Oscar 2013: What the SAG Nominations Mean?

Fox Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave” gained momentum in the awards race with its four nominations for SAG Awards, while “August: Osage County,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” boosted their Oscar prospects with three nominations a film, including the key ensemble awards.

“Osage” and “Butler,” which haven’t been prominent so far in awards voting, benefited the most from the nods.

Not to forget: SAG is a more reliable Oscar predictor than most.

This year marks the 20th annual awards, with Rita Moreno receiving the 50th Life Achievement Award.

Last year, four of the five ensemble nominees earned best-pic nominations. And as for wins, the ensemble prize predicted the eventual Oscar winner in five of the past eight years.

The five films contending for ensemble this year are “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “August: Osage County,” Focus Features’ “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

After being considered one of the two front-runners for Oscar, “12 Years” saw a lot of rivals take home top prizes in last week’s critics awards. But arguably the biggest gainer from the announcement: The Weinstein Co., with seven noms. Both “The Butler” (in photo pm right) and “Osage County” (photo, left) scored key noms, with Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey for the former, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts for the latter, aside from both films’ ensemble noms. And the other big gainers are Daniel Bruhl for Universal’s “Rush” and James Gandolfini for Searchlight’s “Enough Said” in the supporting category.

Snubbed by SAG:

Robert Redford for Lionsgate/Roadside’s “All is Lost,” not nominated after winning the NY Film Critics prize last week.  Nonetheless, Redford will received a Best Actor Oscar nomination from his peers at the Academy’s Actors Branch.

“The Wolf of Wall Street,” absent in the nominations, though its late opening may have dented its chances.

Also over looked is Spike Jonze’s “Her.”

But those films shouldn’t give up hope.  The awards race is beginning to take shape, but the key word is “beginning.” SAG Awards are sometimes an Oscar bellwether, but in a year as crowded and eclectic as this one, anything can happen.

“Dallas Buyers Club” and “American Hustle” both earned key kudos in the Indie Spirit nominations and N.Y. Critics prizes, respectively.

Sony’s “American Hustle” scored two noms, for ensemble and supporting actress Jennifer Lawrence.

The TV side gets less attention, since these guild honors land in the middle of “awards season,” which is a generic term for Oscar season. Many of these contenders have been nominated by SAG before, and most are previous Emmy nominees and/or winners.

Biggest surprise among the smallscreen noms was the shutout of “Mad Men” for the first time in the show’s history — even for Jon Hamm, which seems inexplicable. “Homeland’s” Damian Lewis also failed to land an individual nom; Claire Danes, the reigning champ in the female drama series actress category, is back again.

HBO paced the TV noms, with 13. The cabler’s “Veep” scored its first nom in the ensemble category. And while much attention this year was devoted to the number of feature films based on real events, same is true in the TV movie/miniseries category: Eight of the 10 leads are playing real people, including all five of the lead actor contenders.

The film-stunt nomination for “Fast and Furious 6″ gains added poignancy due to the recent death of Paul Walker. And the “All is Lost” nom in that category is interesting, since Robert Redford did some of his own work. Other stunt contenders include, to no surprise, “Lone Survivor,” “Rush” and “The Wolverine.”

Until 2005, there was surprisingly little correlation between a SAG win and Oscar: only four identical winners in 10 years. The turning point was when Lionsgate sent out screeners of the 2005 “Crash” to all 100,000 SAG voting members. Since the film had opened eight months earlier, piracy wasn’t a concern to the studio, and a key to the film’s win was the voters’ access via screeners. Previously, studios were eager to set up screenings, but wary of giving so many people access to one of their hot titles.

Ever since “Crash,” superstitious/scrupulous awards strategists traced a direct connection between the two honors, a theory fueled by the fact that the actors branch accounts for 20% of Academy voters.

Since then, the other SAG Ensemble winners that went on to Oscar were “No Country for Old Men” (2007), “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), “The King’s Speech” (2010) and “Argo” (2012).

The variations were the SAG wins for “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “The Help,” while the respective Oscar winners were “The Departed” (2006), “The Hurt Locker” (2009) and “The Artist” (2011).

But win or not, a nomination for ensemble is a good sign. For the past two years, four of the five films in contention for SAG’s ensemble kudos also went on to Oscar noms. Last year, the nominees included “Argo,” “Les Miserables,” “Lincoln” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” but Oscar didn’t include SAG’s fifth choice, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

Two years ago, the SAG ensemble roster consisted of “The Artist,” The Descendants,” “The Help” and “Midnight in Paris,” all of which were Oscar nommed; but SAG choice “Bridesmaids” was left at the altar in Oscar voting.

“Help” won the SAG award, but “Artist” took home Oscar.

And giving hope to actors who weren’t included today: Oscar’s supporting actor winner last year, Christoph Waltz for “Django Unchained,” didn’t even receive a nom from SAG. (Tommy Lee Jones was the SAG winner.) Conversely, three of the four top acting prizes in SAG were repeated with Oscar (Daniel Day-Lewis, Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway).

Thursday’s Golden Globe nominations may also prove illuminating, but so far, the glories have been widespread from AFI Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics, New York Film Critics, National Board of Review and nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards.

Actors always say they treasure the SAG Awards, because they are handed out by their peers in SAG-AFTRA, people who appreciate how hard it is to be an actor. But for studio beancounters and awards strategists, these are valued for two reasons: Promotional value, since the awards are telecast (this year, on TNT and TBS), and as a clue to a film’s popularity, especially when it comes to Oscar.

Nominations are made by a SAG nominating committee, or nom-com as it’s called, that consists of about 2,000 members, randomly chosen across the country.  Final voting is by all members.

The awards will be handed out January 18 at the Shrine Auditorium.  That’s two days after the January 16 convergence of Oscar nominations, BFCA Critics Choice Awards and Sundance opening all on the same day.

January 19 sees the Producers Guild Awards.