How Many Actors are in L.A.?

5 07 2012

It’s one of the most asked questions about Los Angeles, and one of the hardest to answer: how many actors are there in Hollywood?  And it’s one that SAG-AFTRA could easily answer, but they famously keep mum about it.  A couple of years ago, writing a paper for the national anthropology conference, I came to a point where it would have been good to know. I spent hours and hours trying to figure this out, poring over different resources, and trying to get a handle on it.  I came up with a rough figure then; recently, working on the problem a little more, I think I’ve come up with a better one.  All in all, I’ve probably spent a solid 12-14 hours of research doing nothing but trying to figure this out.

The Anthropology of Hollywood

There’s a lot of comedy and a lot of tragedy in this town. The question is – how much?

There are a lot of problems with trying to arrive at a figure: first of all, how many actors are there in total?  How much work is done in L.A.?  What percentage of SAG-AFTRA members are/were actors, vs. broadcasters, musicians, etc.?  The two (now one) actors unions are notoriously reticent to give out figures, other than their total membership numbers.  Pre-merger, you at least knew that all SAG members were actors (in some way); but not all AFTRA members were, so the post-merger combined membership figures are tough to use.  Because of this, this estimate is based on the numbers reported pre-merger last March by the unions.

I’m going to be very candid: this is at best, a very educated guess as to the number.  That said, this is my best guess, and it’s certainly as good a figure as any of the rest I’ve seen out there (in fact, I haven’t really seen any, so as flawed as it is, it might be the best guess, period).

Here we go.  Based on the following figures:

Total SAG membership:                                                                                         122,000

Total AFTRA membership:                                                                                       70,000

Percentage of AFTRA members that are actors: 84%, so AFTRA adds…                    58,800

Minus the overlap between the guilds, generally considered to be …                  -45,000

  All together, this yields a figure of…                                                                                     135,800

Roughly 80% of the acting work is estimated to be conducted within Los Angeles, so that brings us to a final figure.  The number of actors in Los Angeles is…(drumroll, please):

108, 640

Now, smart people (i.e. all of you) will be able to easily pick up the holes in this number.  I’m almost embarrassed to put this figure up, but even though it’s flawed, it’s still the best figure out there (trust me, after all the years of anthropological methods training, I know exactly where the flaws are).  I did work as hard as possible to get the best numbers I could for this calculation.  Some of the figures are ones that are reported, some are estimates that I’ve drawn from as reliable a source (or usually sources) that I could find.  Some are almost entirely speculative, but that’s the best we can right now.

This 108,640 figure is based on actor union membership – and of course, that’s people who have ever acted, at a level that gets them into the union.  Many of them aren’t working now, but nonetheless, they are still actors, so it’s valid to include them in the figure.  How many working actors are there?  The number that’s usually (and casually – I can’t find anything to back this up) used for how many are actually employed is that 80% are out of work at any given time.  If we apply that to our previous figure, the number of working actors is:

21,728

This figure actually sounds pretty reasonable, though slightly on the low end (casting directors have told me of roles posted in L.A. that bring in 7,000 prospective actors for a single guest star gig, which would be a third of all the working actors?)  But then, what do we mean by “working?”  If you book one gig, you’ve worked.  You have to have worked at least a little to even get into the union.  So do we mean earning their entire income by acting?  Even people who work a lot often don’t do that.  The best way to measure “successful” actors is probably how many people qualify for the top tier of the SAG-AFTRA health plan; but once again, those numbers are unrevealed by the union.

So here it is, presented to you, warts and all.  I look forward to people adding their own, better numbers, or speculating as to how to tighten this up.  And of course, if anyone from SAG-AFTRA is out there reading this – hey, feel free to give me a call and tell me what your figure is.  I promise I’ll keep it a secret.

— Scott Frank

  • One big question is why does SAG-AFTRA keep these numbers secret?  They won’t even tell their own members.  I’ve heard many theories, most suggest that the figures are somehow embarrassing to the union or the profession.  One is that if people knew how many actors there are in Los Angeles, they’d get discouraged and not come out.  Or if they knew how small a percentage worked at any given time – same thing.  A more subtle argument is that wealthier actors don’t have to pay the 1.575% to the union on earnings over $500,000, so revealing how many of them there are versus barely-scraping-by actors might upset some of the lower-level membership, who pay the percentage on every dime they make.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep figures on the number of actors in California (though they list 7,450 in New York and 1,170 in Louisiana).
  • Per the USBLS, 1.77% of people in the L.A. metro area work in entertainment, the highest percentage in the country (in second place: New York City, where it’s 1.38%).
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16 responses

1 05 2013
Movie Extras | Bookshelf

[…] For further reading: http://www.strictlybackground.com https://hollywoodsapien.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/how-many-actors-are-in-l-a/ […]

7 01 2014
Johnny

Seems reasonable to me. Thanks for doing the work! Now let’s take it one step further. Of these numbers, how many of these actors are of African American decent? I’m just trying to figure out what the difference is between white working actors and black working actors and how many of each there are…

8 01 2014
hsapien

Johnny,

It’s an interesting question, and one that isn’t easy to figure out. For all the numbers and percentages used in the article, I found different sources, then calculated them all together – so the question here is, what would be a source for that figure? There is a National Association of Black Actors and Supporters, but so far as I can tell they are inactive. It’s not clear that SAG/AFTRA tracks the race of their members (I’m not even sure if they’re allowed to. If they do, they certainly haven’t made the information public).

One thing SAG/AFTRA does trace is the number of roles that seem to go to minority actors. Once again, the data isn’t very fresh, but in the 2008, they noted that roughly 27.5% of roles went to minority actors (well, they call it “non-caucasian performers”). Of those roles, 13.3% went to African-American actors (for 2007, the figure was a slightly higher 14.8%). This sounds like pretty awful representation (less than 20% of roles?), but it actually is fairly in line with current census figures that show that African Americans make up 13.6% of the American population.

As for the differences in how that affects actual working actors? The data is more anecdotal, but there are some intruiging possibilities. For one research project, I talked to a number of actors, both black and white, about the inpact of race in the types of roles they see. One African-American actor had mentioned that he didn’t feel the competition for roles was too bad; since this seemed to counteract what I had heard from other actors, I asked why. The number of competitors for his type of roles is relatively small, he said, and the number of roles is proportionally larger than for a white actor – at a certain level. The belief I encountered among a number of actors is that the number of main characters who are of a minority background in prime time TV and on the movie screen is small, but the studios need to make claims that they are making progress on hiring minority actors – so they put them in supporting, guest star roles. Ironically, it may be easier for a minority actor to get work – but much harder for them to get starring work or work above a certain level. For the last year I was able to find data (2003), this belief on the part of the actors was NOT true; minority and white actors appeared in the same percentages of lead and supporting characters. That said…2003 was eleven years ago, an eternity in Hollywood, and that may have changed since then.

26 03 2015
j

And, of course, whenever the race card comes up, the token argument is always about blacks, no other ethnicities.

7 11 2016
Shasay

Also, it’s hard and impossible to find out through SAG and AFTRA of the total number of actor’s employed by various age ranges… How many employed per age range 20 to 30 year olds, 50 to 60 year olds, etc.? SAG and AFTRA are also silent about this and that information should be available to it’s members – as well as to the public.

30 10 2014
Joan

You fail to account for the 100,000s of non-union actors doing film, TV and commercials in LA. That number is far bigger than the SAG/AFTRA union membership

29 01 2015
Mary McDonald-Lewis

Your numbers are not accurate in terms of union actors in LA/NY/The Regions outside of these two markets.

29 01 2015
hsapien

Mary,

At the time this post was written (now approaching three years ago), those were the best figures available; the official ones reported by the unions (when they were separate), and the estimates I most trusted for overlap. The other figures, as noted in the post, were speculation and educated guessed based on general consensus within the industry, as I was familiar with it. If you have more up-to-date figures, or better estimates, I am always happy to hear them!

26 10 2015
1 11 2015
22 01 2016
In the Big Leagues | Invading Nirvana

[…] to one source- this nice fellow named Scott Frank, who did all the legwork for me on this question- there are approximately 108,640 union actors living in the Los Angeles […]

25 02 2016
Deeper Perception Made Practical » Aura Reading Movie Review Starring Mark RuffaloDeeper Perception Made Practical

[…] many actors are there? In Hollywood alone, there are an estimated 21, 728 actors and actresses. BTW, according to America’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for an […]

20 08 2016
noone

I’d like to know how many actors actually make a secure living at it for the rest of their lives. Maybe a thousand?

17 09 2016
Filip Subocz

Maybe only 20% are working at any time, because I mean for example the “Hollywood” is of course mostly movie actors, but also some thousands for series or?! I know many good working series produced in North American are made in Canada or other US areas…

But especially the “large” and high-budget series are made in Hollywood in most cases?

They bring extreme much to the GDP of California and far more in % to the per capita GDP in Los Angeles Area… over 100,000 actors with over 21,000 active at any time actors, some hundred at least do real hardcore cash, so in Hollywood, Malibu etc. many housing units are directly at the beach but are also completely isolated from the “normal” area, its a private territory with its own armed (pistol, maybe weapon chamber with assaulf rifles?!) security, own gasoline stations (2 as far as I saw in one documentary), every car enterning is checked for a “passing card”,

if you are one of the hollywood stars which live in one of these, they are known and can pass, but B or A— Actors live there too, they need to show a special card to show “I live here, its ok”, but for a (I think Wal-Mart, Germany and Japan were one of the very very few countries were we did not accept Wal-Mart system, lol and Japan, Axis states 😛 Never saw it like that,

but I do not care if a guy puts my products into a brown paper-bag… I use the usual large PET (or another plastic) bags, and than bring it out my self, there they do not only put (if you wish…or lets say if you clearly do not say you dont wish) the goods into bags, they also bring it to your car and they get a small Gratuity, I do not know, poorest member of such stations maybe give only 2 or 3 notes of 1 US-$ each? Others give 5, 10 or maybe even 20 US-$ for the very best paid actors, since these Gratuaties,

a bad month without makes maybe (I do not know whats the minimum there), but lets say from 9,50 US-$ a hour minimum… so if they get for 8 or 10 hours working only gratuity like 20 US-$ its low, but well, they won’t suffer hungry… but I think it will be far over 100 US-$ gratuity per day, I guess in the US you have to pay taxes on these too…

However the “basic” yearly living cost I think everybody knows (electricity costs for public areas, heating for public areas, green area costs to keep it low or looking nice), there is a special entry for “goods”, the stations are delivered by tank waggons, which in US law can be very different since it is no problem to drive with a larger tank waggon put to the “Truck”, but sometimes another “small” waggon is added additionally, depends on way, because it makes corners etc. very difficult, but with Small-Large you can reach a bit over ~35,000 liter, with Long-Long over 56,000 liter (Density for oil products is around 0,800kg/L…. means 10,000 liters are “only” around 8,000 kilogramm! So the 56,000 liters are far below 50,000 kg or 50 tons)

All these fuel waggons, food waggons, luxury good wagons enter there! Isolated or not, since even German and of course US/Asian car companies have stores in the large “camps”, they really increase the GDP and create some jobs maybe, for the drivers which bring the goods in, the guys which have business outside and are called for any repair works etc……

Californias GDP would be lower per capita even though it is by far the largest state by population, and California as a single state would be quite high in population rankings….), but however they help really to create/hold strong economic activity in the area….

21 10 2016
Steven Frank

People believe there are a lot morr than recorded on this reference!

23 12 2016
How To Keep Your Hollywood Dream Alive – Michelle Penelope King

[…] and anthropologist Scott Frank, from Hollywood Sapien estimates that on average there are just over 100,000 actors in Hollywood at any one time but only […]

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