When the camera pans out over the audience at the Academy Awards, a sea of smiling faces in beaded gowns and tuxedos stares back. But the image of this crowd, like much of what is produced in Hollywood, is a manufactured illusion. Many of those faces are actually those of seat fillers, regular civilians who are granted the opportunity to sit among (and next to) the stars for an evening.
As the actual invited guests move from their seats during commercial breaks to present awards, perform, or go to the restroom, these seat fillers take their places. That way, the crowd always seems full on camera.
Sharing air with the likes of Idris Elba and Nicole Kidman for a couple of hours sounds like a pretty sweet gig, even if it is unpaid. Unfortunately, actually becoming a seat filler is almost entirely incumbent on knowing the right people. Typically, the 300 seat fillers present at the ceremony are either employees of ABC or the Academy, or have connections with those organisations.
Except, of course, if you’re John and Marie Maguire*, who became seat fillers in an extremely unusual way when they were sophomores at UCLA. “We elbowed our way into this thing,” John recalled to Refinery29 on a recent phone call. After reading an article about the seat-filling experience in a local newspaper, the then-20-year-olds decided to send in an unsolicited application. Along with a photo taken during Marie’s sorority formal, the Maguires attached a rhyming, six-verse narrative poem that detailed the story of how they met, and why they wanted to work at the Oscars.
The poem worked, and the Maguires were selected to be seat fillers. Not long after they got the good news, the Maguires received a call from Joseph DiSante, who had been in charge of staffing seat fillers for two decades. “He said in 20 years of doing [the show], he had never had never gotten a better application than ours,” John says.
By 8:00 a.m. on March 25, 1996, the day of the ceremony, John and Marie were at seat fillers’ orientation, dressed in their evening wear. Marie had gotten her hair done at 6:30 a.m., and was dressed a hand-beaded royal blue Oleg Cassini gown, which she’d rented for the evening for $100. John already had a tuxedo he used for musical performances. In order to distinguish themselves from the other lavishly-dressed guests that evening, seat fillers like the Maguires had to wear a badge that said, “I am temporarily filling this seat for camera purposes,” which they removed when filling the seats.
During the orientation and luncheon, the Maguires learned the seat-filling rules that still stand today. “They told us not to speak until we’re spoken to. [That way,] we’re not trying to draw up conversation with [the stars] and infringe upon their time,” Marie said. John corroborated her account. “You’re effectively a butler.” Though John couldn’t resist wishing John Williams, famed composer, luck on his nomination.
There are even rules for how to enter and exit the aisles. “The people that you’re going in front of, and not to have your bottom going in front of their faces,” Marie said.
After reaching the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the Oscars were held from 1969 to 1999, the Maguires were sorted into the chunk of seat fillers assigned to the first 10 rows throughout the evening. Essentially, the prime seats among the A-listers.
Part of the fun, John says, was trying to figure out whose seat they were filling. At one point, the Maguires were sitting near an elderly couple. When Bruce Springsteen began playing "Dead Man Walkin'," their neighbour started shouting, “Brucie!” She was his mother.
Most of the time, the Maguires weren’t making small talk with celebrities — though that did happen. Harry Connick Jr. invited them to an after party, and Nicolas Cage told Marie she had a nice dress. Most of the time, they were on high-alert and working.
The Maguires stressed how active the process of being a seat filler really is. Spotters, who work for the producers, are constantly deploying groups of seat fillers from the wings to the seats. Once seated, seat fillers are on the lookout for when the seats’ proper owner is returning.
The ultimate rule is, all seat fillers must be either in the wings or in a seat when the lights come on, like a game of high-stakes musical chairs. Marie ran into a problem trying to fulfil that golden rule. Due to an error, two seat fillers were assigned to one seat, and the other seat filler got there first. She was stranded in the middle of an aisle while the lights were going on. There was no way she could make it to the wings in time.
“I had to drop, and I happened to drop on Robin Williams’ feet,” Marie recalls with a chuckle. “Robin thought was the funniest thing he had ever seen. He was poking my thigh and back and laughing hysterically about it.” John jumped in to clarify that this was in done in a “playful, polite, and platonic way.”
The Maguires speak about their Academy Awards experience with tremendous warmth — yet they chose to never return as seat fillers. “We had had such a positive experience, and such a high afterwards, that we didn’t want to tarnish it. We just wanted it to be that,” Marie said.
The Maguires’ once-rosy recollection of the 1996 Academy Awards has changed with the recent revelations about sexual misconduct coursing through Hollywood. Marie and John were seated with rapt attention when Kevin Spacey won Best Supporting Actor for The Usual Suspects, and thanked Bryan Singer, who has been accused of sexual assault, in his speech. (Singer has denied the allegations.) They cheered on when Mel Gibson collected both Best Director and Best Picture for Braveheart.
“We were big fans of these people. We were seeing Mel and seeing Kevin. And now I feel they let us down,” John says.
Clearly, while the role of being a seat filler hasn’t changed much since 1996, Hollywood has. The 1996 Academy Awards were the culmination of a conversation around diversity in Hollywood that had been incited two weeks before the ceremony, when People Magazine published an issue with the incendiary headline: “Hollywood Blackout!” The magazine pointed out the Academy Awards’ startling lack of minority inclusion — of the 166 nominees, only one was Black. “The film industry says the right things, but its continued exclusion of African-Americans is a national disgrace," the magazine read.
Landon Jones, the then-editor of People, realised the article was necessary after he attended the 1995 Academy Awards and confronted Hollywood’s homogeneity in a visceral way. “First of all, the audience was entirely white,” Jones told The New Republic. “Then I realised that the seat fillers were entirely white.” Hypothetically, the Academy could have chosen to manufacture the illusion of diversity by hiring seat fillers of colour. But diversity clearly wasn't the Academy's priority.
The article incited a flurry of media coverage, and inspired Jesse Jackson to protest the event. He encouraged Oscar attendees to wear rainbow-coloured ribbons to stand in solidarity with the movement. Jackson wasn’t taken seriously — only 300 protesters showed up, and Whoopi Goldberg derided the ribbons during her opening monologue. Newspapers called it an “epic tactical goof.”
Fast forward to 2016, and, to no one’s surprise, Hollywood still hadn’t become radically more inclusive. A very similar conversation about diversity erupted after, for the second year in a row, no actors of colour were nominated in the acting categories. The topic gained traction under the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.
Compare that to 1996, when the same conversation was playing out, but Jada and Will Smith were very much present. The Maguires recall watching them arrive to their seats just before the ceremony began. Jada was struggling in down the ramp, and they recall Will saying, “I love you honey, but if you fall I’m going to laugh.”
Diversity in Hollywood is far from solved, but the issue is being taken seriously. After 2016, the Academy took steps to diversify its predominantly white and male voting body. In 2017, the Academy gained 774 new voting members — 39% female and 30% non-white. This year's batch of nominees in acting categories aren't all white, either.
But what about the seat fillers? There are no available statistics for who gets chosen to be seat fillers. But as Landon Jones pointed out in a 2016 Time Magazine op-ed, you can look out for the seat fillers while watching the ceremony as a compass of progress.
*names have been changed
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