There's an extra born every minute

I've been around enough actors in my time to know that breaking into the movie business carries a heavy cost. And as the events of the past week have reminded me, that cost is not $59.95.

That's how much entrepreneur Bruce Merwin was charging extras to appear in his feature film, "Summer in the City," whose seven-day local production schedule was cancelled July 16.

Notice that I said "charging" not "paying." Merwin's business model depended on the participation of 2,700 extras, who were required to pay him just shy of 60 bills apiece to provide the background for the interior and exterior footage he intended to shoot Monday, July 23, at Tabu. That material was to make up about 90 percent of "Summer in the City," a dark comedy about a rock band whose climb to the top is plagued by mysterious deaths at their concerts.

In return for the investment of time and money, each participant would have received a copy of "Summer in the City" on VHS and entry to its Aug. 13 premiere at Universal Cineplex 20. Tickets to the shoot were sold through Ticketmaster and advertised on cable TV.

Last Tuesday, July 17, Merwin announced that he had cancelled the film. The reason? A grand total of four tickets had been sold. (At his request, Ticketmaster issued refunds.)

No shocks there. Still, Merwin's unorthodox, highly problematic enterprise -- which raised memories of that old scam, "Nashville songwriters will evaluate your lyrics for $$$$!" -- was only slightly more audacious than the punishing timetable he had set for himself. The extras were to be brought on set at Tabu in one-hour shifts. Within that time, they would have been given their directions, run through a rehearsal, had their scene(s) put to film and been ushered out for a new crowd to be brought in. This was to happen nine times during the day, which translates into 300 extras per shift.

Most of the editing, Merwin planned, would be done in camera. The nine reels of 35mm Panavision film would be sent to a lab in Pittsburgh, Pa., for postproduction. Three weeks later, the finished, 100-minute movie would be shown at Universal Cineplex. Everyone who paid to be in the film (and followed the crew's directions) would see themselves on screen, Merwin guaranteed -- or he would refund their money.

It was all a mighty tall order, but Merwin claimed he was up to it.

"I'm not going wacko on special effects," he said. "I'm using an emulsion and a lab that I'm familiar with."

As further demonstration of his capabilities, he cited his 20-year career in local production, which he says includes stints as second-unit camera operator on "The New Leave It to Beaver," an electrician on "Superboy" and a gaffer on the Nicolas Cage film "Firebirds." More recently, he has shot commercials for Time-Warner Cable. He was not the director of "Summer in the City," merely its director of photography, yet it was still advertised as "A Bruce Merwin film." He was clearly running the show. It was one more incongruity in a project that was full of them.

That's me in the corner

Did Merwin really think that anyone would pay to be in a film and in only a peripheral capacity? In an initial press release, he stressed the chance of exposure for aspiring actors and models, and at a cost "less expensive than paying an agency for head shots or photos."

Merwin didn't press that spurious analogy when I phoned him for comment. Instead, he called the "Summer in the City" shoot an appeal to "Joe Blow" -- the average guy who has always wanted to see his or her mug on the big screen.

The Universal screening would have been the only chance to do so. Merwin wasn't interested in putting the film on the festival circuit, nor was he actively seeking a distribution deal. Instead, he hoped the "Summer in the City" shoot would recoup his core crew's initial investment (his personal stake: an alleged $20,000) and pave his way to make future films according to the same model.

"I'm hoping I've worked out a formula where we can actually do feature films here in town," Merwin said.

Oh, well, Back to the drawing board.

Hall's fair

It's surprising that Merwin even got as far as he did. Booking Universal Cineplex, at least, entailed no up-front expense: He wouldn't have been required to pay his rental fee until a week or so prior to the Aug. 13 screening. Nor did he have to clear his pay-to-play scheme with the Metro Orlando Film & Television Commission (a nonregulatory body whose only role was to administer Merwin's shooting permits) or the Screen Actors Guild, which in this part of the country has no jurisdiction over extras for "theatrical motion pictures or television entertainment films." Merwin had contacted SAG to secure contracts for his principal performers (whom he intended to pay) but had not completed the process when the shoot was called off.

Lip service

Reaction to Merwin's efforts was split. On the July 12 episode of the WORL-AM (660) program "The Film Guyz," co-hosts Jerry Eisinger and Mark Ferrera put their initial trepidation aside to laud the undertaking -- still a go at that point -- as "creative, innovative and entrepreneurial." And Haxan Films' Gregg Hale called the concept "genius" when I told him about it.

"If he can make it work, more power to him," Hale said. "He's selling the glamour of the film industry, which is what every filmmaker does on some level."

Paul Sirmons strongly disagreed. A producer/director whose credits include the 1999 family picture "The First of May" (which recently acquired domestic and international distribution) and the now - shooting "Dunsmore," Sirmons recoiled from the idea that film shoots should join tractor pulls as ticketed affairs.

"Talk about a cattle herding," he blanched. "I would never charge an extra to be in a film. They are doing me a favor by showing up on the set and putting up with what is generally kind of boring."

Casting director Patti Robinson was even more aghast. Having hired an estimated thousands of extras and speaking actors for such projects as the TV series "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle," the film "Armageddon" and the HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon," she knew Merwin had things backward.

"We didn't ask anyone to work for free, let alone pay us," Robinson recalled. "I would never recommend anyone pay for anything in this business. If they ask you for money, run the other way. It's a no-win situation."

Like Sirmons, Robinson worried that "Summer in the City" would scare investors away from more legitimate endeavors. And she shared Sirmons' view that the project denigrated the vital role of extras.

"They're not just faces in the background," Sirmons said. "They help a scene become believable. They do help create the art of a movie."

Only if they show up. Robinson predicted the ultimate failure of Merwin's attempt to lure 2,700 paying customers:

"There aren't that many people that stupid in this town," she said. "At least, I hope not."


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