The Directors Guild of America Awards have long been closely watched by awards junkies, giving as they do a strikingly reliable set of clues to where Oscar voting might lead a few weeks down the road. And this year, the DGA Awards look to once again play a role in the award season narrative, with four of the five Oscar director nominees set to duke it out for the guild’s feature film directing award.
But for the organization’s 18,000 members across film, TV and commercials, the annual awards are more than that, offering a chance to survey the guild’s breakthroughs and victories from the past year, and take stock of the challenges to come. This time around, the guild had an unprecedentedly full plate, not only tasked with ratifying a new contract and establishing a more favorable financial landscape as streaming video takes over an ever-growing portion of directors’ lives, but also doing everything from figuring out how to expedite residual payments in response to the pandemic, organizing grants for filmmakers in need, and, not least of all, helping to devise an entirely new playbook for film and TV production safety after COVID-19 caused shoots across the country to go dark.
Thomas Schlamme, now entering his fourth year as DGA president, remembers his first day back on set in the director’s chair after the initial production shutdown. He directed October’s “West Wing” reunion special to benefit get-out-the-vote efforts — a theatrical re-enactment of an episode that originally aired back in 2002 — and recalls how getting to see his old colleagues in such strikingly new circumstances underscored just how much had changed in such a short span of time.
“It was just three or four days of shooting, one location, so it was very controllable,” says the director, who executive produced “The West Wing” and helmed 14 episodes in its original run. “But we hadn’t all worked together in almost 20 years, and here we were [re-enacting] an episode from 20 years ago. One of the actors came up to me at one point and she said, ‘This is like if I had a fever dream 20 years ago, where we’re all on a stage doing a show like normal, but you’re wearing a coal miner’s face shield, and we all have masks on, and there are all these people around us with gloves and strange sprays … ’ ”
But odd as the experience was, the special gave Schlamme a chance to observe the results of some of his own hardest work with the guild firsthand. Once it was clear that COVID shutdowns in March 2020 could stretch on indefinitely, the DGA was forced to figure out what to do with a membership that suddenly faced, as he puts it, “nearly 100% unemployment.” The first step Schlamme and his team took was to expedite payment of residuals to its members — as well as deferring Guild dues — to help give struggling directors a bit of financial leeway. The DGA then worked to extend health-care benefits to out-of-work directors, as well as setting up an emergency grants program in addition to the no-interest loans that the DGA has long offered through its foundation.
But the elephant in the room remained: How could the DGA help get its membership back to work safely? The first step was to establish a committee to explore how to get cameras rolling again, which the guild did in early April, appointing none other than “Contagion” director Steven Soderbergh as head of the committee. (“He somewhat volunteered,” Schlamme says with a laugh. “We actually pushed pretty hard, but then he aggressively jumped in.”) After working on the plan for weeks, with several epidemiologists and virologists hired as consultants, the DGA then coordinated with its sister orgs SAG, IATSE and the Teamsters, all of whom had been working on their own safety guidelines independently, and came up with a master proposal to take to producers and studios.
“We realized that without the solidarity of all these guilds, this inter-guild strength, we weren’t sure how we could push this boulder up the hill,” Schlamme says. “Especially with the studios and the producers. So in an incredible show of solidarity, the collective knowledge of all of us and all the independent work we did, we put all of it together, and then we met with the producers, who also had been doing their own work. For a period of time there were negotiations, but they were negotiations in which everybody had the same hopes and desires, which was how do we get people back to work safely?
“So everybody was in it, and through a lot of different dances that you have to do anyway, we came up with the [pandemic safe shooting handbook] Safe Way Forward, and these guidelines are being actively used right now. And they have worked. They have really worked. When you talk to the epidemiologists who have worked with us, they’re quick to say so, and they ended up using our guidelines for the Democratic National Convention too.”
Today, Schlamme notes that shooting in L.A. has risen from virtually nothing at the start of the pandemic to roughly 70% of what it had been previously. (Though he cautions that employment is still lagging behind, and the guilds are planning to meet up again this month to figure out how to amend their guidelines in light of rising vaccination rates.) “I’m enormously proud of this whole industry for doing what they needed to do, but not rushing into it,” he says. “And it was hard, even in my position, to hear from a lot of members saying, ‘I’m hurting, can’t you guys figure this out?’ And you want so bad to make sure people can pay their mortgages and make sure their kids can still go back to school. But we held on to make sure it was done the proper way, and in a unified way.”
Beyond the pandemic, the DGA kept up with the sort of business that would have kept the guild plenty occupied in a normal year. For one, the guild notched substantial gains when it ratified its latest three-year contract with the AMPTP: increased residuals overall; a nearly 50% hike in residuals for directors working on original SVOD series; pension gains; and TV creative rights advances. In particular, that raise for SVOD residuals couldn’t have come at a more propitious time: the contract was agreed upon by the DGA’s membership just a few weeks before pandemic shutdowns hit. “There was a little bit of foresight, but also a great deal of luck too” in the timing, Schlamme says, considering the dramatically outsized role that streaming would come to play over the months that followed. “But [increasing] streaming residuals was at the top of our list, because we all know where the world is headed. I don’t think anyone’s still going, ‘This streaming thing, do you think that’s gonna work out?’ So we had to get in there to set a pattern for streaming residuals that could at least hold us for the next three years.”
But in the more immediate term, what of the awards themselves? Presenting 11 competitive prizes for everything from film to TV and commercial directing, the DGA Awards — which, unlike the SAG Awards, are not televised — will take place on April 10 as a virtual event with, as Schlamme puts it, “some parts live, and some parts pre-taped.” One change from years past will have all of the categories presented by past winners of that particular award (with these presentations filmed from different locations in the DGA’s New York and L.A. headquarters), and there will not be a host, “because we’re not trying to stretch this out to 2½ hours and a nice meal.”
Schlamme says he initially toyed with the idea of holding the event in a drive-in-style venue, but quickly realized the cost would be prohibitive. And besides, there’s a certain appeal to the accessibility that a virtual event allows.
“I remember when I first started going to the awards 20-something years ago,” Schlamme says. “Carl Reiner was the host, and I remember thinking, ‘This is just like going to my uncle’s house,’ if my uncle happened to be the funniest human being on the planet. It all felt family-like. I was profoundly aware, from my very first DGA Awards, that it was all so committed to the team. And when you think of the other guilds, that doesn’t exist. The actors are all actors. The writers are all writers. But we’re directors, and assistant directors and unit production managers, and stage managers, and associate directors — and all of the sudden when you see that we’re all of these things, you feel a real bond.
“So even though we can’t all breathe the same air, which is what frustrates me the most, so many more people are going to get to be a part of it. I don’t know if 1,500 people usually show up at our awards show, whatever the ballroom holds. But we could have as many as 10,000 viewing this, and that’ll be really nice. … And it’ll be short.”
• Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”)
• Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”)
• David Fincher (“Mank”)
• Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
• Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”)
• Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (“The Truffle Hunters”)
• Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed (“My Octopus Teacher”)
• David France (“Welcome to Chechnya”)
• Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (“Boys State”)
• Benjamin Ree (“The Painter and the Thief”)
First-Time Feature Film
• Radha Blank (“The 40-Year-Old Version”)
• Fernando Frias de la Parra (“I’m No Longer Here”)
• Regina King (“One Night in Miami”)
• Darius Marder (“Sound of Metal”)
• Florian Zeller (“The Father”)
• Frank Capra Achievement Award: Brian E. Frankish
• Franklin J. Schaffner Achievement Award: Joyce Thomas
• Robert B. Aldrich Service Award: Betty Thomas
• Honorary Lifetime Member: Paris Barclay