PGA Awards: Does the 'Shape of Water' Win Point Toward Oscar?

THR's awards columnist dissects Saturday night's results and looks ahead to Sunday night's SAG Awards.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
'The Shape of Water'

On Saturday night, The Shape of Water won the PGA Award — the first major guild award of the season — which means... The Shape of Water won the PGA Award.

So went the tweet of a person I follow on Twitter, with whose underlying premise I absolutely agree: The PGA Award win for Guillermo del Toro's genre-hybrid is obviously a positive development for the film, coming hot on the heels of its best picture Critics' Choice Award win — but, at the same time, remember that La La Land also won those same two prizes last year, and then lost the best picture Oscar to Moonlight, so nothing is assured beyond this very moment, particularly in a season like this one, when so many different films have considerable bases of support.

There are arguments for and against regarding the PGA Award — more specifically, the Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures — as a strong indicator of what will happen with the best picture Oscar.

On the one hand, the PGA and the Academy are roughly the same size (the PGA has 8,200 members, while the Academy, by last count, has 7,258), and the PGA Award and the best picture Oscar are the only two major awards season honors that use a preferential ballot (a bizarre manner of tallying votes that rewards consensus over passion), so the PGA balloting offers a unique simulation of Oscar voting. Also, as is the case this year, the PGA Award is usually presented before the final round of Oscar voting even begins, which means it can fuel group-think. For those reasons, or others, the same film that won the PGA Award — or more precisely, since there was a tie one year, a film that won the PGA Award — went on to win the best picture Oscar in 19 of the 28 years in which the two were both presented.

On the other hand, the last two recipients of the PGA Award — La La Land last year and The Big Short the year before that — did not go on to win the best picture Oscar. And, mathematically, it doesn't actually make all that much sense to expect that the choice of 7,000 PGA-member producers would necessarily repeat at the Oscars, considering that producers account for a mere 7.2 percent of all of the voters who get a best picture Oscar ballot, since there are only 524 members in the Academy's producers branch.

The Academy's actors branch is the largest branch by far (16.7%), and that suggests that the thing we ought to be paying close attention to is not the result of the top PGA Award, but rather the result of the top SAG Award — best ensemble — which will, conveniently enough, be handed out on Sunday evening.

And there's the rub for Shape of Water. Another thing that it shares in common with La La Land is the fact that, somewhat surprisingly, it did not receive a best ensemble SAG Award nom, without which only one film in the last 23 years — Braveheart, in 1996 — has gone on to win the best picture Oscar. This was something that, in the case of La La Land, many dismissed as a freak occurrence, possibly attributable to the fact that that movie was essentially a two-hander and therefore not considered a true "ensemble." That may indeed explain why La La Land didn't get a best ensemble SAG Award nom — or it may not and we may have actually missed a warning sign for that film, which means it would also be a warning sign for Shape of Water.

All that being said, I wouldn't bet the farm on the best ensemble SAG Award winner also winning the best picture Oscar — there's a very shaky history of correlation between the two. Last year, Hidden Figures beat Moonlight, among other films, to win the best ensemble SAG Award, and then the reverse outcome occurred in the best picture Oscar race. This year's best ensemble SAG Award nominees are The Big Sick, Get Out, Lady Bird, Mudbound and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. All but Mudbound were also nominated for the PGA Award; Get Out, in fact, was a big winner at the PGA Awards ceremony, with Norman Lear gushing about the film and its writer/director Jordan Peele while presenting it with the pre-announced Stanley Kramer Award.

I suppose the bottom line is this: As the Academy has made a concerted effort to become more diverse and international (roughly 20 percent of its current members were invited to join in the last two years), it has become an organization unlike any of the others that give out awards before it does. Those groups, which used to behave similarly to the Academy, no longer resemble it as much as they used to. In some years, the tastes of those groups' voters and the Academy's voters may still align — and, indeed, a film like The Shape of Water, which was shot in Canada by a Mexican filmmaker for a U.S. studio, may be even more popular with the Academy, as it is today, than with these early groups.

But, if we're being honest, then we have to admit that more so than ever before, no one knows for sure.