The SAG awards were this past weekend. Though not as well known as the Oscars, not as prolific as the Golden Globes and not nearly as ironic as the MTV Movie Awards, they carry a whiff of legitimacy and artistry that is lacking in most of the other major award shows.
While I don't really watch award shows,* I found myself catching snippets of the ceremony on the television at my local pub. Simultaneously, I caught snippets of conversation from two different groups of people who were watching the event with some attention. This brought me to the striking realization that most people have virtually no idea what SAG actually does.
The Screen Actors' Guild is not some sort of famous people's self-congratulation club. SAG, WGA, DGA and SAG's less notorious sibling AFTRA are labor unions, the primary purpose of which is to collectively bargain for the prosperity, safety and intellectual property of their members. Yes, Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie and all the other superstars are members of SAG. Steven Spielberg is in the DGA; Charlie Kaufman is in the WGA and Alex Trebek is in AFTRA but these are not the people for whom these organizations exist, nor whom they most benefit.
SAG and the rest of the above-the-line unions exist for rank and file media professionals, for the salary writers, for the late-night DJ's, for the floor directors, for the junior AD's and for the working actors who's names you don't know. Without the work of these unions there would be no safety standards, no residuals, no guarantee of overtime. SAG's the one that makes sure that character actors, who may have fifty or more employers in a year, get all of their tax paperwork. SAG's the one that makes sure that a prospective movie isn't a second-rate investor scam prepping to issue bogus paychecks. SAG's the one that keeps unscrupulous producers from reselling B-films to foreign television, thus netting tens of thousands of dollars, without paying their performers for their image rights.
If you're a working actor, the one with two speaking lines, the one who's not famous, the one who makes scale, the one who drives a used car and has to worry about putting your kid through college one day, the one who lives paycheck to paycheck, SAG is important to your livelihood.
*Okay, I watch the Oscars and I still harbor the childhood dream of one day winning one. I've been eligible for nomination through number of different projects but have honestly never had a ghost of a chance. I'm sure I'll change my tune about the Oscars if I ever win one. More critically, I love the idea of the Oscars but have very little faith in the process behind them. Big Fish destroyed my Oscar idealism; the best major market film in years, also the last movie in which I cried, received only a single nomination and for Original Score at that.