The SAG Awards celebrate their 20th anniversary this year, and it has grown to become one of the most star-studded events, as well as a good bellwether for Oscar nominations. But when the first ceremony was held in 1995, it looked very different from the current affair.
Kathy Connell, executive producer of the SAG Awards, has produced the show from the very beginning. At the inception of the awards, she was the national recording secretary of the Screen Actors Guild and served on its board. “For years, the union had wanted to do something similar to what the Directors Guild and Writers Guild does,” Connell says. “We have a very large membership and we didn’t want to use any dues money for it. So it wasn’t until we had the opportunity to do a television show that there was a way of underwriting the ballot.”
Connell says a group of five board members — Daryl Anderson, Toey Caldwell, Paul Napier, Yale Summers and Connell — sat down and asked all the questions they thought were important: “What are we giving awards for? Who gets to vote? What’s the statue? How do we do nominations? How do we send ballots to the membership?”
From the beginning, she knew they wanted to have an ensemble category; the TV ensemble award was presented the first year and the second year, a film ensemble category was added. “It represented what the union is about. We work as a team.”
The first year, the show was held on Stage 12 at Universal Studios. “It was considerably smaller, as was the red carpet,” Connell says. In 1996, they moved to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium; since 1997, it’s been held at the Shrine Auditorium, where more than 700 media outlets are credentialed to cover the massive red carpet.
Some things that have never changed: The show, which airs on TNT and TBS, has never had a host, and winner speeches are not cut off. Also, the show has always featured a prominent actor telling a personal story ending with “I’m an actor.” Since the ninth show, it has had multiple actors. But originally, the actors told the story from the stage. “At the ninth show, we started doing it from the house,” Connell says. “That has become a signature; we never announce who it’s going to be, not even people at their own table know.”
Other notable changes: A few years ago, producers decided the ensemble nominees would be introduced by actors from the film. “It became a very personal introduction,” says Connell. Also, a stunt category for film and TV was added in 2007. And of course a few years ago SAG merged with AFTRA to form one union.
Over the years, Connell says, “We’ve brought in more and more sponsors that support the SAG Foundation,” SAG’s non-profit organization. This year, two longtime sponsors — Entertainment Industry Foundation and People Magazine — have pledged $1 million to SAG Foundation in honor of the show’s 20th anniversary.
“As with anything you attempt to grow slowly and strong,” she says. “That has been our goal: to grow but make sure we’re doing it in a way that’s organic.”
SAG Awards Highlights
A glimpse at significant moments in the show’s 20-year history:
1995: The inaugural SAG Awards are held at Universal Studios
1996: An ensemble category is added for film casts
1997: The SAG Awards move to the Los Angeles Shrine Exposition Center, which has remained their home ever since
1998: The SAG Awards air for the first time on TNT, which has continued to telecast the show since. In 2006, TBS began to broadcast the show, as well
2008: Categories are added to honor stunt ensembles in TV and film