By winning the highest honor at the 28th annual PGA Awards on Saturday night, the Darryl F. Zanuck Award, La La Land, a critically and commercially successful original musical about struggling artists in Hollywood, further solidified its status as the clear favorite to win the best picture Oscar. Not every past winner of the PGA’s top prize has gone on to claim the Academy’s top prize — just last year, The Big Short won the PGA Award, but Spotlight won the Oscar. However, 19 of its 27 prior recipients did, and there is plenty of reason to believe that isn’t purely coincidental.
The PGA Awards — like the Oscars that follow it by almost a month, but unlike all of the other awards that precede it — reflect the preferences of people who actually make movies, which often is very different from those of people who don’t. The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech and Birdman, among other recent best picture Oscar winners, first lost at the Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe awards — both determined by journalists, who aren’t represented in the Academy at all — and only saw their fortunes turn around after the PGA crowned them as the year’s best.
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 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 — this year, at least — the PGA Awards were given out before final Oscar balloting even started (it opens Feb. 13), the results could, conceivably, influence Academy members.
What makes La La Land‘s PGA Award win extra significant is that the pic was pitted against — and vanquished — the exact same films against which it is 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 other (the PGA, unlike the Academy, guarantees 10 nominees, and Deadpool also made its cut).
The win for La La Land was not unexpected, but many representatives of its best picture Oscar competitors, and Oscar hopefuls from other categories, still showed up and presented other prizes — after all, putting oneself in front of a room full of the industry’s most powerful producers seems like a good way to drum up not only Oscar votes, but also job offers! Oscar-nominated presenters included Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali, Manchester by the Sea‘s Casey Affleck, Lion‘s Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman (separately), Hell or High Water‘s Jeff Bridges, Hidden Figures‘ Octavia Spencer and Trolls‘ Justin Timberlake. Appearing on behalf of Oscar-nominated films were Arrival‘s Amy Adams, 13th‘s Common, Moonlight‘s Alex R. Hibbert, Hidden Figures‘ Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae, Hacksaw Ridge‘s Teresa Palmer, Fences‘ Mykelti Williamson and La La Land‘s John Legend (who made powerful off-the-cuff remarks criticizing President Donald Trump‘s just-enacted immigration ban).
The race to Oscar night continues on Sunday with the 23rd Screen Actors Guild Awards. One thing is for sure: La La Land will not be winning the top prize at that event — best ensemble — since it wasn’t even nominated for it. People can argue over why it was left out 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, which is understandable enough — 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). So, as tempting as it is to call this year’s best picture Oscar race right now, a lot can still happen between now and Feb. 26.