Hollywood's awards season kicks into Phase Two this weekend with the Producers Guild of America's movie and TV kudos handed out Saturday and the "Screen Actors Guild Awards" aired simultaneously on TBS and TNT at 5 p.m. on Sunday.
I know, you're thinking "Phase Two? Wasn't Phase One enough?" In a rational world, you would probably be right.
However, this is an important turning point for those who obsess about Oscars. All of the critics groups and TV shows like "Golden Globes" and "Critics Choice Awards" that have been handing out prizes for the past two months reflect the opinions of people who write about films and, to a lesser extent, TV.
SAG and the PGA, along with upcoming awards-givers like the Directors, Writers and other craft guilds, represent industry professionals, and some members of those unions are also members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In the case of what is now called SAG-AFTRA, it's a very small percentage. More than 100,000 of the union's members can vote for SAG Award winners, and about one-tenth of one-tenth of that number are in the Academy.
However, the actors branch is the Academy's largest, which is one reason why the guild's awards are viewed by many as important Oscar preliminaries - and a good showcase for winners to display their acceptance speech skills while Academy voting is still open.
Just don't tell the folks behind the SAG Awards that those are the only reasons anyone pays attention to them.
"It's always been a peer award," explained Kathy Connell, who helped create the SAG Awards 19 years ago and has produced the show for the union ever since. "We're not trying to be anything else but what the SAG Awards has become: An opportunity to acknowledge the fine work of our members."
Connell also pointed out that SAG's is the only Hollywood shindig that's all about performers in all the categories. There are five film acting awards - for lead and supporting actors, male and female, and for a movie's ensemble cast - and eight for primetime television. One award each is also given to a movie and a TV stunt team.
No directors. No sound effects editors. Just the glamorous people everyone watches awards shows to see.
Nevertheless, those who only really care about Academy Awards - which include an ever-expanding universe of campaign strategists, online bloggers and media pundits - insist on viewing SAG's choices through Oscar gold-colored glasses. Especially SAG's Cast in a Motion Picture category, which they interpret as the guild's version of the Academy's biggest, Best Picture slot.
"A SAG nomination for Best Cast is a hugely beneficial and supportive boost for any film," veteran Oscar campaign strategist Tony Angellotti observed. "Individual nominations for actors are equally significant in that they shine a bright spotlight on performances both known and little known at the time they're announced. And the TV show itself, well, that's additional focus at a propitious time in the overall awards campaign."
Actress JoBeth Williams, who chairs SAG's Awards Committee, agrees with a lot of that.
"We're well-placed, actually, and I think that's part of the reason that TNT likes us," Williams said. "Because it's actors voting for actors, we've become a bit of a prognosticator for the Oscars, if you will. People are paying attention to that and are interested in that this time of year. And, y'know, the awards season is fun."
Don't equate SAG's Cast award with the Academy's Best Picture, though.
"People who think of it as our version of Best Picture don't understand what the award is," Williams said. "It takes more than actors to make a Best Picture. It takes cinematography, it takes effects if those are involved, a brilliant tech team, all of those multi-other awards that are given on the Oscars that recognize what it takes to make a brilliant film.
"Our award is only about the acting ensemble. It has nothing to do with whether, in `Life of Pi,' those animals were brilliant. It's a very different kind of award."
Indeed, last year's SAG Award for a film's cast went to "The Help," while the big Oscar winner was "The Artist." This year, four of SAG's five film cast nominees - "Argo," "Les Miserables," "Lincoln" and "Silver Linings Playbook" - are among the nine Best Picture Oscar contenders. The fifth SAG nominee, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," got no Academy traction.
Oscar observers say that if you're looking for bellwethers, the PGA is a more accurate forecaster than the SAGs, if only because the producers nominate a similar number of features (10 this year) and employ the same, more complex preferential vote-counting system as the Academy does for Best Picture, rather than the one-vote/one-point method used by other groups and specific Oscar categories.
"In two of the last three years, the race really switched when the Producers Guild announced," noted Sasha Stone, founder and editor-in-chief of the website awardsdaily.com. "That's when `The Hurt Locker' and `The King's Speech' became real front-runners. People doubted their dominance until they won that award. `The Artist' was different because it just was winning everything from the start."
This year, however, the SAG Awards might have more influence on Oscar than before, and more than any other guild. SAG's nominees were announced in early December of 2012, almost a month before the deadline for Academy members to return their ballots. PGA, DGA and WGA nominations came out right before or the week after Oscar balloting closed.
Some believe that was a major reason why this year's Oscar directing nominees only match two of the Directors Guild's hopefuls, "Life of Pi's" Ang Lee and "Lincoln's" Steven Spielberg. In most years, there's only one difference between the slates, two tops.
"The Academy voters, for once, just got to do their own thing," Stone reckoned. "They didn't have anybody directing them, especially the huge DGA, which is like 14,000 members. So they did what they wanted, and they threw the whole race into chaos.
"For the most part, though, the actors branch of the Academy followed the SAG nominations," Stone continued. "The main difference was that `Beasts of the Southern Wild' was not eligible for SAG. But you see more of your average changes in the acting categories this year than you see in the directors branch."
It's 14 out of 20 in the individual acting slots, to be precise. The micro-budgeted "Beasts" was not a SAG-sanctioned production, so its little Oscar-nominated star Quvenzhane Wallis ain't in the SAG race.
But Oscar influencing and comparisons really aren't the point, the SAG folks keep saying.
"I think people will vote on what they liked and what they believe in," Willams observed. "I don't think they're going to give someone who got a SAG Award nomination an Oscar nomination. If people tend to like the same performances, it's because they are brilliant performances."
"That's not what we're attempting to do here," Connell added. "I think the industry may see us as that, and we are certainly part of that discussion. We fit along with the other important guild awards. The Directors Guild, Writers Guild and others are all peer awards.
"And ours is televised!"