Quvenzhan Wallis stars as Hushpuppy in "Beasts of the Southern Wild." (Jess Pinkham )
Benh Zeitlin's dreamlike paean to the human spirit, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," will likely be picking up plenty of awards in the coming months, but honors from the Screen Actors Guild apparently will not be among them.
Because "Beasts" was made without a SAG-AFTRA union agreement, it is ineligible for SAG Awards nominations. The guild has given the movie's distributor, Fox Searchlight, until Oct. 25 to retroactively bring it under compliance with a union agreement, which would involve paying the performers the difference between their initial pay rate while shooting and the miniumum due had they been under a contract. The daily rate for actors on a low-budget film like "Beasts," which cost about $1.5 million, is slightly more than $500.
"If Searchlight wanted to bring it under compliance, it's not unusal or difficult to do so," says Ray Rodriguez, SAG-AFTRA's assistant national executive director for contracts, adding that the process would also include residual compensation to the actors for home video and other platforms, as well as contributions to health and pension plans.
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"Beasts of the Southern Wild," which follows the relationship between a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her hard-luck father (Dwight Henry) in waterlogged southern Louisiana, has grossed $11 million since its late-June release. Writer-director Zeitlin used nonprofessional actors, including leads Wallis and Henry, and apparently none of the cast members signed the single-page Taft-Hartley waiver form that allows filmmakers to use non-pros in a SAG-covered production.
"We do thousands of indie agreements every year," Rodriguez says. "It's the norm. It's very easy even for the most micro-budgeted production to be signed to a contract."
Searchlight bought "Beasts" at Sundance in January. A source close to the film not authorized to speak publicly says the SAG decision "ambushed" execs at the studio and disputes the degree of difficulty involved in bringing the movie into compliance. Doing so, he says, would involve asking all of Searchlight's international distribution partners to kick in money for residuals and healthcare.
"Nobody in China is going to rub two nickels together for a SAG Award," the source says. "They don't care. It's not going to help them in the least."
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The SAG decision certainly doesn't help the awards-season chances of "Beasts." But it doesn't fatally injure its prospects, either. The film figures to be a powerhouse at Film Independent's annual Spirit Awards. And with a weaker-than-normal set of contenders for lead actress, Wallis could easily wind up with an Oscar nomination, even without SAG recognition.
“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.
That appreciation is OK by SAG-AFTRA, Rodriguez says. The organization is simply asking "Beasts" to follow the rules like everyone else.
"We don't have a problem with the use of children or nonprofessionals," he says. "There's no limitation on who you can use. You don't have to be members. You simply have to fill out a form."
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