The SAG Awards & Plastic Screeners: An Actor’s Dilemma

Springtime in LA is synonymous with awards season -- that glitzy time of year where Tinseltown shines klieg lights on entertainment's best and brightest. Deals are made. Stars are born.

And plastic screeners are everywhere, especially for members of voting bodies like the Academy of Motion Pictures, the Television Academy, and my union the Screen Actors Guild.

During a time of year where I should be celebrating "the life of an actor," I mostly feel like a guilty environmentalist. I love awards season, but I hate plastic pollution. And this year I decided to do something about it.

Screeners: From Disc to Digital

A stack of DVD screeners sent to me for the SAG Awards

For the last 40 years or so, studios have sent promotional copies of films and television shows to awards show voters. Traditionally, these tapes, and eventually DVDs, helped bring smaller, independent productions into the living rooms of some of Hollywood's most influential voters. When the SAG Awards began in 1995, they joined they fellow awards shows in sending plastic screeners to members.

Because physical screeners were at one time the de facto source of pirated films online, studios began asking voting body members to destroy their copies after viewing. The practice of sending soon-to-be-discarded discs remains today, even though all of the voting bodies now also provide online access to digital screeners.

In 2020, the Television Academy renounced physical screeners. The Academy of Motion Pictures followed suit this year. Citing sustainability concerns, they announced the move to digital screeners only beginning in 2022.

Physical Screeners Create Plastic Waste

Of the stacks and stacks of physical screeners mailed out every year, most will wind up in the trash. Less than 10% of all plastics are actually recycled, and even in the greater LA area, not all municipalities accept DVDs in recycling bins. 

The plastic waste of awards season reinforces why geologists predict that plastic will dominate our fossil record. We’re living in the Plastic Age, quite literally: we’re currently consuming a credit card's worth of plastic every week through our drinking water

This reality is not lost on the entertainment industry. In 2020, the Television Academy renounced physical screeners; the Academy of Motion Pictures followed suit this year. Citing sustainability concerns, they announced the move to digital screeners only beginning in 2022.

Why then does the SAG Awards continue to send me DVDs I will never watch and did not want in the first place?

SAG will continue sending physical screeners to all members by default, although members may opt out of physical screeners beginning in 2022.

One Actor's Attempt to Reduce Her Plastic Footprint

Last month, I reached out to the SAG Awards and was pleasantly surprised to receive a quick response in which I learned that other members had written in with similar concerns (you can read the entire email exchange below).

I was disappointed, however, to learn that SAG will continue sending physical screeners to all members by default, although members may opt-out of physical screeners in 2022. 

When I asked why they didn’t make digital screeners only the default, SAG Awards responded by saying, “with so many members used to dvds, many will not know to opt in and studios and SAG do not have the manpower to add people one by one as they opt in” [sic].

This specious argument implies that members -- who already vote for the Awards online, pay their dues online, and track their royalty statements online -- are too incompetent to follow directions to receive physical screeners or that the studios and the SAG Awards are incapable of constructing a workable database that would reserve plastic only for those who specifically request it.

Their reasoning for the latter makes even less sense when you consider giving members a chance to opt out of plastic screeners takes no more logistics to implement than a chance to opt in. The only difference is the default of digital screeners only, helping nudge those even those "many members used to DVDs" into a more sustainable way of celebrating our art form.

Either way, it’s an embarrassing position for the SAG Awards to take given our understanding of pollution and the no plastic policies of the Emmys and Oscars. 

Read my exchange with the SAG Awards about eliminating (or at least reducing the number of) physical screeners

Help Me Reduce Plastic Waste in Hollywood

Even if all the awards shows stopped sending DVDs today, we'd still have to deal with all the existing screeners collecting dust on coffee tables around the world. So I decided to turn this trash into treasure.

I’m collecting discs that will be rendered unwatchable and sent to my friend Jill, a mosaic artist. Jill has graciously promised to share photos of the screeners' second lives , which I will post here as well as on my Instagram

If you'd like to contribute to Jill's art work and my little social experiment, drop me a line. And please, especially if you're a union actor, please write to the SAG Awards to express your concern about plastic pollution. Maybe by this time next year we’ll all have something to celebrate.

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