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SAG versus the Oscars: Actors union goes public in awards show dispute with the film academy

SAG versus the Oscars: Actors union goes public in awards show dispute with the film academy
Presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty give Guillermo del Toro his Oscar for best picture for "The Shape of Water" during the telecast of the 90th Academy Awards. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

With less than six weeks to go before the 91st Oscars, the film academy remains tight-lipped about its plans for the show and whether it will have a host or not.

But on Monday, the SAG-AFTRA performers guild said the motion picture academy has been active on the awards show front, accusing the organization of using intimidation in an attempt to limit actors from presenting on awards shows other than the Oscars.

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"We have received multiple reports of these activities and have experienced firsthand the Academy’s graceless pressure tactics and attempts to control the awards show talent pipeline,” the statement read, going on to accuse the academy of “self-serving intimidation” to keep its members from presenting at the SAG Awards ceremony.

The motion picture academy did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson told The Times late Monday that the union had reached out to the academy and was “talking with our member leaders to determine next steps.”

Megan Mullally is set to host the SAG Awards on Jan. 27. However, no presenters have yet been announced for the ceremony.
Megan Mullally is set to host the SAG Awards on Jan. 27. However, no presenters have yet been announced for the ceremony. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The public accusation lays bare an awards season open secret — despite being the last ceremony on the calendar, the Academy Awards want first pick of the stars.

Speaking on background, so as not to jeopardize their clients’ relationships with the motion picture academy, several personal publicists said this kind of strong-arming has been going on for years, particularly with regard to the Golden Globes.

“The academy makes it pretty clear that you have to choose,” said one high-profile publicist, who fields these kinds of calls annually, “and if you choose the Globes, the only way you’ll be onstage at the Oscars is if you win an award.”

Last year, for example, Oscar winner Halle Berry presented at the Globes and the SAG Awards, but not the Academy Awards. Emma Stone presented at all three ceremonies, but that came from tradition as the prior year’s winners (Stone had swept through the 2016-17 season for her lead turn in “La La Land”) typically are invited back to present at the following ceremony. (Casey Affleck, who settled sexual harassment cases brought against him by two women in 2010, bowed out of last year’s #MeToo-defined Oscars telecast.)

“It’s not an unusual request,” another publicist added, “but, by going public, SAG-AFTRA is acting like it’s something new. It reminds me of that quote from ‘The Godfather’: 'This is business, not personal.’”

Some years, there’s overlap among presenters, particularly if actors are nominated for awards at multiple shows. And scheduling conflicts often make the choice easy. Margot Robbie, for example, declined an offer to present at the Globes this year because she was in pre-production as producer and star in the DC Comics movie “Birds of Prey.” Robbie will be presenting an award at the Oscars.

But even if the jockeying for stars is business as usual, the unusually public SAG-AFTRA accusation is just the latest in a long line of public relations headaches for the motion picture academy.

Emma Stone was one of the few stars to present at the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards and the Oscars last year.
Emma Stone was one of the few stars to present at the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards and the Oscars last year. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Last month, Kevin Hart stepped down from hosting the Oscars after his selection came under fire when old homophobic tweets and jokes resurfaced. Ratings for the Oscars telecast have been steadily declining, with last year’s show, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, reaching an all-time low audience of 26.5 million viewers.

“There has been a real concern within the academy for the past several years that the Oscars are becoming an afterthought,” a person who has worked on film academy committees told The Times on condition of anonymity, as the person is not authorized to speak for the group.

“You have this parade of awards shows — the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, the SAG Awards — all televised, all happening before the Oscars, where, by and large, the same set of people win the same awards. The Oscars have to do something. Otherwise, they’re going to become increasingly irrelevant.”

The academy has already taken one concrete step in that regard, moving the 2020 Oscars up two weeks, to Feb. 9. This year, the Academy Awards telecast is set for Feb. 24.

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“You think the competition between shows is bad now? Just wait until next year,” predicts one publicist.

The SAG Awards, which, like the Golden Globes, honor both film and television, will be held Jan. 27 at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, airing on TNT and TBS. Megan Mullally was announced as host in December. Presenters have yet to be revealed.

Staff writer David Ng contributed to this story.

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