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Everyone expected La La Land, Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight to register with the Producers Guild of America, just as they have registered with virtually every other awards group, and when on Tuesday morning the guild announced its nominees for its 28th annual Producers Guild of America Awards — specifically, its nominees for the Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures, which celebrates the producers of the year’s best film and also is known as “the PGA Award” — sure enough, they were there. (Fun fact: Matt Damon is a producer of Manchester and Brad Pitt is an executive producer of Moonlight, but only Damon received a PGA nom.)
Also among the PGA nominees were several on-the-bubble Oscar hopefuls that have performed strongly at the box office relative to their budgets: Hidden Figures (Pharrell Williams is one of its nominated producers), Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, Hell or High Water and Fences (Denzel Washington is one of its nominated producers), as well as one low-grossing indie that really needed a boost of this sort, Lion, which has generated less than $10 million domestically.
And then there was the tenth slot, which went not to Sully, Nocturnal Animals, Silence, Loving, Jackie or Florence Foster Jenkins, but to — wait for it — February’s comic book satire Deadpool, which grossed, on a budget of just $58 million, $363 million domestically. This nomination for the Ryan Reynolds vehicle (Reynolds is one of its nominated producers) comes on top of noms for the best picture (musical/comedy) Golden Globe Award and the Writers Guild of America’s best adapted screenplay award, which were equally unexpected.
PGA recognition is, of course, a major boost for all 10 nominees, particularly as this news comes — this year, at least — in the middle of Oscar nomination voting, which began last Thursday and ends on Friday. But it doesn’t exactly guarantee anything.
Why? For one thing, the Guild still fields 10 nominees for its PGA Award, whereas the Academy three years ago abandoned its guarantee of 10 best picture Oscar nominees in favor of a voting system that can produce anywhere between five and 10 noms. And, for another, the tastes of the PGA and the Academy deviate in certain specific areas.
In each of the past several years, the PGA and the Academy have overlapped on all but two or three nominees. Most of the discrepancies appear to be the result of the PGA siding with big box-office successes from major studios, followed by the Academy replacing them either with other big box-office successes from major studios, smaller-scale critics’ darlings or nothing at all.
Last year, the PGA nominated Universal’s Straight Outta Compton (which grossed $161 million domestically), Lionsgate’s Sicario ($47 million) and A24’s Ex Machina ($25 million), but the Academy did not nominate any of those films, instead opting for A24’s Room ($15 million). The year before, the PGA nominated Fox’s Gone Girl ($167 million), Sony Classics’ Foxcatcher ($12 million) and Open Road’s Nightcrawler ($32 million), but instead of those films, the Academy went with Paramount’s Selma ($52 million). In 2013, the PGA nominated Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks ($83 million) and Sony Classics’ Blue Jasmine ($33 million), while the Academy chose The Weinstein Co.’s Philomena ($38 million). A similar story in 2012: The PGA nominated MGM’s Skyfall ($304 million) and Focus Features’ Moonrise Kingdom ($46 million); the Academy went with Sony Classics’ Amour ($7 million). And for 2011, the PGA nominated Universal’s Bridesmaids ($169 million), Sony’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ($103 million) and Sony’s The Ides of March ($41 million), while the Academy replaced them with Fox Searchlight’s The Tree of Life ($13 million) and Warner Bros.’ Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ($32 million).
One way to understand the PGA’s choices is that a big part of the way producers measure the performance of a movie is its bottom line. That also means that Tuesday’s nominations should not be interpreted as a best picture Oscar death-knell for excluded art house fare such as Nocturnal Animals, Loving, Jackie, 20th Century Women or Captain Fantastic. In my view, one or more of them still could bump out one or two of the studio-made, commercially successful but divisive PGA nominees — Deadpool certainly is the least Academy-friendly and most vulnerable, but sci-fi Arrival and glossy Hidden Figures also remain question marks with Oscar voters.
For films that were made on a big scale and/or were commercially successful and still did not show up on Tuesday, this probably marks be the beginning of the end of their best picture Oscar prospects. Those include Sully, Patriots Day and The Girl on the Train.
Whichever film ends up winning the PGA Award, which has been presented annually since 1990, will be in good company: 19 of the past 27 years the winner of the PGA Award — or I should say winners, since there was a tie three years ago — went on to win the best picture Oscar, including eight of the last nine: No Country for Old Men (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The Hurt Locker (2009), The King’s Speech (2010), The Artist (2011), Argo (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Birdman (2014). Last year, however, the PGA went with The Big Short, while the Academy opted for Spotlight.
The PGA Awards are the first major guild-hosted awards ceremony on the calendar — this year they will take place on Jan. 28, one day before the SAG Awards and one week before the DGA Awards — meaning they will potentially offer insight about the views held by people who actually work within the industry (unlike, say, Golden Globes voters, but like Academy voters). While Slumdog Millionaire, The Artist, Argo and 12 Years a Slave were widely anticipated PGA Award winners, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech and Birdman were facing uphill climbs — they had been beaten at several major awards shows when they were recognized with the PGA Award, which marked the beginning of a turnaround in their fortunes. In other words, until the PGA declares a winner, nobody else can with any real degree of confidence.
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