DGA Awards: Did 'La La Land' and Damien Chazelle Just Seal the Deal for Oscar Night? (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst notes that, over the 68 years in which the top DGA Award previously was presented, it has anticipated the best director Oscar winner on all but seven occasions and the best picture Oscar winner on all but 14 occasions.
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When I ran into La La Land's 32-year-old director Damien Chazelle at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Friday, I told him that I'd like to start calling him "Skippy" since, as he well knows, he is poised to become the youngest best director Oscar winner ever at the 89th Academy Awards on Feb. 26, breaking a record held for the last 85 years by one Norman Taurog for his direction of a 1931 film called — you guessed it — Skippy.

The likelihood of that happening was firmly established last month when Chazelle's original musical scored a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations; and it was all but guaranteed on Saturday night when, at the 69th Directors Guild of America Awards, Chazelle claimed the top honor of the night, outstanding directorial achievement in feature film.

The DGA's top prize is and long has been the strongest predictor of the Academy's top two awards. Indeed, over the 68 years in which it previously was presented, its winner went on to take home the best director Oscar on all but seven occasions (or 90 percent of the time), and his or her film went on to win the best picture Oscar on all but 14 occasions (or 79 percent of the time) — most recently a year ago, when The Revenant's Alejandro G. Inarritu collected the top DGA Award and the best director Oscar, but Tom McCarthy's Spotlight won the best picture Oscar.

Not all members of the DGA are members of the Academy's directors branch, which determines the best director Oscar nominees; but virtually all members of the Academy's directors branch are members of the DGA, which may explain why the two groups' nominees tend to overlap to a great degree. This year, the DGA nominated for its top award Chazelle, Moonlight's Barry Jenkins, Manchester by the Sea's Kenneth Lonergan, Arrival's Denis Villeneuve and Lion's Garth Davis. The Academy's directors branch seconded all of those picks except for Davis, whom they replaced with Hacksaw Ridge's Mel Gibson.

The slight wild card here is that while best director Oscar nominees are chosen only by members of the Academy's directors branch, best director Oscar winners are, like all Oscars, chosen by the entire Academy, the vast majority of whom are not directors. And while directors tend to believe, as much as anyone, that the best picture must also be the best-directed picture, other members of the Academy sometimes like to divvy up their awards to recognize multiple films and to acknowledge the most difficult directing job separately from the most enjoyable picture. This year, though, I suspect they will regard La La Land as both of those things.

This is not to take anything away from what also was a great night for Lion, Harvey Weinstein's horse in this year's derby. While Davis, its Aussie-born helmer, lost to Chazelle in the most prestigious category, he did top a strong field to win the next-best one, outstanding directorial achievement in first-time feature film. And, across town at the American Society of Cinematographers Awards, Grieg Fraser, Lion's Australian-born lenser, pulled off something of a surprise win in the top category, theatrical release, topping La La Land's Linus Sandgren, as well as Moonlight's James Laxton, Arrival's Bradford Young and Silence's Rodrigo Prieto, all of whom also are nominated opposite him in the best cinematography Oscar category.

While there aren't many more award shows left on the calendar, there still is plenty of time for things to happen that could shake up the Oscar race. The final round of Oscar voting opens on Feb. 13 and runs all the way through Feb. 21. In the meantime, the Academy will host its annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon on Monday; BAFTA Awards voting will run through Wednesday, with the awards to take place next Sunday; the USC Scripter Awards will take place Saturday, which also is when the Santa Barbara International Film Festival wraps up; and then there are the WGA Awards on Feb. 19 and the Independent Spirit Awards on Feb. 25.

We're in the home stretch, nominees — be on your best behavior!