Early SAG-AFTRA Deadlines Skew Oscar Process

With films still left to be seen and even completed, voters have ballots in hand as of tomorrow.

The Oscars may be more than three months away, but tomorrow ballots will go out to the roughly 2,300 members of SAG-AFTRA’s nominating committee, who will then decide on the names to be considered for the 22nd annual Screen Actors Guild Awards. That’s two weeks before the writers and directors guilds, next on the list of industry groups to vote this season. The early date drives awards consultants — and maybe a few filmmakers — crazy, creating a process that absolutely favors movies that come out earlier in the season, one consultant told me. But can anything be done about it?

A handful of movies always miss the deadline for sending screeners to the SAG nominating committee because they come together late in the year. While this can often be mitigated by the screening circuit in New York and Los Angeles, the randomly selected committee is spread across the country. That doesn’t mean screenings can’t be set up for far-flung members, but the degree of difficulty grows for films wrapping in the eleventh hour.

Worse, the pressure of an early deadline can affect the work. Consider a movie like David O. Russell’s “Joy” — a film the director has been struggling to find in the editing room, according to multiple sources — suddenly facing a cut-off far removed from its late-December theatrical release. Sure, these are professionals. Deadlines are a regularity in this business, and indeed, they can often spark inspiration. But who wants to force the creative process just to meet an awards schedule?

Every year there are films — from “Django Unchained” to “The Wolf of Wall Street” to “Selma” — that miss representation at the SAG Awards, yet manage Oscar nominations anyway. But wouldn’t it be easier if SAG-AFTRA just pushed things back to be more in line with other guild calendars, with nominations announced just after the new year?

Part of the issue is a late-January awards show that has to be prepared and produced for television. But with ballots due back on Dec. 7, and nominations announced on Dec. 9, that leaves nearly eight weeks to get things in order — two weeks more than Oscarcast producers have to prepare for the annual Academy Awards after nominations are announced. The holidays generally do grind the process to a halt for a week or two, but the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., by comparison, manages to mount a January show in half the time during this frame, with nominations announced mid-December and the group’s Critics’ Choice Awards airing mid-January.

Nevertheless, SAG Awards spokesperson Rosalind Jarrett Sepulveda insisted it’s just not possible to push the timetable. That’s why the guild annually gives everyone a big heads up by announcing key deadlines in February (indeed, just two days after “Birdman” flew out of the Dolby Theater with the best picture Oscar in tow earlier this year). Moreover, she noted, SAG-AFTRA allows, on a case-by-case basis, for secure digital viewing of films not ready to screen by the Nov. 15 deadline. And online voting was instituted a few years ago to help address the crunch of last-minute viewing. “The timing of the now-compressed winter awards season has become challenging for us all,” she added.

And there’s the rub. The decision to move the Oscars from late-March to late-February in 2005 was the seismic event that has shaken SAG-AFTRA and others along the chain. The awards calendar as it exists now becomes significantly impacted by things like the NFL playoffs, the Super Bowl, the Grammy Awards and, every four years, the Winter Olympics. So in mid-November, with a number of films still left to be seen or even completed, industry voters will be sitting with ballots in hand.

Perhaps the question of timing should be aimed at the Academy. But that’s fodder for another column.

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