In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
It’s common knowledge that the Academy Awards employ seat fillers to make sure that any time the camera pans through the audience, every single space is filled—both for aesthetic reasons and because the Academy doesn’t want it to look like James Franco’s date abandoned him. But a lot goes on behind the scenes to make certain that, even if Anne Hathaway gets up to go to the bathroom five seconds before the commercial break ends, as soon as the cameras sweep the front rows, someone is already sitting in her seat. So who are these anonymous people? Are they paid? Do they get to do shots with George Clooney at the bar in between segments?
The A.V. Club managed to find one of these mysterious denizens of temporarily vacated chairs, and it turns out they’re legally required to be mysterious: All seat fillers have to sign extensive non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from speaking about their experience. As a result, the following interviewee will remain anonymous, with several details being altered in order to maintain their privacy. Despite that, our source was only too happy to explain as much as possible about their big day among the Hollywood elite.
The A.V. Club: Were you a fan of the Academy Awards?
Seat Filler: Yes, I’ve been a movie fan for a long, long time, and I always watched the Academy Awards.
AVC: So when did you first realize that Oscar seat filler was an actual job?
SF: I had no idea until a relative mentioned it, which would have been probably six months before it actually happened.
AVC: Was your relative involved in the industry somehow?
SF: Yes, they worked for the Academy.
AVC: What year did you attend?
SF: It was the 75th Oscars, which was 2003, I believe. The year Chicago won. I was living in San Diego at the time, so I was relatively local. My relative knew that I was a huge film fan, and so—actually, the year before that, I had [been an] extra on Master And Commander and we’ve talked about film forever, so they knew that it was a thing that I would want to do. So when they found out they could get me in, they called me up and explained what the deal was.
AVC: So how did you go about applying for the job?
SF: I never did. My relative handled all of the paperwork on that end. As I understand it, the only way you can get in now is if you have a relative working for the Academy, or you work for PricewaterhouseCoopers, which is the accounting firm that counts the votes. So it’s not the kind of thing where you can just apply and get randomly selected. I did have to fill out paperwork later, when I got there. All kinds of things saying, “I understand that if I misbehave, I can [get the relative fired].”
AVC: Did you have to submit any pictures or anything in order to apply—or did your relative have to?
SF: I don’t know if they handed over any pictures of me, but I certainly didn’t. I do know that there were all kinds of people in the seat fillers: men, women, young, old.
AVC: So after your relative filled out the paperwork and got you selected as a seat filler, what happens?
SF: We showed up in the morning to get ready. They definitely had people there that looked at us to make sure that we were up to dress code. We had been informed beforehand what the dress code was, so there must have been some kind of paperwork going back and forth. I believe they had a list of “these are the acceptable combinations.” It was definitely “You will look like this, or you’re not getting in.”
AVC: Did you see anyone’s outfit get vetoed on the actual day?
SF: I did not. Everyone was very well dressed.
AVC: When you arrived, was there a dress rehearsal for the seat fillers?
SF: Not at all, no. They gave us a briefing, which was just reiterating “you will behave,” and then they queued us in the lobby outside the theater itself. Then we waited there until they needed us to fill seats.
AVC: What time did you have to show up for the event?
SF: I would guess it was mid-morning; 10-ish would probably be a reasonable guess.
AVC: What was the experience of the day in the hours leading up to the actual ceremony?
SF: A lot of just standing around waiting around the theater. There wasn’t anything to do but stand around and wait.
AVC: Were there multiple people directing you guys around, or did they just put you in a line and set you aside?
SF: They had handlers watching us, but, yeah, they shoved us in a corner until they needed us.
AVC: Did you get to interact with other seat fillers?
SF: Yes. I didn’t know any of them, so I didn’t have deep conversations with any of them. About half of them were from PricewaterhouseCoopers, and those guys knew each other already… I think PricewaterhouseCoopers uses it as kind of a bonus sort of thing, and I think they rotate through whoever did a good job that year. Apparently there are a lot more people who work at PricewaterhouseCoopers than there are seat-filler availabilities.
AVC: So what are the rules that govern seat-filler behavior during the event?
SF: No talking to the stars or other people who actually have real invitations—really, no interacting with them. Don’t do anything that makes you stand out to the camera. So when you’re in the seat in the theater, be as professional and stoic as possible. Don’t draw attention to yourself in any way. Those were really the big ones: don’t act out, don’t draw attention, don’t be a jerk.
AVC: They want you to be anonymous faces as much as possible.
SF: Exactly. The entire point of the seat filler is that you’re inconspicuous. Having an empty seat would be more conspicuous than some random person there.
AVC: How are seat fillers selected each time an attendee gets up?
SF: I think it was fairly random. I didn’t see any particular pattern. I was only outside for a couple of moments—somewhere around the second or third commercial break. I went in and then I stayed in the theater for the rest of the show, which is an unusual experience, I’m told. Usually you go in and out a bunch, filling in for people who have just gone to the bathroom or something or gone to get a drink or go present. But I got the seat of someone who left and did not come back. I wish I could remember [who it was], but my memory is—it was a couple who had gone because they needed to be there to present or something, and then left. I got to sit there and watch the whole rest of the show.
AVC: Wow, that’s great. Were there any particular moments that stood out?
SF: I was there for the Michael Moore “Shame on you, Mr. President” speech. It was pretty amazing to be there in person for that.
AVC: There was controversy because people were saying it was being reported differently than what it was like in the theater.
SF: Which is true. My memory of the reporting is that people were saying that the audience was booing Michael Moore, when my experience… The Oscars is laid out in two tiers: There’s the lower tier where the big-name people are, and then the upper tier where the lesser-known technical people and, like, some family are. And the lower section was mostly shocked, I think, and they didn’t do a whole lot, but there was a lot of cheering coming from the upper section is my memory of it. And there wasn’t a melee of booing at all.
AVC: Where were you sitting at the time?
SF: I was about six or eight rows back on the lower level.
AVC: So you were very close to the stage.
SF: Yes, I had a great view.
AVC: Were there people you were excited to see in person at the time?
SF: I remember that I walked by Nicole Kidman, which was pretty amazing because I’ve always been a fan of hers, and she was just going the other way as I was walking into the theater and that was pretty awesome. Other than that, I hadn’t really come to see anyone in particular. I remember that Catherine Zeta-Jones was enormously pregnant and was hardly ever in her seat. She was right in the front row and she was frequently out and probably uncomfortable. [Zeta-Jones was eight months pregnant at the time, and gave birth just under a month later. —ed.] That was the year that Adrien Brody kissed Halle Berry onstage, when she presented him the Best Actor Oscar and rather surprised her with the dip and the kiss, so that was pretty neat to be there for that.
AVC: Were you on camera at any point?
SF: Yes, but I don’t think I went back and re-watched the broadcast. I have a picture of me in the audience. The Academy provided one. But also, since that was the 75th, there was a book they publish every, I think, five, or 10, or 25—I’m not sure how many. But it was the 75th-anniversary book, and they had a huge two-page spread of the audience and I’m in that.
AVC: Were there folks near you that you were tempted to talk to if they hadn’t warned you?
SF: No, there was never any temptation of that because they were very, very clear that they were going to fire my relative if I did anything wrong. And I really didn’t want to cost them their job. [Laughs.]
AVC: Fair enough. So you get there, you’re able to sit through the whole thing: What happens for you guys when the show is over?
SF: I don’t think there was any kind of after-thing. I think I went and said hi to my relative, because they were on-site, and we chatted for a little bit, and that was it. I just went home; I don’t think there was anything special for it at all. I definitely did not get any time to wander around in the theater or anything… It was a very long day, and the broadcast lasted a long time, so I’m sure we just went home and slept.
AVC: You were exhausted.
SF: Yes, definitely. It’s a fair amount of work to just sit there for several hours, actually.
AVC: Is there any sort of compensation for being a seat filler?
SF: No. It’s strictly, you get the privilege of being there.
AVC: Did you at least get fed or something since you were there all day?
SF: Yes. They did have food there for us beforehand.
AVC: Would you encourage others to do it?
SF: Absolutely. It was an incredible experience. If you can find a way to get in, then sure. But you kind of have to get a relative hired at the Academy in order for that to happen. [Laughs.]
AVC: Would you do it again if you could?