The Sundance breakout “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has been deemed ineligible for the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the newly-merged SAG-AFTRA union has been portrayed in numerous news reports as something of a beast itself, intent on devouring an adorable child actor’s hopes of an adorable award season victory lap. In truth, the labor union appears to be willing to bend some rules in order to help “Beasts of The Southern Wild” qualify for SAG Awards nominations.
The sleeper hit about a plucky, desperately poor little girl living in a mythical southern wetland enclave became an instant darling of critics and art house fans, largely due to breathtaking performances by its unknown leads. Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, who play Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, were both untrained amateurs when they were cast in “Beasts”: Wallis, then age five, responded to a local casting call, and Henry, who owned a bakery across from the film’s production office, caught the attention of the crew, who eventually convinced him to audition. Oscar buzz has surrounded Wallis since Benh Zeitlin’s feature debut premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and concerns have been raised about how the SAG Awards disqualification may impact how “Beasts of the Southern Wild” fares at the Academy Awards.
Some reports of the film’s ineligibility have presented those involved with the production as victims of SAG-AFTRA’s excessively punctilious guidelines, blaming the disqualification squarely on the amateur status of its principal actors.
A report in the Guardian characterized the film’s SAG Awards ineligibility as a “ban” and concluded that “it does not always pay to be innovative.”
On the blog Artinfo, a headline reads, “’Beasts of the Southern Wild’ Ineligible for SAG Awards Due to Arbitrary Technicality.” The article claims that the film was disqualified because the producers “did not sign a paper.”
It’s a bit more involved than signing a paper, but amateur actors can, in fact, qualify for a SAG Awards honor, assuming the production has met SAG-AFTRA guidelines -- and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” still has a chance of doing that. Kathy Connell, executive producer of the SAG Awards, explained in a statement earlier this week:
"'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is currently ineligible for SAG Awards nominations consideration as it does not meet the requirements stated in Section One of our rules and regulations, which states: 'Motion pictures and television or cable productions made within SAG-AFTRA’s jurisdiction must be signatory to a Screen Actors Guild (“SAG”) or American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (“AFTRA”) or a SAG-AFTRA collective bargaining agreement.' The producers have until Oct. 25 to bring the film under compliance to make the actors eligible for consideration. It is their choice whether or not to do so. We hope they do."
In order to bring the film into compliance, its producers would have to meet the conditions of two key contracts -- something that, as Entertainment Weekly pointed out, they don’t seem to be in any hurry to do. (Requests for comment from the production company were not returned.)
The SAG-AFTRA Agreement For Low Budget Theatrical Motion Pictures states that a production must have a total budget of less than $2.5 million (higher if the production “has demonstrated diversity in casting”) and that principal actors must be paid a day rate of $504. “Beasts of The Southern Wild” was produced on an estimated $1.8 million budget; it is unknown how much the actors were paid. Filmmakers seeking to produce a film under a SAG-AFTRA contract must also submit an additional form called a Taft-Hartley Report for performers who are not currently SAG-AFTRA members.
“The idea that the picture is ineligible because the children were not professional performers is bizarre,” Ray Rodriguez, SAG-AFTRA’s assistant national executive director for contracts, said in a statement. “There is nothing in the contract that prohibits a producer from hiring a nonunion member or nonprofessional performer.”
In a phone interview, Rodriguez addressed any possible penalties “Beasts of the Southern Wild” might face based on the conditions set forth in the Taft-Hartley Report. Though the contract dictates that the form must be submitted within 15 days of the first employment of a nonmember, Rodriguez insisted the production would not be penalized for failing to meet that deadline. “If we are signing this picture retroactively, we are not going to be fining people for submitting the form late,” he said.
The Taft-Hartley Report also includes a qualifier that reads: “Employer is aware of General Provision ... that applies to Theatrical and Television production, wherein Preference of Employment shall be given to qualified professional actors. ... Employer will pay to SAG-AFTRA, as liquidated damages, the sums indicated for each breach by the Employer of any provision of those sections.” A representative for SAG-AFTRA said that preference of employment does not apply to actors under the age of 18 -- meaning that casting Wallis, who was six years old during filming, would not have represented a breach. The representative did not have enough information at the time of the interview to determine whether or not the casting of Dwight Henry might be in violation of the General Provision but confirmed that the production would have faced a maximum penalty of $800 for any adult performer who worked a significant number of days (e.g., a lead performer) if the preference of employment clause were to apply. Again, the union said it would not impose fines if the production were to retroactively seek compliance with the agreement.
“Beasts” producers could face a weightier obstacle relating to the working conditions of Wallis and other child performers. In order to become signatory with the SAG-AFTRA agreement, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” would also have had to adhere to extensive SAG-AFTRA provisions for minor performers. Among these provisions are an eight-hour workday cap and on-set school instruction if the minor works more than three consecutive days -- paid for by the production. It is unknown whether these guidelines were met.
For now, the logistical and financial difficulties of retroactively paying the principal cast SAG-AFTRA scale rates are being cited as the primary roadblock to SAG Awards eligibility. As the Guardian pointed out, “the financial burden would fall on U.S. distributor Fox Searchlight, UK distributor Studio Canal, and their various international counterparts, all of whom are unlikely to be interested in paying more funds into a movie whose rights they have already purchased.”
Reached by email, a representative for Studio Canal declined to comment, and Fox Searchlight did not respond to an inquiry further beyond reiterating a previously released statement:
"Beasts of the Southern Wild won over our entire team the moment it screened in Park City. We were taken away by Behn Zeitlin’s vision, skill and craft and by indelible performances by Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry. ... We appreciate and honor the spirit in which the film was produced and the way it was made; it's truly an original.”
Numerous reports have cited previous instances of actors who did not receive a SAG Awards nomination but who went on to receive Oscar nods; indeed, it seems very unlikely that “Beasts of the Southern Wild” will be forgotten when it comes time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to cast their ballots. But, as the Academy counts a large number of actors among its membership, will some voters hesitate to reward a production that may not compensate its performers as well as it could have? We will find out on Jan. 10 , when the 2013 Oscar nominations will be announced.