PGA Awards: 'Birdman' Upsets 'Boyhood,' Creating a Real Oscar Race (Analysis)

Birdman Wins PGAs - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

Birdman Wins PGAs - H 2015

The Golden Globe Awards, Critics' Choice Awards and Hollywood Film Awards, like the many other awards ceremonies that took place this season prior to Saturday night, were fine and dandy, but their winners were chosen by foreign journalists, film critics and an unnamed committee, respectively. They were not chosen by people who actually make movies, like those who are represented in the Academy. The people who work in the business tend to reveal their leanings at the various guild awards that precede the Oscars. And the first of those — the 26th Annual Producers Guild of America Awards — took place in Century City on Saturday night.

And that is why it is big news that the PGA awarded its Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures to Birdman, not Boyhood, which had previously won just about everything for which it was eligible. In just 24 hours, the 21st Screen Actors Guild Awards will follow the PGA Awards, and the result could be the same.

But the question that can't be answered until the 87th Oscars on Feb. 22 is whether or not this year's PGA Award for Birdman was a "false-positive." In recent years, it hasn't been: Avatar (2009) and The Social Network (2010)  both swept the major awards that preceded the guild announcements, but then the guilds, starting with the PGA, endorsed The Hurt Locker and The King's Speech, respectively, and the Academy followed their lead. Indeed, in each of the last seven years — and in 18 of the 25 years in which the PGA Award has been presented, or 72 percent — the film that won the best picture Oscar had previously won the PGA Award. (The fact that both the PGA and the Academy have employed the same sort of "preferential ballot" for the past six years may have something to do with this impressive track record.)

Read more PGA Awards Complete Winners List

Birdman — which was produced by Alejandro G. Inarritu, John Lesher and James W. Skotchdopole — previously lost prizes for which it was more heavily favored, including the Golden Globe and the Critics' Choice awards for best musical/comedy picture. It is fair to ask whether it might have appealed disproportionately to the 6,769 members of the PGA. Producers surely connected, as much as anyone except perhaps actors, with a film that centers around a has-been movie star who decides to try to put together his own theater project after other opportunities dry up, introducing him to the challenges and frustrations of life as a producer.

Might Boyhood — for which the PGA recognized Richard Linklater and Cathleen Sutherland as producers, but, like the Academy, not Jonathan Sehring and John Sloss — have been a bit more outside the PGA's wheelhouse than it was for other groups'? PGA members surely admired the "tenacity" — the theme word heard at Saturday's ceremony — of the film's producers, who made the film over the course of 12 years. But the PGA has also tended, with only a few exceptions, to reward films with bigger production budgets and higher domestic grosses than Boyhood, which cost  $2.4 million and grossed $24 million. (Birdman's budget and gross certainly aren't huge — $18 million and $29 million, respectively — but they're a bit bigger than Boyhood's, if not those of American Sniper and Gone Girl, two of the other PGA nominees.)

Sunday night's SAG Awards will now be particularly interesting to watch, since Birdman and Boyhood will go head-to-head again for the top prize of the night, best ensemble. That honor is supposed to recognize the strongest cast, but SAG-AFTRA members and the media treat it as the equivalent of a best picture award. It is expected to go to Birdman, a film that is largely about actors and stars a considerable number of great ones, three of whom received individual SAG Award noms. (Boyhood landed two individual acting noms.) But if SAG elects to instead fete the four actors who gave 12 years of their life to Boyhood, well, then we're back to square one, aren't we?

See more PGA Awards Red Carpet Gallery

Of course, there's also the possibility that another film could emerge and win at the SAG Awards. Last year, as you may recall, 12 Years a Slave and Gravity tied for the PGA Award and American Hustle won the best ensemble SAG Award; this year, that wild card would be The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything, each of which was also nominated for the PGA Award. I, for one, think that such an outcome is certainly not out of the question — look out for Budapest, since the film with the most actors listed alongside it almost always wins, and Budapest lists 17 actors, many of them very well-known, far more than any of the other nominees in the category this year.

The bottom line is this: if Boyhood had won the PGA Award, most people would be declaring the best picture Oscar race over; the fact that Birdman bagged that prize doesn't mean that Boyhood has now lost the Oscar any more than it means that Birdman has now won it, but rather that we may now have a real race on our hands, which makes things more exciting for everyone. Check back in 24 hours — things could look totally different then!

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg