'Selma' Sequel? Awards Season's Early Deadlines Force a Rush to Judgment

Oscar hopefuls like Quentin Tarantino's 'Hateful Eight,' Alejandro G. Inarritu's 'Revenant' and David O. Russell's 'Joy' could be penalized by guilds that begin picking their favorites in mid-November, creating the potential for a 'Selma'-like snub.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

As Labor Day and the unofficial start of the movie awards season kicks off with the one-two punch of the Venice and Telluride festivals, the strategists who plot Oscar campaigns anxiously are looking at the calendar. With the Labor Day weekend arriving late this year and the Hollywood guilds starting their nomination process earlier, the time crunch is on. And there's a fear that movies that aren't scheduled to open until late in the year could pay a price — particularly in snaring nominations for the SAG Awards.

Such major awards hopefuls as Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight (from The Weinstein Co.), Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman follow-up The Revenant (Fox), David O. Russell's Joy (also from Fox), Oliver Stone's Snowden (Open Road) and Peter Landesman's Concussion (Sony) all are scheduled to open Dec. 25. But unless the filmmakers involved can complete their movies and begin screening them for the guilds by mid-November, they could be shut out when SAG Awards nominations are announced Dec. 9.

The leading guilds — SAG-AFTRA, the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America and the other unions — all shape the Oscar race. And, like the Academy, they ostensibly consider any film released during the calendar year, up until Dec. 31. But in reality, the three majors start their voting much earlier. This year, the PGA begins its nominating process Dec. 8, the DGA kicks it off Dec. 2, and SAG-AFTRA starts the earliest of all — it sends out its first ballots on Nov. 18, before Thanksgiving. And while the PGA and the DGA have nomination deadlines of Jan. 4 and Jan. 11, respectively, SAG-AFTRA cuts off its nomination process Dec. 7, well before year's end.

Last year, many observers believe Selma paid the price of the rush to judgment. Despite accumulating considerable buzz by the time the guild noms were announced, it failed to register major noms with any of them. While some blamed Paramount for failing to mail screeners to guild voters, the distributor said its hands were tied: Writer-director Ava DuVernay locked the film only just before its Dec. 25 release, making it impractical to manufacture and mail screeners to guild members before their various nominating deadlines. Selma ultimately scored only two Oscar nominations (and won for original song).

On occasion, a late arrival, like 2010's True Grit and 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street, has managed to squeeze into theaters at the very end of the year and secure a major guild nom. But they had the benefit of big stars — Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges in Grit, Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf — to ensure attention. Selma star David Oyelowo and DuVernay were not automatic lures, so it was harder to get voters to check out the movie early at the few industry screenings that preceded its release.

In the wake of the criticism that greeted the Selma snubs, some hoped the guilds would reconsider their timetables. But that's not been the case. In fact, this year, SAG-AFTRA and the DGA are beginning the process earlier than last year. "We work closely with the studios and networks throughout the year to explore every opportu­nity for our members to view performances before voting," insists SAG Awards rep Rosalind Jarrett Sepulveda. She says the early nomination period is needed in order to guarantee enough time for final balloting to take place — that includes printing and mailing voting information to SAG-AFTRA's voting members (who numbered 111,228 last year), then giving the membership-at-large time to catch up on all the nominated films (which, in the case of the SAG Awards, are decided by nominating committees). "The longer the time between nominations and close of [final] voting, the better," she adds.

If it all feels rushed, the guilds point their finger at the Academy, which, in 2004, moved the traditional date for its Oscar broadcast from late March or early April to late February or early March. (The 2016 Oscar show is set for Feb. 28.) That led the other groups to move up their own ceremonies to stay in front of the Academy Awards.

But now any distributor debating whether to launch a late-entry contender — as Warners did in 2004, when it dropped the eventual Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby into the race in December — are likely to think twice. This year, for example, Paramount has no major contenders in play, but it does have high hopes for The Big Short, a drama about the Great Recession that stars Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell. Nearing completion, the movie has been penciled in for a 2016 release, and after the studio's frustrating Selma experience, it's hard to imagine Paramount trying to sneak another film into this year's contest so late in the game.