'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Cast Deemed Ineligible for SAG Awards (Exclusive)

2012-05 REV Beasts of the Southern Wild H
Ben Richardson

Says THR film critic Todd McCarthy: At the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, there was "Beasts of the Southern WIld" and then there was everything else."

Beasts of the Southern Wild, the critically acclaimed indie drama that Fox Searchlight is positioning as a major awards contender, has been ruled ineligible for the Screen Actors Guild Awards because it was not made under the terms of SAG-AFTRA's Low Budget Feature Agreement, which mandates the use of professional actors.

The move throws a small roadblock in front of the film's Oscar chances because the SAG Awards sometimes mirror the Academy's selections. However, the history of the SAG Awards suggests Searchlight still has a strong chance to get this film and its cast of unknowns some major Oscar attention. 

Director Benh Zeitlin, out of financial necessity (he had a budget of just $1.3 million) and a desire for the greatest possible sense of authenticity (his film revolves around eccentric characters who populate a remote part of America's Gulf Coast) instead used locals who had never acted before and therefore were not SAG members. The stars of the film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, are a 6-year-old schoolgirl (Quvenzhane Wallis) and a fortysomething local baker (Dwight Henry). Neither will be eligible for SAG Awards, nor will the cast be eligible for the best ensemble nod, which is SAG-AFTRA's equivalent of a best picture award.

PHOTOS: Cannes With Michael Haneke, Mads Mikkelsen and 'Beyond the Hills'

It is theoretically possible to retroactively bring a film into compliance with SAG-AFTRA's Low Budget Feature Agreement, but doing so for Beasts would require that not only its domestic distributor, Fox Searchlight, provide additional payment to the film's actors but also that all of the various other companies that are distributing the film internationally do the same. Some of them might feel less inclined to pony up additional cash in return for the mere possibility of SAG nominations.

Zeitlin says he has no regrets about the way he cast his film. "Against all logic and planning, two incredible first-time actors won the lead roles in Beasts," he tells The Hollywood Reporter via e-mail. "I'm positive they both have long and amazing acting careers in front of them." (In other words, SAG-AFTRA can expect to get two new members thanks to Beasts.)

Q&A: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild's' Benh Zeitlin on Festival Insanity, the Film's Overseas Reception and Directing Child Actors

Almost all of the guilds issue end-of-the-year awards, but some are stricter about their eligibility requirements than others. The Writers Guild of America, for instance, disqualifies a large number of top Oscar contenders each year from consideration for its WGA Awards for failing to meet its standards. SAG-AFTRA, on the other hand, rarely does the same, according to industry insiders. Indeed, SAG-AFTRA is generally pretty accommodating; performances in films that were shot abroad, for instance, are not penalized, because they were not made within SAG-AFTRA's jurisdiction.

Over the 17 years in which they have been presented, the SAG Awards -- which are voted upon by thousands of actors, the same constituency that forms the largest branch of the Academy -- have been an important launching pad for many films and people who subsequently went on to receive Oscar nominations. But the lack of SAG nominations, even for films that were eligible for them, has not always represented a kiss of death for a contender.

Indeed, 64 instances performances that were not nominated for a SAG Award still went on to score an Oscar nomination. That group includes Marcia Gay Harden in Pollock (2000), who went on to win the best supporting actress Oscar; Julie Christie in Afterglow (1997), who went on to receive a best actress Oscar nom; Sean Penn and Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown (1999), who went on to receive best actor and best supporting actress Oscar noms, respectively; Laura Linney in The Savages (2007), who went on to receive a best actress Oscar nom; Javier Bardem in Biutiful (2010), who went on to receive a best actor Oscar nom; and Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider (2002), who, at 13, became the youngest best actress Oscar nominee in history. (Wallis would break Castle-Hughes's record if she is nominated; she will be 9 years old on Oscar night.)

SUNDANCE REVIEW: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Just last year, three performances that were snubbed by SAG were nominated by the Academy: Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for best actor; Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for best actress; and Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for best supporting actor.

So the ineligibility of Beasts at the SAG Awards might not prove to be a great setback the film's Oscar prospects. In fact, the coverage of its absence might even win it more attention than it otherwise would have had. Every year produces at least one darling of the indie circuit that winds up with several major Oscar nominations -- recent examples being The Tree of Life (2011), Winter's Bone (2010), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Juno (2007) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Beasts still could be that film this year.