Oscars: What the '1917' PGA Win and 'Parasite' SAG Win Mean for Best Picture

Two films with no individual acting nominees pulled off monumental wins over the weekend.
Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images
Cast of 'Parasite'

It was a weekend that may have reshaped the Oscar race.

The top prizes at the 31st Producers Guild of America Awards and the 26th Screen Actors Guild Awards — among the most valued precursor awards on the road to the 92nd Academy Awards on Feb. 9 — each went to movies starring people virtually nobody in the Academy had heard of prior to this awards season, many still cannot name and none of whom are personally nominated for an Oscar.

The films are 1917 and Parasite, respectively, and call to mind the Oscar race of 11 years ago, when a little movie called Slumdog Millionaire, which starred a bunch of newcomers people couldn't help but root for, won both of those prizes and eventually the best picture Oscar, as well.

At Saturday night's PGA Awards, 1917, Sam Mendes' World War I saga, won the Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures over the eight other films that are also nominated for the best picture Oscar — Parasite, plus Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — as well as Knives Out. In 21 of the 30 prior years in which the PGA Awards and Academy Awards were both presented, the winner of the top PGA Award — or at least a winner of the top PGA Award, since there was once a tie — went on to win the best picture Oscar.

There are also other reasons why Oscar-watchers pay close attention to the PGA's choice. The voting rolls of the PGA and the Academy are almost exactly the same size — roughly 8,000 people determine the top prize at both the PGA Awards and the Academy Awards — and the PGA Awards is the only major awards ceremony that employs the same sort of "preferential ballot" that the Academy Awards has for the past decade since both groups expanded the size of their top category beyond five (one which requires voters to rank nominees and then, in a convoluted way, rewards the film that most people at least like). In that time period, the two groups have chosen different winners only twice: The PGA picked The Big Short while the Academy picked Spotlight four years ago, and the PGA picked La La Land while the Academy picked Moonlight three years ago.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the PGA and the Academy are very different groups. The PGA is composed solely of producers, whereas the Academy comprises people from all aspects of the filmmaking process (more than 93 percent of its members are not producers). And the PGA is made up almost entirely of Americans and therefore reflects their tastes, whereas the Academy is increasingly an international organization. The latter reality certainly didn't help one film at the PGA Awards, Bong Joon Ho's South Korean dramedy Parasite.

But Parasite did still manage to win over another primarily American group, SAG-AFTRA, based on the fact that it became the first non-English-language film ever awarded the best ensemble SAG Award — topping fellow best picture Oscar nominees The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, plus Bombshell.

Granted, the winner of the best ensemble SAG Award has overlapped with the winner of the best picture Oscar only 11 times in the 24 prior years in which both have been presented — but the best ensemble SAG Award has been the first and sometimes only bellwether ahead of shocking best picture Oscar upsets such as those pulled off by 1998's Shakespeare in Love, 2005's Crash and 2015's Spotlight.

And it makes sense that SAG-AFTRA — the world's largest union of actors, with about 160,000 members — would offer valuable hints about how the Academy is thinking. The largest segment of the Academy, by far, is its actors branch, which, with 1,324 members, accounts for 16 percent of the entire voting body. Most of those actors belong to SAG-AFTRA.

Only a small segment of SAG-AFTRA — a nominating committee — picks the SAG Awards nominees. But all of SAG-AFTRA picks the winners from those nominees. In other words, the SAG Awards function as a survey with a larger sample size of Academy members than any other event prior to the Oscars itself.

The fact that a huge group of actors that is mostly American, that is known for being populist rather than elitist and that does not use a preferential ballot still selected Parasite for its top honor is rather remarkable. Meanwhile, the Academy has an added incentive to strongly consider Parasite: Unlike SAG-AFTRA, it has yet again been criticized for not being inclusive of people who are non-white-males.

The flip side of the equation, however, is that the last two best picture Oscar winners — The Shape of Water and Green Book — weren't even nominated for the best ensemble SAG Award (although that is probably because they were two-handers). Additionally, when the two prizes have gone to different films, the best ensemble SAG Award has usually gone to a more diverse project than was awarded the best picture Oscar (e.g. Traffic, The Help, Hidden Figures and Black Panther).

And the Academy Awards, unlike the SAG Awards, also has a category specifically reserved for non-English-language films, which makes it less likely that voters will tick off the same film in that category and the best picture category when they could instead honor multiple films. (No non-English-language film has ever won the best picture Oscar.) All of which means that supporters of Parasite shouldn't bet the farm on the best picture Oscar just yet.

As for the other SAG Awards presented to films on Sunday night, things went exactly as expected.

Joker's Joaquin Phoenix won for best actor. (Only five of the 25 prior winners of the best actor SAG Award did not go on to win the best actor Oscar; one was nominated and won in the best supporting actor category, and three others already had Oscars at home, unlike Phoenix.) Judy's Renee Zellweger won for best actress. (All but seven of the 24 previous best actress SAG Award winners went on to snag an Oscar, too; however, three of those seven had previously won Oscars, like Zellweger.) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's Brad Pitt won for best supporting actor. (All but nine of the 25 prior best supporting actor SAG Award winners went on to win the corresponding Oscar.) And Marriage Story's Laura Dern won for best supporting actress. (Only eight times did the best supporting actress SAG Award winner not go on to an Oscar in that category — and twice it was because the eventual Oscar winner had been competing in the lead actress category at the SAG Awards.)

All four — but especially Pitt — gave memorable acceptance speeches that only further solidified their prospects moving forward.