui Xinqin at the Beijing Film Academy echoed Xie. "Apart from excellent inherent qualities, stardom only comes with further training and luck. For example, more than 4,000 students from four big cities competed for the 23 positions here in 1996. In the end, only two of them got famous."
(China.org.cn by Li Xiao, December 3, 2004)