Fox Searchlight Won’t Qualify ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ for SAG Awards

The distributor of indie sensation "Beasts of the Southern Wild" says it will not sign a retroactive SAG AFTRA contract to qualify its cast of first-time actors for the guild awards

Fox Searchlight, the company behind independent film sensation "Beasts of the Southern Wild," has decided it will keep the film out of the SAG Awards.

The company will not try to retroactively qualify the movie for signatory status with the Screen Actors Guild, which had declared the cast ineligible for its upcoming awards because it was not produced under a guild contract, a spokesman told TheWrap Monday night.

First-time director Benh Zeitlin's lyrical and startling "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is considered a likely Oscar contender. With its cast of first-time actors and shoestring budget, it would would seem to be the quintessential indie film, and Monday's decision won't change that image.

 “We appreciate and honor the spirit in which the film was produced and the way it was made," Searchlight presidents Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley said in a statement. "It's truly an original.”

Also read: Can 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Go From Film-Festival Sensation to Commercial Hit?

SAG-AFTRA spokesperson Pam Greenwalt said the guild didn't understand the decision by the film's producers (Josh Penn, Dan Janvey and Michael Gottwald) to go without a contract.

"We're baffled at the fact that the producers of 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' failed to sign a SAG-AFTRA agreement as every other important film released this year did and which they can do as well." Greenwalt told TheWrap.

"We would love for the performers in this film to compete for a SAG Award. Celebrating such performances is what we're all about."

Also read: Benh Zeitlin on 'Beasts of the Southern Wild': 'We Want to Create New Myths'

Fox Searchlight could still change its mind. The company has until Oct. 25  to retroactively cover it under a SAG-AFTRA contract before nominations close.

If Fox Searchlight did try to remedy the situation it could involve making payments to the actors –several of whom are children– to bring them up to contract scale. But working out the contract details could get complex with the film's multiple foreign distributors.

For a movie made for less than $5 million like "Beasts," the SAG-AFTRA day-rate for a performer who speaks in the film would be a little over $500 on this contract. Any back payments would depend on what the producers actually paid, how many days the performer worked and if there is unpaid overtime.

Also read: The Oscar Race: So Far, It's Looking Beastly

"Beasts" won the grand prize at the Sundance Film Festival after an uproarious debut screening, quickly landed a deal with Fox Searchlight, went to Cannes where it won the Camera d'Or as the festival's best first film and took the audience award at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

""Beasts of the Southern Wild' won over our entire team the moment it screened in Park City," Gilula and Utley said. "We were taken away by Behn Zeitlin’s vision, skill, and craft, and by indelible performances by Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry.”

None of the cast had acted before, and the roles were fitted to them in an extensive rewriting process. Wallis is a 6-year-old girl who gives an astonishing performance as Hushpuppy and could become the youngest Oscar nominee ever. Henry, who plays Hushpuppy's father, was unwilling to leave his all-night baker's job to prep for the film.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" has made roughly $11 million at the box office since its debut in June.

While the Oscar voters do frequently follow the lead of the SAG voters — many cast ballots for both awards —  they often do not. Gary Oldman ("Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"), Rooney Mara ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") and Max von Sydow ("Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close") were all nominated for supporting or lead acting Oscars last year despite being passed over by SAG voters.

If Wallis does earn a nomination from the Academy, she would become the youngest best actress nominee ever. That distinction is currently held by Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was cited for her work in 2002's "Whale Rider" when she was just 13.

Nominations for the 2013 SAG Awards will be announced on Wednesday, Dec. 12, and the awards ceremony will take place on Sunday, Jan. 27. Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday, Jan. 10, and the Academy Awards will be held on Sunday, Feb. 24.