How 'Argo's' SAG Win is Shaking Up Oscar's Best Picture Race (Analysis)

Scott Feinberg
January 28, 2013
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If the movie that you're supporting for the best picture Oscar is not named Argo, it's officially time to start panicking.

What appeared to be a wide-open race just weeks ago -- really up until the Academy's directors branch declined to nominate Argo's director, Ben Affleck, for the best director Oscar -- has rapidly morphed into one that has been dominated by the Warner Bros. dramatic-thriller. On Jan. 10 it won the best picture and best director Critics' Choice awards. On Jan. 13 it won the best picture (drama) and best director Golden Globe Awards. And then this weekend, on back-to-back nights, it won the PGA and SAG's top prizes -- best theatrical motion picture and outstanding performance by a cast in motion picture (a.k.a. best ensemble), respectively -- neither of which it had been widely expected to win.

SAG AWARDS 2013: The Winners React

Many predicted that the PGA would go for Lincoln (and namely Steven Spielberg and his longtime but still Oscar-less producer Kathleen Kennedy). As for SAG, it was supposed to be the place where Silver Linings Playbook (which had nominees in three of SAG's four categories for individuals and made their film available to the entire SAG membership via screeners, streaming, and movie theater vouchers) or Les Miserables (which, like most of the ensemble category's past winners, had the longest cast list on this year's SAG ballot) would mark the beginning of a comeback.

Instead, it has been all Argo, all the time -- its funny and heroic portrayal of a producer (played by its best supporting actor Oscar nominee Alan Arkin) certainly didn't hurt it with the PGA and its filmmakers' talking-point about it featuring 120 speaking parts undoubtedly boosted it with SAG -- which is not good news for the other eight best picture Oscar nominees -- the aforementioned three, plus Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Life of Pi and Zero Dark Thirty.

There are statistics that suggest Argo can still be stopped at the Oscars: namely, only one film in the last 80 years has won the best picture Oscar without also receiving a best director nomination, and two films have won the PGA and SAG prizes and still lost the best picture Oscar, Apollo 13 (1995) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006).

Plus, other films have been given some reason for hope by the Academy itself. Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook and Life of Pi all scored directing, screenplay and film editing noms, without which few films have ever won best picture. Lincoln scored the most overall nominations (12) and has grossed more domestically than any of the other best picture nominees ($164 million and counting), two things that it shares in common with most past winners. Silver Linings Playbook, which became the first film in 31 years to score an acting nomination in all four of the acting Oscar categories, clearly has tremendous support from the Academy's actors branch, which accounts for 20% of its overall membership. And Life of Pi became only the fourth film to ever score nominations in all seven of the technical Oscar categories.

Moreover, since the Oscar nominations were announced, Les Mis won a Golden Globe for best picture (Argo won the drama category and Les Mis won the musical or comedy category) and Zero Dark Thirty has become a major box-office hit and topic of national debate.

But it's also true that no film has ever won all of the aforementioned accolades that have been awarded to Argo and not won the best picture Oscar.

The Critics' Choice and Golden Globe wins might be dismissed as somewhat irrelevant, reflecting the will of relatively small groups of journalists (they have 268 and 84 voting members, respectively), while the Oscars are determined by 6,014 people who actually make movies. But that's why the awards bestowed upon Argo by the PGA and SAG (which have 3,800 and 120,000 voting members, respectively) are so significant: they suggest a consensus among large numbers industry insiders, many of whom are also in the Academy.

At this point, the clock is running out on the other contenders -- final Oscar voting starts in less than two weeks, on Feb. 8, and the remaining opportunities to gain new momentum are few and far between.

The DGA Awards on Feb. 2 put only more pressure on them (and particularly on best director Oscar nominees Lincoln's Spielberg and Life of Pi's Ang Lee), because Argo really has nothing to lose there (Affleck isn't nominated for the best director Oscar, nor are the three other guys who were), but potentially a lot to gain (it would be a huge statement for the DGA, which is known for predicting the best director Oscar winner on all but six occasions in 64 years, to endorse a guy who isn't even nominated for it over Spielberg, who has received more DGA nominations and wins than anyone else in history).

The BAFTA Awards on Feb. 10 will offer a hint of what the U.K.-based members of the Academy are thinking, since roughly 500 of BAFTA's 6,500 members, it has been reported, are also Academy members, accounting for roughly 8% of its overall membership. And, if their nominations are any indication, they really like Lincoln, which received a field-leading 10 nominations, but they also really like Argo, which got seven -- and, notably, their voters nominated Affleck not only for best director (a category in which they snubbed Spielberg), but also for best actor!

And the WGA Awards on Feb. 17, while of limited value in terms of predicting the screenplay Oscar nominees and winners because they disqualify so many of the Oscar-eligible films, might offer insight into how the 377 members of the Academy's writing branch will fill out their best picture Oscar ballot. In their best adapted screenplay category, Lincoln scribe Tony Kushner is thought to be the heavy favorite, but if he is upended by Argo's Chris Terrio then that would be another very noteworthy development.

SAG AWARDS 2013: Complete List of Winners

So, if you're supporting a film other than Argo, how do you play the next few weeks before final Oscar voting closes on Feb. 19? Well, you either call it a day and significantly curb spending money on your campaign (as I'm told by a reliable source that one major contender's distributor is planning to do), or you reboot and refocus your efforts, and try to win a news cycle or two. And if you're supporting Argo, what do you do? Everything in your power to remain at the center of the discussion without overexposing yourself and turning off voters, who have been known to bore and be turned off rather easily.

Argo, which opened in 3,232 theaters back in October, is now playing in just 635; among the general public, at least, its day has passed. Zero Dark Thirty and Silver Linings Playbook, however, have only recently expanded beyond limited release and were among the top five performers at the box-office this weekend, so they're very much on the public's mind right now. But the public doesn't vote for the Oscars, so does this matter? Probably not. Does any of the above matter, or does the Academy exist in a bubble and march to its own beat? I guess we'll have to wait a little less than a month, until Feb. 24, to find out.

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