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Following the conclusion of Saturday evening’s 33rd annual Producers Guild of America Awards, as I made my way out of the Fairmont Century Plaza hotel in Century City, I spotted something in the distance that had been set up for Sunday’s Los Angeles Marathon, but is just as applicable to the Oscar race: the finish line.
After an oppressively long ceremony and season, CODA walked away with the PGA’s top prize, the Darryl F. Zanuck Award for outstanding producer of a theatrical motion picture, less than one week after The Power of the Dog claimed the top prizes at the Critics Choice and BAFTA awards. And so, by all indications, we are now looking at a two-horse race for the best picture Oscar — pitting against each other two films directed by a woman and distributed by a streamer — which will be presented one week from Sunday.
Why does the PGA Award matter, in terms of predicting the best picture Oscar? Not because the Academy is jam-packed with producers — in fact, the Academy’s producers branch accounts for less than 7 precent of its overall membership — but because the PGA’s top prize is the only pre-Oscars accolade of note that is determined using the same arcane “preferential ballot” that the Academy employs to determine the winner of its best picture Oscar. Moreover, the announcement of the PGA’s top prize comes right in the middle of the final round of Oscar voting (March 17-22), and might therefore both reflect and perpetuate movement in CODA’s favor.
With a best picture race that I would now classify as a true toss-up, perhaps slightly leaning toward CODA, here is a look at the strongest reasons to predict a best picture Oscar win for CODA and The Power of the Dog, respectively. (Any other result would represent one of the biggest surprises in Oscars history.)
The case for CODA
Do not underestimate — forgive me — the power of the underdog. CODA is the little film that could (it was made on a low budget and came out of Sundance en route to, yes, being acquired by Apple) and many are passionately rooting for it, partly because of how moving its story is and partly because everyone associated with it is just so darn likable. And that matters, big-time, when considering the aforementioned preferential ballot.
It’s true, as you’ve probably heard, that CODA heads into the Oscars with just three nominations — picture, supporting actor and adapted screenplay — and that no film since 1932’s Grand Hotel has won best picture with fewer than four … but that is a highly misrepresentative stat.
It’s tempting to read that as “No film in 90 years has won best picture with fewer than four total nominations,” but what it really means is that no film at the 11 Oscars immediately following Grand Hotel or at the 12 Oscars immediately preceding this one — the only period in those 90 years in which the best picture Oscar category was not capped at five slots and the winner was chosen not by a plurality, but via ranked-choice ballot — won with fewer than four total noms. A 23-year stretch is still daunting, but far less daunting than a 90-year stretch.
And in the current era of the preferential ballot, a lot of best picture stats that were long regarded as “essential” have fallen off the books: Argo and Green Book won without directing noms; Birdman won without a film editing nom; The Shape of Water, Green Book and Nomadland won without best ensemble SAG Award noms; and the list goes on.
But here’s another stat to consider: In the current era of the preferential ballot, meaning the last 12 years, no film that won both the top SAG and PGA prizes, as CODA has now done — meaning The King’s Speech, Argo and Birdman — did not go on to win the best picture Oscar.
Plus, keep in mind that a film missing a key nom — as CODA’s Sian Heder did in the director category — can actually motivate voters to get behind that same film even more in the picture race. (Just ask Argo’s Ben Affleck.) And some voters will look at Jane Campion’s standing as a slam-dunk in the best director race and choose to acknowledge the other female-directed best picture nominee in the best picture category.
The bottom line is this: if you want to understand what kind of movie does well on the Academy’s preferential ballot, consider the four-year period in which voters went from Moonlight to The Shape of Water to Green Book to Parasite, a trajectory which seems almost as schizophrenic as American voters going from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Donald Trump to Joe Biden. These films share virtually nothing in common — except for the fact that they tug at the heartstrings and a lot of people find them deeply moving.
The Power of the Dog, though it heads into the Oscars with the most nominations of the year, is, like all Campion movies, a bit on the colder side and fairly polarizing, two things that do not help on a preferential ballot. (See: the nomination leaders of the last four years — Mank, Joker, The Favourite and Roma — all of which went on to lose best picture.)
The Power of the Dog is likely to register a lot of No. 1 votes, but also a lot of No. 9 and No. 10 votes, whereas CODA can count on some No. 1 votes, but plenty of No. 2 and No. 3 votes, and the latter dynamic can get a film’s vote pile over the 50 percent threshold necessary to win faster.
The case for The Power of the Dog
The Power of the Dog is actually pretty similar, in a lot of ways, to last year’s best picture Oscar winner, Nomadland — not only in the sense that they are both critically hailed dramas directed by women and set in the West, but also in that they both primarily appeal to art house types who don’t mind measured pacing or having some questions raised by the film left open to interpretation. In contrast, CODA, naysayers argue, is a charming after-school TV movie, and many cineastes are appalled it is even in serious contention.
Moreover, anecdotally, The Power of the Dog — like many “auteur-driven” films — is playing particularly well internationally. And CODA’s SAG and PGA award wins do seem slightly less relevant to the Oscar race when one considers that the groups that bestowed them are comprised almost entirely of Americans, whereas the Academy’s membership is now way more international than it has ever been before. Indeed, as many as 25 percent of Academy members are now based outside of the U.S., according to a knowledgeable source.
Both Apple and Netflix possess — and have spent — considerable resources on behalf of their respective campaigns. But Netflix has the added benefit of experience when it comes to running truly international campaigns, starting with Roma, and all season long they have been very active on the ground in London, Paris and Rome (big hubs of Academy members), as well as Campion’s home turf of New Zealand and Australia, to name just a few places, screening their film and courting voters. In other words, it may not be a coincidence that, say, CODA was not even nominated for the best film BAFTA Award, but The Power of the Dog won it.
And if CODA is truly beloved, one might reasonably have expected it to register nominations, apart from best picture, with more than just two branches of the Academy, namely the actors (Troy Kotsur in the best supporting actor contest) and the writers (Heder in the adapted screenplay contest). Where, in this year in which so many Academy members are emphasizing the importance of the “below-the-line” Oscar categories, is there any evidence of below-the-line support for the film, either inside or outside of the Academy? (CODA wasn’t even nominated for the top prizes of the American Cinema Editors, the American Society of Cinematographers, the Cinema Audio Society, and the list goes on — in fact, outside of SAG and PGA, its only guild nomination came from the Writers Guild, for which The Power of the Dog was ineligible.)
The Power of the Dog, however, certainly has serious support from across the branches — its noms, apart from best picture, came from actors (four individual nominees), directors and writers (Campion), cinematographers, film editors, and both music and sound people.
And if, as we all suspect, Campion is a slam-dunk to win best director, then why wouldn’t her film also be comparably highly regarded? Picture/director splits certainly occur, especially in the era of the preferential ballot, but that’s still something to consider.
Finally, one of the primary hurdles that many suspect Netflix has faced in recent years — anti-streamer sentiment — is negated by the fact that CODA also hails from a streamer.
The bottom line
Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a roller coaster of a week en route to the Dolby!
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