Almost Famous: How China’s Extras Are Chasing Viral Video Fame

Treated as disposable by the film industry, extras are living their dreams of stardom on streaming platforms like Bilibili.

In October, a short video of a group of retired women recreating scenes from the well-known drama “Empresses in the Palace” went viral on Chinese social media. Viewers praised the group for their meticulous attention to detail, glamorous costumes and makeup, and obvious passion for the source material. What they may not have realized is that these so-called self-insert films aren’t just passion projects — they’re big business for China’s largest movie production lot, Hengdian World Studios. For about 4,000 yuan ($575) per person, anyone can create scenes from their favorite shows, complete with professional hair, make-up, and even full sets.

There was just one thing missing from the retirees’ otherwise fastidious reproduction: a cast of extras scurrying about in the background. Although they’re easy to overlook, these bit players, many of whom spend months or years working on the industry’s fringes, are indispensable to Hengdian’s success. Like the aunties paying for self-insert films, many dream of one day being the star of the show. Unlike middle-class tourists who can afford a self-insert package, extras, who typically make about 80 yuan for a day’s work, must seek validation in other ways.

Growing numbers are doing so on video streaming sites like Bilibili, where they document their lives playing body doubles, attendants, or waiters to the country’s biggest stars. One of the most popular of these extra-cum-vloggers, Jiang Wenhua, films snippets of his day-to-day life in Hengdian for tens of thousands of followers. In one of his most popular videos, he and his girlfriend share how they spent a day playing beggars in a new TV series. Dressed in rags, they talk about working with some of China’s biggest stars and sing songs for the site’s virtual currency. On TV, they’re just a couple of indistinct faces in the crowd, but on Bilibili, they’re stars in their own right.

Until recently, people had little interest in where extras came from or what their lives were like off-screen. Jiang’s videos remind me of the extras I met in 2018, during my fieldwork in Hengdian. Most came from small towns and the countryside; some were drawn to the job because they liked to perform; others because they thought they could lift themselves out of poverty by becoming an actor. A few even said they came to expand their Taobao business selling imitation crafts. Many fell into the gig because they didn’t know what else to do. Continue to read the full article here

– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.