PGA Awards: 'The Big Short' Is Oscar Frontrunner Until Further Notice (Analysis)

PGA The Big Short - H 2016
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

On Saturday night, in the latest twist of a most unpredictable Oscar season, The Big Short, a dramedy about America's recent financial crisis (that topped my most recent Feinberg Forecast), won the top prize at the PGA Awards, the Darryl F. Zanuck Award. This marks the second time in three years that the coveted accolade has gone to Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Brad Pitt, who also won for 12 Years a Slave, and the first time since Forrest Gump won 21 years ago that the prize has gone to a release of Paramount Pictures.

So what, if anything, does this result — voting for which took place between Jan. 5 and yesterday, Jan. 22 — tell us about the best picture Oscar race? Quite a lot, actually.


Because the PGA Awards are the first awards show of the season that reflects the tastes of people who actually make movies, like everyone in the Academy. The Golden Globe Awards and Critics' Choice Awards are great fun, but they reflect the tastes of journalists, who are not represented in the Academy at all. (Remember that The Hurt Locker, The King's Speech and Birdman, among other past best picture winners, had lost those other awards and had not accrued any major wins until the PGA Awards righted their course.)

Because in 19 of the last 26 years — 73 percent — and each of the last eight, the best picture Oscar winner collected the PGA's Zanuck Award en route to the Dolby. (Few other precursor awards have a better track record.)

Because the number of PGA voters and the number of Oscar voters is almost exactly the same — both right around 7,000 — and the PGA Awards are one of the few awards groups that conducts voting using the same quirky preferential balloting system as the Academy. (They both adopted it seven years ago as part of an effort to honor "consensus choices.")

Because almost all of the strongest contenders for the best picture Oscar — The Big Short, The Revenant, Spotlight, The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, Bridge of Spies and Brooklyn — also were nominated for the PGA's Zanuck Award. (The only discrepancies: the PGA, which guarantees 10 Zanuck Award noms, also included Ex Machina, Sicario and Straight Outta Compton, while the Academy, which nominates anywhere between five and 10 films for the best pic Oscar, passed those over in favor of Room.)

And because, perhaps most importantly, seeing or reading about a film in the winner's circle at a major awards show like the PGA Awards leads some people in other groups that have not yet voted, including the Academy, to stop saying of it "Why?" and start saying "Why not?" (In other words, winning breeds confidence and confidence breeds winning.)

The next important stop on the awards circuit is the SAG Awards, voting for which remains open until noon on Friday, ahead of Saturday night's ceremony. The top prize there is best ensemble, and if The Big Short wins it — a big "if," since it's up against Spotlight, among others — then it would look pretty unstoppable the rest of the way. Only two films ever have won both the PGA's Zanuck Award and the best ensemble SAG Award and then lost the best picture Oscar: 1995's Apollo 13 and 2006's Little Miss Sunshine. True, the DGA Award is the most reliable predictor of best director and best picture Oscar success — but the fact of the matter is that The Big Short's Adam McKay (who will be joining me on the 'Awards Chatter' podcast this week) stands as good a shot at winning that accolade as any of the five filmmakers who are up for it.

The bottom line? Don't write off The Revenant (which did win the best picture-drama Golden Globe and does have a field-leading 12 Oscar noms) or Spotlight (which has won plenty of accolades of its own) or The Martian (which has sympathy for Oscar-snubbed Ridley Scott to go with its best picture-musical/comedy Golden Globe) or Bridge of Spies (the "establishment" choice) or Mad Max: Fury Road (its director might well win the DGA Award) or Room (which has directing, acting and writing noms) or Brooklyn (as timely as any of the nominees).

But do realize that if any of the crazy geniuses featured in The Big Short were advising you about which film you should put your chips on at this particular juncture, it would surely be their own, which now has stats and momentum in its favor.