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SAG Preview: Golden Age of TV Moves in on Film’s Awards Race

From now until Oscar ballots come due, there will be screenings. Oh, will there be screenings.

Screenings in grand theaters with stiff-backed chairs. Screenings in cushy seats and quiet, cozy lairs. Screenings wrapped in the trappings of star-crossed Q&As. Screenings starkly efficient, removing all the glaze.

But as the campaign for film awards surges across Hollywood like a time-lapse sunrise, there’s a shadow intruding on that landscape. If you look up, you can see exactly where it’s coming from: the mountaintop known as peak TV. With both the SAG Awards and Golden Globe Awards incorporating TV categories into their programming, the focus isn’t entirely on just film.

To be an authoritative film awards voter, you have to be committed. And with each passing year, that commitment is tested more and more by the volume of superb — some would say superior — small-screen content.

“You want to (see) everything and don’t have time for it all,” says one veteran industry awards expert. “If you’re a working professional, which I assume most people in the Academy are, you could make the case that the amount of quality television is cutting into the time people have a chance to go to screenings.”

For any awards-contending film, nothing is more important than simply being seen. You can’t win if you don’t play. Inner-circle candidates — determined by an esoteric process of bonafides and buzz — will get their eyeballs, but any film that is an underdog is straining to photo-bomb the big picture.

Dedicated voters, especially those who leave TV for others, will lengthen their slate as much as possible. But how much is possible? You can’t see absolutely everything, and a line must be drawn somewhere.

“If you’re a working professional, you could make the case that the amount of quality television is cutting into the time people have for screenings.”
Awards Guru

This is especially problematic in this era of peak TV, where by the nature of the series format, the number of hours of quality television can quickly outpace the number of hours of quality cinema. Every movie is in some sense an unknown, while with television, once you’ve made the down payment of the first hour of a quality series, your investment keeps generating reliable returns.

So when the night rolls in, and you’re making a choice between venturing through traffic to a screening, popping in a DVD of a fringe awards contender, or slicing through the ever-accessible pie of elite television, which do you choose?

Maybe you phone a friend, or consult a critic.

“Reviews might be more important than ever,” the awards expert says, “because you don’t want to waste 90 minutes or two hours on a movie that gets mixed reviews. If it’s a movie that gets really strong reviews across the board, then you go, ‘I really should watch it.’ ”

And if not?

“Voters are being asked to make a choice: ‘Do I want to watch this episode of ‘Fargo,’ ‘The Leftovers’ or ‘The Affair,’ or do I want to watch this movie that might be good or might not be good?’” the expert asks. “You know what you’re getting (with those shows) — you’re getting a solid hour of television. You put in a movie — maybe you like it, maybe you won’t — and then you just wasted two hours.”

Heaven help you if you’re a football fan during awards season, juggling college bowl season and the NFL playoffs.

SIMULTANEOUS RELEASE: “Beasts of No Nation” can be seen in theaters, but Netflix is also streaming it.

But you know, football has been there for a long while. And just the same, maybe TV’s impact on film awards season isn’t as dramatic as it seems.

For every Netflix, Hulu or Amazon show that has infiltrated our world, there’s an ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC series longing for the audiences of yore. While the number of programs has increased, the cumulative number of hours spent watching TV hasn’t seen the same upswing.

Furthermore, few top shows today run the traditional 22-plus episodes per year. For some series, you can wrap up an entire season of a series in a dedicated weekend of binge watching — maybe even an afternoon.

Put another way, the distraction of TV isn’t entirely new, even if the nature of that distraction has changed.

In addition, the small-screen world still goes into relative hibernation between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, allowing for more focus on cinema. Midseason premieres will still have their day (maybe more so than ever in this era of “don’t you dare air a repeat”), but film has every chance to throw its weight around during the holiday season. Most can wrap up the bulk of their film awards viewing before “Downton Abbey” makes its return to PBS in January.

Perhaps the perfect movie for the current viewership battle between television and film is “Beasts of No Nation,” which premiered simultaneously in limited theaters and on Netflix, making it an Oscar contender with a debut hardly different than an HBO movie. With something like “Beasts,” it’s difficult to tell where the peak TV mountain ends and the awards-season landscape begins.

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