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Theatres Snub Union Label

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Membership used to have its privileges. That may be the thought running through many union actors' heads as they attempt to line up at theatres to view the nominees for the Screen Actors Guild Awards only to be told their SAG card no longer allows them to view the films for free.

SAG members are the voting body meant to consider these films for the upcoming SAG Actor Awards, now in their ninth year. While the nominees are chosen by a randomly selected "nominating committee" of 2,100 voters, the final winners are voted on by the entire Guild membership of 98,000 members. The nominations were announced on Jan. 28; ballots go out to voters on Feb. 11 and are due back Mar. 7, before the televised Mar. 9 awards show at the Shrine auditorium. During that window, members are expected to view nominated films and file their votes. This year, however, brushing up on all those films may cost actors a bit of cash. The major theatre chains don't seem to want to allow them free entrance this month as they have in the past.

Most of the major chains are reportedly refusing free entrance, including AMC, Pacific, Century, Loews Cineplex, Mann and Regal, which owns UA and Edwards, the Bridge, and ArcLight.

"We're only admitting WGA, DGA, and AMPAS," confirmed Amy Wood, director of marketing at Pacific Theatres, which owns ArcLight. Some suspect it's because the other voting bodies have much smaller memberships: The Writers Guild has 10,000 members, the Directors Guild 12,000, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just 6,000.

Still, this snub has struck a nerve with SAG actors, who wonder why votes for their awards--which is televised, unlike the WGA and DGA awards--don't rate free admissions. "Studios, networks, theatres, and advertisers make millions on your 'endorsement,' and now they want you to pay to view the same films they want you to vote for," said actor Corey Shane. "The SAG Awards are one of only a few awards shows that are nationally televised, and full-page ads are currently running, boasting their SAG nominations; now they want you to buy your own vote. The lucrative success of these awards comes from our participation."

This sentiment was resonating through actors' websites as news spread. "If 98,000 members is too many to get in for free to vote for the film," posted actor Dea Vise on the actors' site wolfesden.net, "I say let those same 98,000 members boycott the theatres who won't let them in for free to vote on their films."

So why won't exhibitors allow SAG members in for the free screenings? It's hard to get a straight answer.

"There seems to be a general misunderstanding that we're being reimbursed [by studios] for the screenings, and we're not," said Pacific's Wood. It's unclear from sources whether exhibitors have been reimbursed for free admissions in the past. Wood said she was unaware of past policy at Pacific, and even representatives at the Guild itself didn't seem to know. Still, some exhibitors have hinted that receiving reimbursement from the studios would make a difference.

Studios, however, claim they have offered reimbursements but can't get exhibitors to bite. "We've all offered to reimburse them," said one studio spokesperson who wished to remain anonymous. The issue is not finances, she said, but the logistical hassle that tracking free admissions would require of exhibitors. "It sounds good in theory, but in practice it's just not something they can execute," said the spokesperson. "You've got 16-year-olds working the box office." Her studio, she said, preferred to handle it by holding "extensive" private screenings for SAG membership.

Other studios do the same but may have to consider holding more screenings in the upcoming month to get their films seen. Plans have yet to be announced.

In the meantime, SAG is urging its members to sit tight. "We're aware of the problem and we ask everyone to be patient," said SAG Awards producer Kathy Connell. "I just got off the phone with one of the studios. All of them are doing their utmost to get our members in, but there are issues with regard to that. What the issues are, my contacts don't seem to know. The key is that we are talking to the studios who are trying to reassure us that they are dong everything in their power. They want our members to see their films."

Ultimately, however, this isn't really SAG's issue, said Connell. "SAG doesn't deal with the exhibitors. This is an issue between the studios and the exhibitors."

Still, it is an issue not entirely new for SAG members. "It's never been easy," said actor Rosa Fernandez. "As I recall, in the past the theatres that allowed SAG members in for free were few and far between." Not to mention, finding a free screening has always been especially difficult for those outside L.A. and New York.

"I've heard, in the past, there's been an issue at a theatre or two sporadically," said Connell, "but we have never had it across the board as it seems to be right now."

This year, said Connell, even the 2,100 members of the nominating committee ran into some problems at theatres when they tried to view the films for free.

Studios may choose to resolve the screening snafu this year with special screenings; for information on SAG voter screenings, keep watch at www.sagawards.com and our own www.backstage.com.

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