When it comes to honoring the year’s best thespian achievements, members of the Screen Actors Guild tend not to treat the event as just another excuse to down bubbly and nosh on baby shrimp.
In a three-month period where kudos are distributed faster than Congress handing out subpoenas to Enron execs, the SAG Awards is the only event — besides the Oscars — where actors are voting for one another. That alone raises the credibility bar several notches.
“The Golden Globes has always been a party and the Academy Awards are a bit staid. We’re just about the actors,” says SAG Awards co-producer Yale Summers. “At our show, the actors truly appreciate the people on the stage. It’s a different dynamic.”
And one that has proved to be an excellent Oscar prognosticator. This year, 14 of the 20 SAG noms have been nommed by Oscar voters. Last year, it was 18 of 20.
In what is basically a black-tie gathering of the guild’s most high-profile paying members, it’s the job of exec producer Jeff Margolis to turn this union meeting into an audience-friendly television event.
Margolis has plenty of experience. This will be his fifth go-around making sure everything — from the speed of the food service to the length of the acceptance speeches — runs smoothly.
“Each year I do this I approach it like it’s the first time and that I’m doing it with fresh eyes,” says Margolis.
For this year’s show, which will take place March 10 at the Shrine Exposition Center and will be televised on cabler TNT, Margolis must plan out an agenda that includes 13 awards (five for motion picture, eight for TV), a spotlight on child actors and a life achievement award for Ed Asner, who served as SAG’s president from 1981-85.
Unlike the Oscars, Golden Globes and the inaugural American Film Institute Awards, all which run three hours, the SAG kudos are kept to a relatively tidy 120 minutes.
“That amount of time allows us to do what we want to do,” says co-producer Kathy Connell. “I don’t think there’s an actor who won’t tell you shorter is better.”
There’s also been a decree over the past few years that the program flows better minus a host. Margolis believes that in order to give a host a proper working environment, he or she would need more time than the show can afford.
“We only have two hours and you have to service a host properly,” explains Margolis, an Emmy winner for his direction of the 1995 Oscars. “Most shows book comedians so they can have their moments. We don’t have the time to be fair to a host.”
In charge of what the public will see is director Ron de Moraes, who just returned from Salt Lake City where he directed much of NBC’s Olympics coverage.
That he’s arriving late to the SAG gala isn’t of much concern. Like Margolis, this is de Moraes’ fifth year and the two are often of the same mind when determining the best way to handle both production and direction.
“It’s a very smooth operation,” says a shivering de Moraes from Utah, where the temperature had dipped to 5 degrees. “A lot of the reasons I’d have to be there beforehand and tell him my needs are unnecessary because we’ve honed it to a point where it’s a machine.”
That’s not to say there’s not some tinkering going on and Margolis believes that the best way to come up with ideas is to sit on his couch with a bowl of chips and check out the way the other kudofests come together.
“Watching awards shows is my homework,” says Margolis from his Westwood office. “You see what works and what doesn’t. All the guys that produce these shows are friends and we borrow from each other.”