Star-powered telecast attracts audiences

Awards ceremonies might be multiplying like films fests, but one thing that distinguishes the Screen Actors Guild’s annual kudofest is its focus on the cream of the crop: the stars. Say what you will about who makes the movies, but it’s the celebrities for whom most viewers tune in, and in this regard, SAG holds all the cards.

“My feeling is that every time you have actors awarding actors, it’s going to feel special to the audience,” says producer Scott Rudin, whose “The Hours” received four SAG noms in 2003. “For an award that’s only been around for a few years, they’ve taken on a tremendous importance.”

By actors, for actors: it could be the official tagline of the SAG Awards, with some 98,000 active members voting in the final round of balloting. It’s also what has helped to give the show buoyancy in a very crowded field. With its all-celebs-all-the-time hook, it’s a wonder the SAG awards haven’t dated back beyond 1995, when the guild to decided to honor its own.

Previously, SAG presented only an annual lifetime achievement prize. Nine years later, the show is arguably more prominent than ever, and they’ve thrived while other newcomers (like the nascent American Film Institute kudos) have failed to ignite.

It’s also another chance for studios and distributors alike to gather momentum for the Academy Awards, since the March 9 ceremony falls a mere nine days before the AMPAS polls close — the peak of Oscar voting. And since actors make up the majority of Academy voters, the SAG awards are a strong harbinger of things to come.

As an Oscar bellwether, Miramax must find the SAG Awards a particularly ringing endorsement of its own accomplishments, since in addition to co-producing “The Hours” with Paramount, its “Chicago” leads all films with five nominations. Both pics are in the running for SAG’s outstanding cast of a theatrical motion picture category (along with “Adaptation,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “The Two Towers”).

“We are very proud of that award,” says Kathy Connell, who has produced the awards ceremony since its inception, of the ensemble kudos. “No one else had given one when SAG started, and it really epitomizes what every actor knows, which is that we don’t work alone, we work together.”

The awards stand apart in other respects, too. Performers must submit themselves for consideration in specific categories before they can be nominated (a novel but somewhat snafu-laden system that has resulted in such anomalies as Jennifer Connelly’s lead actress nomination for “A Beautiful Mind” last year and Benicio Del Toro’s lead actor win for “Traffic” in 2001).

The statuettes (called Actors) are a reserved bronze in contrast to so much glittery gold. “And they’re the least susceptible to campaigning of all the major awards,” offers Rudin. “They have their own particular integrity that’s pretty terrific.”

The timing of the SAG nominations is crucial even in the ealrlier stages of awards eason. Coming more than a full month after the announcement of the Golden Globe noms (and in the final few days of Oscar nominating), a SAG nod (or two) can be a boon to a film or thesp — think Christopher Walken and Salma Hayek — that thus far might have maintained a relatively low awards.

“It’s very important, not just on its own terms, but because actors make up the numerical majority of the Academy membership,” points out “Lord of the Rings” executive producer Mark Ordesky. “SAG can be a strong bellwether in terms of performances that they’re enthusiastic about.”

Indeed, in their brief history, the SAG Awards have been rivaled only by the Golden Globes in forecasting the Academy Awards. In their four overlapping categories, more than 60% of SAG winners have gone on to Oscar glory. SAG wins may also have the tide for some eventual Oscar winners — among them Robin Williams (“Good Will Hunting”) and Roberto Benigni (“My Life Is Beautiful”) — who began as dark horses in their respective races.

But is all that enough to fully distinguish the SAG Awards from that furious blur of other award season kudofests?

For producer Harry Gittes (whose “About Schmidt” received two SAG nods), the answer is yes.

“I think the SAG Awards are enormously important, just as I think the WGA and DGA awards are important, in terms of the perception of your film. Perception sometimes means more than reality. What would have made a big difference is if we hadn’t gotten any SAG nominations. You see these awards sometimes in terms of the hurt they can cause you rather than the help they can give you.

“They’re are all skirmishes or battles that you have to go through and be triumphant in one way or another to get into the big war at the end, which is the run for the Oscar.”

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