What Makes a Winning Ensemble? Nobody Knows for Sure

6:00 AM PST 11/27/2012 by Scott Feinberg

There is one category at the SAG Awards that has no comparable category at the Oscars -- and that one is harder to predict than any other race at either show: the best ensemble category, or, as it is officially known, the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.  (Only actors who receive a single-card in their film's credits may be included in the ensemble list submitted for consideration.) Even those who vote for it are not quite sure what it aims to recognize. Some take it literally and select the film that they feel features the best cast; others select the film that they feel features the best large cast; and still others select the film that they feel is simply the best of the year, since there  is no SAG Award for best picture. This year, based on precedent and conversations, it looks likely that four films will be among the nominees announced Dec. 12: Les Miserables, Argo, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook. And so there is now a scramble under way for the fifth slot. What follows are the top contenders.

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL

Pros: This film's plethora of British vets should help it win large portions of the U.K. and senior vote, just like past winner Gosford Park.

Cons: Gosford's cast featured a few prominent Americans, whereas this one does not. Since SAG is predominantly composed of U.S. folk, that could be a problem.

CLOUD ATLAS

Pros: Other films with truly massive ensembles that opened to mixed or negative reviews, like Bobby and Hairspray, have been nominated in this category.

Cons: People tend to feel strongly about the movie -- they love it or hate it -- and while that could help it under the Academy's voting system, which rewards passion, SAG's methods reward consensus.

DJANGO UNCHAINED

Pros: Quentin Tarantino's similarly violent and star-studded Inglourious Basterds won this prize.

Cons: The film has not yet been widely screened, and in a year that saw the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colo., voters may shy away if they deem its violence to be gratuitous.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

Pros: A cast packed with A-listers from virtually every generation -- who have 16 Oscar nominations and five wins among them -- plus a rising star or two offers something for everyone.

Cons: The Dark Knight, which got even more acclaim, was not nominated four years ago.

FLIGHT

Pros: Apart from doing great business and featuring a bona fide star in Denzel Washington, it has a likable cast of unusual diversity and might also benefit from the participation of well-liked TV vets John Goodman and Tamara Tunie.

Cons: It's so focused on Washington's character that the many other characters, including his love interest, are left with very little screen time.

HITCHCOCK

Pros: You might think that biopics focusing on one or two actors wouldn't have much of a chance here, but in fact past nominees have included Nixon, A Beautiful Mind, Ray, Capote, Frost/Nixon, Milk and The King's Speech.

Cons: Since lots of SAG members are quite young, they may not fully appreciate who the real people were who have been brought back to life in this film.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Pros: All three Lord of the Rings films, featuring many of the same actors, were nominated here, and the third won. It doesn't hurt to have a massive cast.

Cons: Like Django, the film has been kept under wraps. Plus, SAG voters may regard it as one visit too many to the same well.

THE MASTER

Pros: Paul Thomas Anderson's ensembles, always full of great actors, have a decent track record here: There Will Be Blood was snubbed but Boogie Nights and Magnolia made the cut.

CONS It's a divisive film, and a considerable number of people might not get on board, finding the storyline too weird and hard to decipher.

MOONRISE KINGDOM

Pros: This charming film stars young unknowns who fall in love and fight to be together, not unlike 2009 winner Slumdog Millionaire, and features several big-name actors as well.

Cons: It came out in May and has probably been overshadowed by more recent releases, plus no ensemble from a Wes Anderson film has ever been nominated.

ON THE ROAD

Pros: SAG has often found room in this category for tiny indies, among them The Station Agent and In America -- and they didn't have the relatively big names like Twilight's Kristen Stewart that this film has.

Cons: It played the fall fests and has been screened for SAG, but, as a small film that needs plenty of word-of-mouth, it will be hurt by the fact that it will go into limited release 11 days after SAG nomination voting ends.

SKYFALL

Pros: The 23rd James Bond movie has been such a commercial and critical hit that it's hard to imagine that many SAG voters won't see it or like it.

Cons: Popcorn movies always face an uphill climb, and no Bond film has ever been nominated in this category.

ZERO DARK THIRTY

Pros: Kathryn Bigelow has gathered a terrific group of actors' actors, if not major stars, just as she did for The Hurt Locker, which was nominated.

Cons: It's another late arrival this season, and it didn't begin screening until Nov. 25, so it will have to play some quick catch-up.

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