SAG Awards: Scott Feinberg's Predictions

SAG Awards Statuette - H 2016
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SAG Awards Statuette - H 2016

The 22nd annual SAG Awards will get underway at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on Saturday night. How much should Oscar-watchers pay attention to the results? Here's my take.

SAG-AFTRA is the largest union of actors, representing some 160,000 who work across the media. SAG Awards nominees are determined by nominating committees comprised of small percentages of the whole membership. A heavily-courted group of 2,250 actors chose the film nominees and 2,250 actors chose the TV nominees during a voting period that spanned Nov. 18 through Dec. 7, while winners were chosen by the entire membership during a voting period that spanned Dec. 16 through just yesterday, Jan. 29.

The Oscars, meanwhile, are determined by some 7,000 members of the Academy, the largest branch of which is comprised of actors. While not all SAG-AFTRA members belong to the Academy, most members of the actors branch of the Academy belong to SAG-AFTRA, so the SAG Awards offer us a bit of insight into their thinking.

Some SAG Awards, on the film side, have proven to be more predictive than others. The individual acting awards tend to be very prescient. Each of the last three years, all four SAG Award winners went on to win at the Oscars as well. And in the 21 previous years in which those awards have been presented, the Academy differed on best actor only four times; best actress only six times; best supporting actor only eight times; and best supporting actress only seven times.

The best ensemble SAG Award, however, which is regarded as the top SAG honor, has a less stellar track record. It was first presented at the second SAG Awards, and only half of its 20 winners have gone on to win the best picture Oscar. This may be because SAG-AFTRA members approach it differently: some see it as a prize for the best overall cast, others see it as a prize for the best large cast and still others treat it as a best picture award, since there isn't one at the SAG Awards.

Sometimes the best ensemble SAG Award has been the only one to anticipate surprise best picture Oscar winners, such as 1998's Shakespeare in Love and 2005's Crash; other times, as in the cases of 2006's Little Miss Sunshine, 2009's Inglourious Basterds and 2011's The Help, it offered false-positives. Regardless, only one film in two decades has won the best picture Oscar without being at least nominated for the prize, and that was 1995's Braveheart, the first-ever recipient.

It has been deemed almost essential to send hard-copy screeners of a film to all of SAG-AFTRA in order to have a real shot at winning any major SAG Awards prize — especially since doing so propelled Crash to its big win a decade ago. This year, hard-copy screeners were sent to all the members by the distributors of Beasts of No Nation, The Big Short, Room, Spotlight and Straight Outta Compton; meanwhile, the same cannot be said for the distributors of The Revenant and Trumbo, which apparently concluded that doing so was not worth the immense cost and/or would not markedly change their expected results.

So what results might we expect tonight?

The best ensemble nominees are The Big Short and Spotlight, both of which are nominated for the best picture Oscar, as well as Beasts of No Nation (which has the smallest ensemble ever nominated, with just three names), Straight Outta Compton and Trumbo. (For best picture Oscar nominees Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant and Room, the lack of a best ensemble SAG Award nom has to be a little disconcerting in light of the aforementioned Braveheart stat.)

Many see this a three-way race between The Big Short, Spotlight and perhaps Straight Outta Compton, which could benefit from the backlash to its Oscar snub. That's an intriguing possibility, but it has two things working against it: Paul Giamatti is the only "household name" among the Compton cast and, unlike all of the other nominees for best ensemble, it has no individual acting noms. (Only two films ever have won best ensemble without at least one, 1997's The Full Monty and 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.) Did The Big Short get a momentum bump from its win at last weekend's PGA Awards? Perhaps — its cast is certainly the most star-studded, featuring Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell, among others. But my suspicion is that it will be edged out by Spotlight, which was widely regarded as the strongest contender until last weekend, and which has a cast packed with veteran actors from across the media, most of whom are far more relatable to your average SAG-AFTRA member.

As for the individual SAG Award categories? Six of 20 nominated performances were not subsequently recognized with an Oscar nom — those given by Black Mass' lead actor Johnny Depp, Woman in Gold's lead actress Helen Mirren, I Smile Back's lead actress Sarah Silverman, Beasts of No Nation's supporting actor Idris Elba, 99 Homes' Michael Shannon, Room's Jacob Tremblay and Trumbo's supporting actress Mirren — but the other 14 were.

Best supporting actress is the most wide-open category, with any one of its five nominees looking like plausible winners, particularly in the wake of the corresponding Golden Globe Award going to Steve Jobs' Kate Winslet (a three-time SAG Award winner) and Critics' Choice Award going to The Danish Girl's Alicia Vikander (the "It" girl of the moment). However, more voters preferred — and perhaps also saw — the films Spotlight, for which Rachel McAdams is nominated, and Trumbo, with Mirren. And then there's Carol's Rooney Mara. The winner of this SAG Award has gone on to win the Oscar in each of the last seven years. My hunch is that Vikander will extend this streak.

Seven of the last eight best supporting actor SAG Award winners have repeated at the Oscars. I think that streak will be snapped this year, since Creed's Sylvester Stallone, who is not nominated here, is the Oscar favorite, plus many voters will be tempted to champion the wonderful performance by child actor Tremblay, who is my pick. But if The Big Short's Christian Bale manages a win tonight, as is a real possibility, then we will need to take him more seriously as an Oscar threat.

The best actress SAG Award, which has gone to the eventual Oscar winner in five of the last six years, will almost certainly go to Room's Brie Larson, who already has Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards under her belt. The only conceivable spoiler: Brooklyn's also-excellent Saoirse Ronan.

And last, but not least, the best actor SAG Award, which has predicted the best actor Oscar for a remarkable 11 consecutive years, will extend that streak for at least one more year tonight when The Revenant's Leonardo DiCaprio continues his stampede through the Oscar season. Conspiracy theorists will note that DiCaprio has lost all four of his previous individual SAG nominations and that Bryan Cranston, an extremely popular actor whose film also is nominated for the best ensemble prize (unlike Leo's), can give him a run for his money tonight. But I just can't fathom it. If that happens, then anything truly can happen.

Now let's hand out some "Actors!" (Not quite as catchy as "Oscars," but it'll have to do until Feb. 28.)