How the SAG-AFTRA and WGA Strikes Could Devastate Awards Season

If an awards show takes place and there aren’t any actors there, will it really happen?

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The SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes are on the verge of transforming both the Emmy and Oscar seasons this year, dealing another blow to an awards landscape that over the past three years has been rocked by declining ratings, pandemic-fueled cancellations and delays and the near-collapse of one of the best-known awards shows, the Golden Globes.

The strikes have already changed the face of the Emmys’ phase 2 voting, with the show date in limbo and actors and writers unable to do any kind of campaigning for their nominated shows. This week, one high-profile film, Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers,” pulled out of its opening-night slot at the Venice Film Festival rather than hold a high-profile premiere that its actors would not be allowed to attend.

And the longer the strikes go without a settlement, the more they will transform the crucial fall period for the Oscars and other film awards.

“It’s crazy,” one Emmy-nominated actress told TheWrap prior to the strike last week. “I’ve been attached to this show since 2011. And now it finally gets made and I get my first Emmy nomination, but I’m not allowed to say, ‘Please watch the show’ or even tweet about it.”

The actress was quick to point out that she supports the strike and that the restrictions were worth it: “My goal is supporting my union, supporting my sister unions and supporting those who are not earning a fair wage. There’s been so much innovation in television and in streaming, but the contracts haven’t caught up yet, and it’s time.”

Since the Writers Guild went on strike in May, its members have not been permitted to do awards-related events or interviews for their films or television programs. SAG-AFTRA joined the strike on July 13 and sent guidelines to its members that barred them from “personal appearances, interviews, conventions, fan expos, festivals, for your consideration events, panels, premieres/screenings, award shows, junkets, podcast appearances, social media and studio showcases,” among others. 

“It’s a sad scenario,” one awards strategist told TheWrap of an awards landscape riddled with uncertainties. “And nobody has any idea how long it will go. Everything at this point is just guesses.”

But while everybody is guessing, here are three areas in which the strike could have a seismic impact.

Emmy Season

The SAG-AFTRA strike began at midnight the day after Emmy nominations were announced, immediately putting a halt to all nominated actors’ participation in Phase 2 of TV’s awards season and calling the Sept. 18 date of the show into question.

The Emmys staged a virtual show during the pandemic, but they did that with actors participating; they held a ceremony during a SAG boycott in 1980, with only one nominee showing up, (It was Powers Boothe, and he won.) But the idea of holding a Primetime Emmys telecast without actors serving as presenters or being on hand as nominees is clearly a non-starter for the Television Academy and Fox, the network broadcasting the show this year.

So while the voting timeline hasn’t changed, with final voting still scheduled to take place between Aug. 18 and Aug. 28, the big question is whether the Emmy ceremony will be moved, and if so to when. Sources close to Fox have told TheWrap that if the show has to be moved, the next workable date on the network’s calendar won’t be until January, which would be spectacularly inconvenient as it drops the Emmys right in the middle of the most crowded part of the film awards calendar.

Festival Season

What if they gave a film festival and no stars showed up? That’s the question that now hangs over the Venice Film Festival, which begins on August 30; the Telluride Film Festival, which kicks off one day later; and the Toronto International Film Festival, which starts on Sept. 7.

Venice is set to announce its main lineup on Aug. 25, but it has already lost its opening-night film, Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers.” This week, the film pulled out of Venice and moved its release date to April 2024 rather than hold a splashy premiere without stars Zendaya and Josh O’Connor. Toronto has already announced a few films, including Taika Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins” and Atom Egoyan’s “Seven Veils,” and will continue to unveil its lineup over the coming weeks. And while Telluride doesn’t reveal its lineup until the day before the festival begins, it is lining up films for its 50th-anniversary festival.

Of the three festivals, Venice is perhaps the most dependent on its handful of star-laden premieres, which make talent available to the international press. In recent years, films like “The Whale” (Brendan Fraser), “Tar” (Cate Blanchett), “The Power of the Dog” (Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst), “Dune” (Timothee Chalamet), “Pieces of a Woman” (Vanessa Kirby) and “Nomadland” (Frances McDormand) all launched there and started their actors on the path to Oscar nominations or wins. But the Venice lineup is typically also filled with international and indie films that don’t rely on actors for promotion.

Telluride typically attracts a healthy contingent of actors and does at least one tribute to a performer that’s tied to a new movie, while Toronto’s huge lineup includes lots of documentaries and experimental films but also nightly star-studded premieres that would no doubt lose their luster without the presence of any SAG members. It also hosts an annual ceremony that gives out career-achievement awards to actors and filmmakers with movies in the festival. SAG rules leave some wiggle room for actors to take part in lifetime-achievement events, but only if they’re not tied to current work.

In addition, there’s the question of whether SAG, which has given waivers for the production of independent films not linked to the AMPTP companies that the union is striking against, will do the same for the promotion of foreign and indie films that aren’t tied to a struck company. The union has yet to indicate whether it will grant waivers for promotion (something Tom Cruise asked for but didn’t get on behalf of “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One”), but some strategists are holding out hope that it could happen, along with the participation of, say, British actors in the U.K. guild, which is not striking.  

If the strike continues and the actors are banned, expect many films to head to the festivals represented by their directors and producers, and some others to pull out and look for a post-strike premiere. “At the moment,” one executive told TheWrap, “most people are playing wait-and-see rather than canceling anything.”

Oscar Season

At various times throughout its history, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has acted as if it would prefer an Oscars with no campaigning at all. But now that it has more or less surrendered to (or embraced) the idea of being the basis of Hollywood’s biggest campaign battleground, it might be facing a case of “be careful what you once wished for.”

For as long as the strike continues, Oscar season will find actors banned from interviews, awards shows, post-screening Q&As, receptions and everything else that usually fills contenders’ calendars from early fall through the Academy Awards. The first big hit would be on Nov. 14 at the Academy’s Governors Awards, an event created to hand out Honorary Oscars and special awards like the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Within a couple of years of their beginning in 2009, the Governors Awards became a full-on campaign event; studios (and later streamers) would buy tables and fill them with the stars of their Oscar-contending movies, who could then mingle with Oscar voters and press early in awards season. Even if the strike is still going on in November, Angela Bassett would be able to accept her Honorary Oscar, because it’s a career-achievement award, but other actors couldn’t attend on behalf of their current projects. And if the actors can’t show up, the studios won’t buy tables.

The campaign events that drive Oscar season could still take place with directors and below-the-line talent, but star power was often the driving force behind campaigns of all sorts. (If the actors had been on strike, Andrea Riseborough’s famous friends wouldn’t have been able to take to social media on her behalf the way they did last year.)

And what of the Screen Actors Guild Awards? SAG could presumably grant itself a waiver and be the only awards show with actors if it wanted, but it’d still be handing out awards that would draw attention to films and television shows released by companies that are targeted by the strike.  

As far as other awards shows go, it’s hard to imagine the Golden Globes or the Critics Choice Awards going ahead without actors, though they could release a list of winners without holding a televised event.

A SAG Awards spokesperson told TheWrap that members of the guild who were randomly selected to be on the film and television nominating committees were informed of their selection in June and have until July 20 to confirm their participation. Campaigning is currently suspended for the SAG Awards, but the timeline is otherwise unaffected, at least for now.

It seems likeliest that “unaffected for now” will be the default for awards season – and that the longer the strike goes on, the more the season will resemble the pandemic awards season of 2021 and 2022, with plans changing, release dates moving and awards shows scrambling to adjust week by week.

Maybe that won’t be necessary – maybe the strikes will be settled and we can get back to whatever it is that passes for normal these days in Hollywood.

But if the last few years have taught the kudo-industrial complex anything, it’s how to adjust to calamity, right?

For all of TheWrap’s ongoing strike coverage, click here.