Grab a seat. Let’s talk about the Oscars. Actually, let’s talk about the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards, and why they’re more important.
#OscarsSoWhite is a tagline you’ve probably been seeing and hearing a lot lately, with the Oscars so deeply entangled in controversy about its lack of diversity that many stars and film fans alike have sworn off this year’s ceremonies entirely. Between all the buzz (both positive and negative) around the Oscar contenders this season, and the quirky urban wisdom that the results of Oscar races can predict the outcomes of presidential elections, the Oscars might feel more culturally urgent than ever. But what do we find when we compare them to the SAG Awards?
Historically, the main claim to fame for the SAG Awards has been that they tend to be pretty close predictors of who will win in the top-shelf categories of the Academy Awards, especially the four acting categories. Performers who snag the SAG Award almost always go on to win the Oscar too. Since the inception of the SAG Awards in 1995, 52 of the 76 Oscar winners for acting won SAG Awards first. But a longer look will tell you that the SAG Awards deserve attention for much more than being Oscar proxies.
It’s arguable that right now, the SAG awards have more credibility than the Oscars. They have certainly done a better job of embracing films fronted by actors and directors of color than Academy voters have. This year’s SAG nominees include Beasts Of No Nation, Straight Outta Compton, and Trumbo, films that have been shut out of the Oscars race despite being lauded by critics, and—in the case of Straight Outta Compton—sparking an electric social phenomenon.
In fact, the SAGs have been better in general at recognizing smaller, more independent projects—such as Beasts Of No Nation and the mini-series Spoils Before Dying—alongside big-budget juggernauts like The Big Short. In an era where outright campaigning by big studios has become a prerequisite for a film or performer to get Oscar recognition, it’s more important than ever that the SAG Awards can bring national attention to unusual stories and great performers who don’t always have massive marketing machines behind them.
If being more inclusive of diversity and independent films doesn’t convince you that the SAG Awards have managed to become more culturally relevant than the Oscars, then consider the fact that they also include more of the interesting categories that are worthy of praise beyond the standard acting categories, including Best Stunt Ensemble (how can the Oscars not have a stunt category yet?!).
Beyond that, they extend recognition to great storytelling and performances in avenues that the Academy can’t reach, such as TV and streaming platforms. Netflix alone pulled in nominations for Orange Is The New Black, Daredevil, House of Cards, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Beasts of No Nation. Now, you could argue that this is partly motivated by pandering to trends and popular tastes, but it’s undeniable that we’re living in a Golden Age™ of television and streaming, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. The quality of performances, writing, and production value of shows on these platforms have been rivaling—sometimes even surpassing—traditional films for years now. In 2016, not only is some truly great art being made on television and streaming services, but it’s being made in a way that’s inspiring rabid passion in viewers like never before. The fact that the SAG Awards recognize this definitely make it an awards race worth watching.
Of course, we shouldn’t go crazy here. The Oscars aren’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future, and the SAGs aren’t exactly turning the awards game on its head: The 2016 SAGs nominees in the best actor and actress categories are still all white, and in the film acting categories the SAG picks usually match pretty closely to later Oscar wins. Most importantly, on some level, both the SAGS and the Oscars are televised schmoozing sessions for Hollywood gatekeepers that are produced with ratings in mind. Many kickass, genuinely creative films and series will never be recognized by either voting body. Still, the SAGs seem to be willing to take their blinders off once in awhile and try to follow the cultural and technological directions of modern storytelling. I’ll be keeping my eye on you, Screen Actors Guild Awards.