DGA Noms Boost Scorsese and Greengrass, But Oscar Voting Works Differently (Analysis)

Bruce Dern Martin Scorsese DGA - H 2013
Scott Feinberg

Bruce Dern Martin Scorsese DGA - H 2013

This afternoon, the Directors Guild of America, the oldest and largest union of film and television directors, announced its five nominees for the 66th feature film DGA Award, which will be presented on Jan. 25. Their selections: Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron, Captain Phillips' Paul Greengrass, 12 Years a Slave's Steve McQueen, American Hustle's David O. Russell and The Wolf of Wall Street's Martin Scorsese.

Everyone knows that a DGA nom is a big deal -- certainly for frontrunners like McQueen, Cuaron and Russell, and also for on-the-bubble contenders like Scorsese (a legend whose film is at the center of considerable controversy) and Greengrass (a lower-profile Brit who beat out a lot of bigger names for a slot) -- but not everyone knows why.

The answer?

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Over the past 65 years in which the DGA Award has been presented, it has proven to be the single most accurate predictor of the winners of the best director Oscar (their winners have differed only seven times) and the best picture Oscar (the film directed by the DGA winner has gone on to win the best picture Oscar on all but 13 occasions).

But, when it comes to nominees, the two groups rarely overlap exactly. Perhaps this is because the DGA employs a weighted voting system whereas the Academy, in its best director category, employs a voting system that rewards passion even more than consensus. (This manifested itself last year when the roughly 15,000-member DGA and the directors branch of the Academy, which consisted of 371 members (or 6.34% of the full Academy) last year and consists of 377 members this year (or just 6.25% of the full Academy), reached very different conclusions about Argo's Ben Affleck. Affleck was nominated for the DGA Award -- and won it -- but he and fellow DGA nominees Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) were not even nominated by the Academy's directors branch, which replaced them with Amour's Michael Haneke, Beasts of the Southern Wild's Benh Zeitlin and Silver Linings Playbook's Russell.

So, on Jan. 16, is the directors branch of the Academy going to nominate the same five individuals that the DGA did? It might -- people generally seem to feel that the DGA's choices are the five most worthy this year: they were all also nominated for the best director Critics' Choice Award, albeit using a system like the DGA's, and the Hollywood Foreign Press nominated all of them but Scorsese for its best director award, as well.

But there is some question about how high some of the DGA nominees will be listed on Oscar ballots, which could make them vulnerable to people who might receive fewer total mentions but be listed higher on the ballots on which they appear. For this reason, Scorsese and Greengrass can't afford to stop campaigning for Oscar votes right up until the close of voting at 5pm PST on Wednesday.

Today, moments after learning that he had been nominated for the DGA Award, Scorsese arrived at Michael's restaurant in New York for a gathering of Academy members hosted by Paramount in celebration of both The Wolf of Wall Street and Nebraska and spent lunch mingling with Academy members. (I was seated beside him at a table that also included actors Richard Gere and Tony Lo Bianco and producers Wendy Finerman and Fred Zollo, all of whom have Oscar votes, albeit not in the best director category until the second round of voting.

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(Seated at nearby tables were Wolf's lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio, supporting actor Jonah Hill, screenwriter Terence Winter and film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and Nebraska's lead actor Bruce Dern and supporting actor Will Forte -- along with a bunch of other Academy members, including actors Steve Buscemi, Tovah Feldshuh, John Gabriel, Carol Kane, Tina Louise and Jean Reno; producers Diane Nabatoff and Jane Startz; film editor Jeffrey Wolf; animator Jimmy Picker; and publicist Donna Dickman.)

But if Scorsese and/or one of today's other DGA nominees is, in fact, bounced by the Academy, who might be the beneficiary?

I think that it is unlikely to be Nebraska's Alexander Payne, a two-time best director Oscar nominee, not only because he has largely ceded campaigning duties for his film to Dern and Forte but also because I think he would have stood a better shot under the DGA's voting system than the Academy's.

It could be the team of Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. The brothers, who also have two best director noms under their belts, one of which resulted in a win, have made a love it-or-hate it film in Inside Llewyn Davis, and I think it may have enough people who fall into the former camp to put them over the top. Additionally, they have been more available for press and public appearances this awards season than ever before and CBS Films and producer Scott Rudin have left no stone unturned, mailing unsent or ad unbought in their quest to deliver major noms for the film.

Others with smaller but passionate blocks of champions include Her's Spike Jonze (a best director Oscar nominee 14 years ago for Being John Malkovich), Blue Jasmine's Woody Allen (a best director winner 36 years ago for Annie Hall and nominee on six other occasions, most recently two years ago for Midnight in Paris), Lee Daniels' The Butler's Lee Daniels (a best director Oscar nominee four years ago for Precious), Philomena's Stephen Frears (a best director Oscar nominee 23 years ago for The Grifters and seven years ago for The Queen) and Fruitvale Station's 27-year-old helmer Ryan Coogler (who has the interesting but ultimately meaningless distinction of having won just about every critics' group or awards group's prize for best first film or best breakthrough director).

Of that batch, Jonze probably stands the best shot, but I'd also keep a very close eye on Coogler, who could end up as this year's out-of-nowhere, young up-and-comer, indie-darling, Zeitlin-type of nominee.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg