Beasts of the Southern Wild has become trapped in red tape.

The little indie movie that wowed Sundance, and has big potential as an award season contender, has run afoul of Screen Actors Guild bylaws that leave it out of the running for the group’s awards, being presented on Jan. 27.

The dreamlike film, about a little girl named Hushpuppy who is trying to survive a biblical-scale flood alongside her boozy father, did not — and seemingly still will not — cover its actors under a SAG-AFTRA contract, which means the guild won’t consider it for the SAG Awards.

The story was broken by Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter, and is the first major controversy — or some might argue scandal — of awards season.

Actors are the biggest single voting group for the Academy Awards, and the Screen Actors Guild picks are considered a significant indicator for how those ultimate honors may go down. Being out of the running doesn’t kill Beasts chances for other awards, but it does take away an important campaign stop in the march to the Oscars, which are handed out on Feb. 24.

Also, the perception that the actors were not compensated under under basic terms may destroy the movie’s chances of getting support from voters in other awards groups. That great big actorly voting bloc in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences …? They won’t like this very much.

SAG Awards producer Kathy Connell said Beasts‘ producers have until Oct. 25 to bring the film under compliance. “It is their choice whether or not to do so,” she said. “We hope they do.”

That would require the production to retroactively sign a union contract, and provide evidence that all of the actors have been paid “scale,” which is the industry term for the minimum required by the guild. If they haven’t been paid that much, the production would have to make up the difference now.

Beasts was picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight during a stellar run last January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the award for best cinematography. A few months later at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie won the Camera d’Or prize for best first feature.

A representative of Searchlight, which is only overseeing U.S. distribution of the film, said it can’t bring Beasts into compliance alone, so making it eligible again for the SAG Awards isn’t likely to happen. Each of the foreign territories where the movie has been released would also have to pay their fair share to the actors, which should be easy enough — every other independently made guild-contracted film does so. But the producers would have to renegotiate each of those deals, which may be impossible. In any case, it doesn’t appear as though the producers are even going to try.

Director Benh Zeitlin’s low-budget film, estimated to cost around $1.5 million, selected 6-year-old newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis as its star from over 3,500 auditions, and hired Dwight Henry to play her ailing father, Wink. Henry is a bakery owner in New Orleans who had never acted before. Part of the movie’s appeal was its use of non-actors. As Roger Ebert wrote in his four-star review: “This movie is a fantasy in many ways, but the authenticity and directness of the untrained actors make it effortlessly convincing.”

The loser here is not just the film, which now has suffered a major embarrassment at a time when awards season is just heating up, but the actors themselves — who apparently will not earn even the minimum amount Hollywood asks similar productions to pay their actors.

The Screen Actors Guild emphasized that if the film had been produced under a guild contract originally, the filmmakers could still have hired first-time performers. They just would have had to pay everyone involved an appropriate wage.

“The idea that the picture is ineligible because the children were not professional performers is bizarre,” says Ray Rodriguez, SAG-AFTRA’s assistant national executive director for contracts. “There is nothing in the contract that prohibits a producer from hiring a non-union member or non-professional performer. In fact, that’s the main way in which performers qualify for membership.”

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Beasts of the Southern Wild
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