PGA and SAG Awards: What to Watch for

THR's awards columnist explains why he thinks Saturday night will be a big night for 'La La Land,' while Sunday night will clarify which film will pose the biggest challenge to it in the Oscar race.
Courtesy of Lionsgate; A24; Roadside Attractions
From left: 'La La Land,' 'Moonlight,' 'Manchester by the Sea'

The final round of voting for the 89th Oscars doesn't begin until Feb. 13, but its outcome could be shaped by the two major awards shows that will take place this weekend: the 28th Producers Guild of America Awards on Saturday night at the Beverly Hilton and the 23rd Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday night at the Shrine Auditorium.

The PGA Awards is the first major awards ceremony of the season at which winners are determined by people who actually make movies, and therefore often serve as a bellwether for the others that follow — you may recall that The Hurt Locker, The King's Speech and Birdman, among other recent best picture winners, had lost out at the Critics' Choice and Golden Globe awards, among others, and only saw their fortunes turn around at and after the PGA Awards.

This isn't coincidental. The number of PGA voters and the number of Academy members is almost exactly the same (both right around 7,000). The PGA Awards and the Oscars are among the few contests that use the same quirky preferential balloting system (they both adopted it eight years ago as part of an effort to honor "consensus choices"). And, because the final round of Oscar voting hasn't yet started, the results of the PGA Awards can influence Academy members' ballots.

An impressive 19 of the 27 winners (or 70%) of the PGA's highest honor, the Darryl F. Zanuck Award, went on to win best picture — but one of the eight discrepancies came last year, when the PGA picked The Big Short while the Academy opted for Spotlight.

This year, the PGA nominated for its top prize all nine films that were nominated for the best picture Oscar — Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight — plus one that the Academy passed over, Deadpool. (The PGA guarantees 10 nominees; the Academy allows anywhere from five to 10.)

The widespread assumption is that La La Land will take home the Zanuck, since the original musical has dominated the nominations and/or awards just about everywhere else — but I urge caution. While La La Land has been not only well reviewed, but also a hit at the box office (important criteria for producers), only one musical in history ever has been awarded this prize (Chicago, 14 years ago). And La La Land's producers, while unquestionably respected, are two relatively young guys with only a handful of credits to their name (Jordan Horowitz and Fred Berger) and a veteran better known for his work on Broadway than in Hollywood (Marc Platt).

Meanwhile, Moonlight, which is thought to be La La Land's greatest threat, was produced by Plan B, the production company run by Brad Pitt, Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner, whom the PGA has honored with this prize in two of the last three years (for 2013's 12 Years a Slave and 2015's The Big Short).

Other past Zanuck winners in the running this year include Fences' Scott Rudin (2007's No Country for Old Men) and Lion's Iain Canning and Emile Sherman (2010's The King's Speech). The producing teams of several other nominees include big names not normally associated with producing — Denzel Washington for Fences, Matt Damon for Manchester by the Sea, Ryan Reynolds for Deadpool, Pharrell Williams for Hidden Figures — as did several past Zanuck winners — 1990's Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner), 2012's Argo (Ben Affleck and George Clooney) and both 12 Years a Slave and The Big Short (Pitt). And, more often than not, the Zanuck winner's producing team includes the director, which, of this year's nominees, only Hidden Figures (Ted Melfi) can boast.

A sleeper contender is Arrival — a critical and commercial hit produced by Participant Media CEO David Linde and blockbuster director Shawn Levy, among others — but this probably will come down to La La Land and Moonlight, and I suspect La La Land will win the day.

Sunday will be a different story, though, since, at the SAG Awards, La La Land is not even nominated in the best ensemble category, the one people care about most since it's the closest thing the guild has to a best picture prize. People can argue over why it was left off in favor of Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Hidden Figures, Fences and Captain Fantastic — most assume that the guild's nominating committee deemed La La Land too much of a two-hander to be recognized as an ensemble effort — but the fact remains that only one film in the 21 years in which the best ensemble prize previously was presented was not nominated for it but still won the best picture Oscar (1995's Braveheart).

The winners of the best ensemble SAG Award and the best picture Oscar aren't always the same — only 11 of 21 have been, including Spotlight a year ago — but the former was the only award to anticipate the shocking upset wins of 1998's Shakespeare in Love and 2005's Crash at the latter. Moreover, while not every member of SAG-AFTRA belongs to the Academy, almost every member of the Academy's actors branch — its largest — belongs to SAG-AFTRA. So whichever film wins on Sunday night, for which all 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members get to weigh in, will be able to make a strong case for itself as the most formidable alternative to La La Land at the Oscars.

My strong hunch is that on Sunday night, if not on Saturday night, too, that film will be Moonlight. That's because last year as much as any, but quite regularly, actually, SAG-AFTRA — a large group of diverse actors of stage and screen and, since the AFTRA merger, also radio — backs work that is both critically acclaimed and diverse, which is basically synonymous with Moonlight (and, to a lesser extent, Fences and Hidden Figures). Additionally, the guild tends to back films that it receives on hard-copy screeners, which this year includes Moonlight, Fences and Manchester, but not Hidden Figures and Captain Fantastic, which instead were made accessible digitally.

The best thing that Fences and Manchester by the Sea have going for them is their connections to the New York theater, from which many SAG-AFTRA members hail. Those films will go head-to-head in the best actor category, and I actually give a slight edge to Fences' Washington, for his showy perf, over Manchester's Casey Affleck, for his understated work — although there's certainly a possibility that La La Land love could propel Ryan Gosling to a win.

Anything could happen in the best actress category, which includes the Oscar frontrunners Emma Stone (La La Land) and Natalie Portman (Jackie), as well as Oscar-nominated Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Oscar-snubbed Amy Adams (Arrival) and surprise SAG nominee Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train). One can't justify picking anyone other than Stone, not least because she portrays an actress struggling valiantly to "make it," something to which many SAG-AFTRA members should be able to relate.

Best supporting actress will go, in a walk, to Fences' Viola Davis — a product of the New York stage and a favorite of film and TV fans (she's twice won individual SAG awards for her work on How to Get Away With Murder). And best supporting actor seems to be trending towards Moonlight's Mahershala Ali over Hell or High Water's Jeff Bridges, but I've heard some griping from guild members about the brevity of Ali's screen time, and more support than I had anticipated for Lion's Dev Patel and Manchester's Lucas Hedges (who are Oscar-nominated like Ali and Bridges, but unlike the fifth nominee, Florence Foster Jenkins' Hugh Grant), so he's not a certainty, although he is my pick.

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