As an important precursor to the Oscar race, the feature helmers category always casts a large shadow at the DGA Awards.
It’s easy to forget that a sizable portion of the Directors Guild of America’s rank and file is made up by those who helm TV shows. And because of that, the tube categories are hardly an afterthought.
In fact, for TV directors, the Emmys — which are voted on by a much more widely dispersed swath of industry pros, featuring everyone from actors to writers to network execs — have nothing on a DGA trophy.
“To me, (the DGA) is the best award,” says Bryan Gordon, up this year for directing “The 5 Wood” episode of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — a series installment that also garnered him an Emmy nom last year.
“There really is nothing like your peers accepting you and championing what you do,” Gordon adds.
Certainly, a DGA nod means enough for tube helmers to actually seek out such kudos for themselves.
To be considered for a DGA award, TV directors — not studios or networks — submit their own best work for the calendar year. Entries are made in October and placed on a ballot, from which the nominees are culled.
Directors are allowed to submit one entry per category, which means that prolific helmers often have to make tough choices.
Arlene Sanford, who received her first DGA nom this year for directing ABC’s rookie hit “Desperate Housewives,” says she was torn between two eligible episodes of the show.
“Ultimately, I went with the one that was funniest because (the series) was in the comedy category,” Sanford says. Since the episode, “Pretty Little Picture,” had gotten a lot of press attention (actress Teri Hatcher appears naked in a memorable scene) it would be easy for voters to remember which episode it was, Sanford adds.
The DGA’s entire 12,000-strong membership — TV, film and commercial helmers all included — votes on both the drama and comedy series categories, as well as movie and variety/special. (Nominees for other TV categories — including soaps and kids’ programs — are chosen by specialized committees comprising past nominees and others working in that category.)
Because of the large volume of episodic TV each year — the drama and comedy categories each get hundreds of entries — it’s impossible for voters to watch every episode.
“We give very strict instructions to our membership that they should only cast a vote in a category where they have viewed (a large number of) the entries,” says Marcel Giacusa, the DGA’s awards administrator. “We don’t encourage our members to just vote. We are adamant about them watching the episodes.”
Once the noms are set, winners for all the DGA’s TV categories are chosen by panels made up of guild members working in that category.
The panel members watch and discuss the nominated episodes, then cast their votes, which are tabulated by a certified public accounting firm.
After submitting their own entries in many cases, directors have the difficult task of voting on their colleagues’ work, and every helmer applies their own standards.
In series TV, where helmers are most often charged with executing on a creator/exec producer’s existing concepts, voters say they look for a director who can leave his or her own mark. And series that allow for that kind of individual statement have an advantage.
“I tend to skip shows that are more or less formula, whereby the director is expected to follow a template with strict boundaries,” says one DGA voter. “Not that these aren’t worthy of respect, but they are less about the process of visualizing the story and using style to convey subtext. When you watch these shows, it almost doesn’t matter who is directing because they all look the same.”
“I’m always looking for false notes or phony emotional performances,” adds Charles McDougall, also up for a comedy award for “Desperate Housewives” this year, having directed the pilot episode. “When directors do well, they can knock out any sense of fake dramatic moments.”
The fact that ABC execs will have several “dramatic moments” when DGA Award winners are announced Saturday is cause for celebration for a network that had been kudo-challenged for years leading up to this season.
Not only are two episodes of “Desperate Housewives” featured in the comedy series category, but another rookie Alphabet series, “Lost,” has its pilot episode tapped in drama.
The show’s creator, J.J. Abrams, directed that installment. His nom is the network’s first in drama since “NYPD Blue” won in 1998.
“It’s a great statement for ABC in terms of the pedigree of the stuff we’re going to be doing,” says ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson.
Besides the prestige value, he says DGA kudos serve as a calling card for successful TV helmers to come work with ABC and its sibling production company, Touchstone TV.
“Hopefully, when the network is doing quality work and being recognized for it, you get quality people — who might not otherwise sign up for your shows — wanting to work with you.”