For six years in a row, the Producers Guild Awards have correctly forecast the eventual Oscar winner for Best Picture. So Sunday night we came to get some kind of clarity in this year’s ultra-competitive Oscar race. Instead we got chaos.
When I entered the Beverly Hilton Hotel lobby for the PGA Awards, I ran smack into 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen and some Fox Searchlight publicists. ”This should be an interesting night,” I told them. That turned out to be the understatement of all time. At the pre-reception, producer and moderator of the PGA’s nominee confab Saturday morning, Gary Luchessi, said, “I think there is going to be a big surprise tonight. I think it’s going to be either Gravity or Captain Phillips.” Well, he got half of it right and he was definitely on the money about the surprise part.
Saturday night’s big SAG winner, American Hustle, could have built unbeatable momentum following it up with a PGA win – a one-two punch that influences the rest of the campaign and a knockout in awards-season terms. Instead, in an unprecedented result for either the PGA or the Oscars, there was a tie for Best Picture (or the Darryl F. Zanuck Award For Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures, as the PGA puts it) and it was between Hustle’s two key rivals, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave. That means each of Oscar’s presumed three frontrunners all could point to a key victory in this all-important weekend. Nothing was settled. The race goes on. In fact, put the whole thing on reset and start over. Hustle’s co-producer Chuck Roven looked a little shell-shocked when I ran into him moments after the show ended. “I guess this means it’s a horse race,” he said when I asked him his reaction to the night’s results. Earlier I had run into Hustle director David O. Russell who was clearly still on a high from the previous evening’s SAG victory for Outstanding Cast. No doubt the surprise outcome brought him down to Earth. You could feel the numbed reaction throughout the room when presenter Ben Affleck got to make the announcement of a tie. Once again, the PGA has upended the whole race.
“This is a real dogfight now,” Oscar-winning producer (and past Oscar show producer) Bruce Cohen told me as he exited the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom. “It’s exciting.” Before the show he had told me he was torn between all three films. Apparently he isn’t alone. “Now the race really begins,” said another producer. Those without a horse in this race seemed energized, looking forward to a continuing wide-open contest in the next six weeks. But I spotted several studio publicists looking a bit ashen as they left the building. “I’m going home to try and figure this all out now,” one connected to American Hustle said. 12 Years A Slave co-stars Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulson asked me if a tie had ever happened before for Best Picture. Uh, that would be no. As he hit the valet line, their co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor smiled and said, “A tie is what you wear around your neck.” One awards consultant who was at the show emailed immediately afterward to say, “No way there was there a statistical tie. No way on picture.” But it was indeed a mathematical, straight-on tie as PGA National Executive Director Vance Van Petten confirmed at the afterparty in the Hilton Penthouse.
At the same celebration, nominated Captain Phillips co-producer Michael De Luca (now moving back into a studio job at Sony) agreed that this result will possibly free Academy members to go their own way without the usual influence of any kind of consensus from guild awards. He should know. De Luca’s been through turning points at PGA awards before. His film, The Social Network, had won every critics award and the Golden Globe, but was blindsided by The King’s Speech at the 2010 PGAs. “When that happened it was like the Bataan death march as we exited the ballroom,” he recalled during the Saturday morning nominees reception. By the way, De Luca and Lori McCreary did an outstanding job putting the PGA show together for the guild. The expertly crafted James Bond tribute reel for Selzinick Award recipients Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli is exactly what last year’s undercooked Bond tribute at the Oscars completely lacked. De Luca said the Bond team put it together themselves. And it was cool to have current Bond, Daniel Craig, present that award. And accepting the Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television Award, Chuck Lorre hit it out of the park with a speech that was not only hilarious, it was surprisingly touching.
But back to consensus, clarity and surefire Oscar pool winners. Do you think we are really going to get any of that??? Here’s what is coming up: Next weekend the hugely important Directors Guild awards happen, but that honor is widely expected to go to Gravity’s Alfonso Cuaron for what is looked at as a major, but very specific, directorial achievement. He can’t be denied. At least that’s the thinking. Chalk another one up for Gravity. But many pundits believe that despite that, there could be a rare split between the directing winner and Best Picture winner at the Oscars. And then the next weekend is the Writers Guild awards where Gravity failed to land an original screenplay nomination despite Warner Bros’ best efforts, and 12 Years A Slave was ineligible because it didn’t meet the WGA’s strict union-supporting criteria. Does that mean another triumph for American Hustle to go with its SAG win? Or does another film like Her sneak in and steal everyone’s thunder? Two weeks later BAFTA gets its say and that could further cloud the picture. And don’t count out some of the other films we haven’t mentioned that could develop real heat including Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska and The Wolf Of Wall Street (which seems to have equally rabid fans and detractors). Bottom line: It looks like it is going to be tough to get any kind of consensus. This is where a renewed and innovative phase two campaign can mean all the difference. And judging from all the emails and phone calls I have been getting, it’s clear Sunday’s PGA verdict will have a genuine effect on those decisions
Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.