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PGA Noms Offer Some Hints, Some Fake-Outs About Best Picture Oscar Race (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg explains why the PGA Award nominations tend to presage best picture Oscar noms for some sorts of films but not others.

7. Skyfall
"Skyfall"

Wednesday afternoon's announcement of the nominees for the 24th annual Producers Guild Awards -- and, in particular, the nominees for the Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures, the producers union's top prize, which honors the producers of the year's best films and is also known as "the PGA Award" -- is of limited value to those of us who are trying to forecast the best picture Oscar race. This is because the PGA still guarantees 10 nominees for the PGA Award, whereas the Academy two years ago abandoned its guarantee of 10 best picture nominees in favor of a new voting system that can produce anywhere between five and 10, so there might well be more PGA Award nominees than best picture Oscar nominees.

It was always expected that the PGA would recognize Argo (Warner Bros.), Les Miserables (Universal Pictures), Life of Pi (20th Century Fox), Lincoln (DreamWorks), Silver Linings Playbook (The Weinstein Co.) and Zero Dark Thirty (Columbia Pictures), which have been recognized by virtually every major awards group thus far. It was anything but certain, however, that Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight), Django Unchained (The Weinstein Co.), Moonrise Kingdom (Focus Features) and Skyfall (Columbia Pictures) would join them.

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Beasts has not been nominated by several of the other important precursor groups (it was disqualified by SAG and received no Golden Globe nominations). DVD screeners of Django Unchained, because it was finished so late in the year, were not sent to guild voters (screeners of all of the other PGA-nominated films were). Moonrise Kingdom has long been regarded as an on-the-bubble contender (and was probably boosted with PGA voters by its association with producer-extraordinnaire Scott Rudin). And Skyfall did not exactly have history on its side (in the sense that none of the other six Bond films that was released in the era of the PGA Awards were nominated).

All four films, however, were not only well reviewed but also quite profitable within the U.S. -- Beasts and Moonrise on an indie scale, and Django and Skyfall by any measure -- the two things that PGA Award nominees almost always are.

Based on history, though, they should proceed with caution -- especially Skyfall. In each of the past three years, the PGA and the Academy have overlapped on all but two or three of their nominees. The discrepancies have almost always involved the PGA siding with big box-office successes from big studios, followed by the Academy replacing them either with other big box-office successes from big studios or, more commonly, smaller-scale critics' darlings.

In 2009, the PGA nominated Paramount's Star Trek ($257 million domestically) and Warner Bros.' Invictus ($37 million domestically), whereas the Academy opted instead for Warner Bros.' The Blind Side ($255 million domestically), yes, but also Focus Features' A Serious Man ($9 million domestically). In 2010, the PGA nominated Warner Bros.' The Town ($92 million domestically), whereas the Academy opted for Roadside Attractions' Winter's Bone ($6 million domestically). And In 2011, the PGA nominated Universal's Bridesmaids ($169 million domestically) and Sony's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ($103 million domestically), plus Sony's The Ides of March ($41 million domestically), whereas the Academy opted for The Tree of Life ($13 million domestically) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ($32 million domestically).

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That's understandable enough, considering that a big part of the way that producers measure the performance of a movie is its bottom line. But what it means is that today's nominations should not be interpreted as a best picture Oscar death-knell for the likes of art-house/indie fare such as Sony Pictures Classics' Amour ($0.2 million-and-counting domestically), Summit's The Impossible ($0.6 million-and-counting domestically), and The Weinstein Co.'s The Master ($16 million domestically) and The Intouchables ($10 million domestically).

But for films that were very commercially successful and still did not show up Wednesday, it probably does mean the end of the road. Those include Warner Bros.' The Dark Knight Rises ($448 million), the last installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which seemed to stand a good shot based on the fact that the similarly well reviewed second installment was nominated back when there were only five nominees for the PGA Award; Warner Bros.' The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ($238 million-and-counting), the first installment of Peter Jackson's new trilogy, which would have followed in the footsteps of the three installments of his Lord of the Rings triilogy, all of which were nominated back when there were only five nominees for the PGA Award (the third won); and Paramount's Flight ($92 million-and-counting), which proved a phenomenal commercial success for a film made on a mid-range budget of $31 million.

Wednesday's PGA announcement, which was supposed to come Thursday, may have been moved up a day with the hope of more directly influencing Academy members, whose nominations voting deadline was recently extended by one day until 5 p.m. on Jan. 4. But, based on history, the majority of Academy members are highly opinionated people who aren't swayed by any other individual or group.

Whichever film ends up winning the PGA Award, which has been presented annually since 1990, will be in good company: 16 of its 23 previous winners (70 percent) went on to win the best picture Oscar, including each of the last four, Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The Hurt Locker (2009), The King's Speech (2010) and The Artist (2011).

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While Slumdog Millionaire and The Artist were widely anticipated winners, The Hurt Locker and The King's Speech were both facing uphill climbs -- they had been beaten at several major awards shows by Avatar and The Social Network, respectively, including the Golden Globes -- when they were recognized with the PGA Award, which marked the beginning of a turnaround in their fortunes. The PGA Awards were and remain the first major guild-hosted awards ceremony on the calendar (the SAG Awards will be held the night after them this year); they offered insight about the views held by people who actually work within the industry (unlike Globes voters but like Academy voters), and, sure enough, both of those films went on to virtually sweep all of the other guild awards and win the best picture Oscar.

In other words, until the PGA declares a winner, nobody else can with any real degree of confidence.