What the PGA Nominations Mean for the Oscar Race (Analysis)

Straight Outta Compton Still 4 - H 2015
Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures

Straight Outta Compton Still 4 - H 2015

Tuesday's announcement of the nominees for the 27th annual Producers Guild of America Awards — and, in particular, the nominees for the Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures, which honors the producers of the year's best film and is also known as "the PGA Award" — is of limited value to those of us who are trying to forecast the best picture Oscar race.

Why? For one thing, because the PGA still guarantees 10 nominees for the PGA Award, whereas the Academy two years ago abandoned its guarantee of 10 best picture nominees in favor of a voting system that can produce anywhere between five and 10 (meaning there might well end up being more PGA Award nominees than best picture Oscar nominees, as has been the case for the past three years). And, for another, because the tastes of the PGA and the Academy deviate in certain specific areas.

It widely was expected, going into Tuesday, that the PGA would recognize Paramount's The Big Short, DreamWorks' Bridge of Spies, Warner Bros.' Mad Max: Fury Road, Fox's The Martian and The Revenant and Open Road's Spotlight, the vanguard of the best picture Oscar frontrunners.

It was anything but certain, however, that Fox Searchlight's Brooklyn, Lionsgate's Sicario and Universal's Straight Outta Compton — three on-the-bubble contenders — would make the cut. And it was frankly shocking to see A24's Ex Machina on the list, not because it isn't worthy, but because it wasn't even its own distributor's best bet prior to Tuesday.

That film was Room, which it is fairly surprising not to see on the list, along with The Weinstein Co.'s Carol (which has performed extremely well with other awards groups). But perhaps the most surprising omission is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the mega-blockbuster which, until now, had received all of the major accolades for which it was eligible despite its late screening date.

In each of the past several years, the PGA and the Academy have overlapped on all but two or three nominees. Most of the discrepancies appear to be the result of the PGA siding with big box-office successes from big studios, followed by the Academy replacing them either with other big box-office successes from big studios, smaller-scale critics' darlings or nothing at all.

For 2014, the PGA nominated Fox's Gone Girl ($167 million), Sony Classics' Foxcatcher ($12 million) and Open Road's Nightcrawler ($32 million), which the Academy replaced with Paramount's Selma ($52 million). For 2013, the PGA nominated Disney's Saving Mr. Banks ($83 million) and Sony Classics' Blue Jasmine ($33 million), which the Academy replaced with The Weinstein Co.'s Philomena ($38 million).

For 2012, the PGA nominated MGM's Skyfall ($304 million) and Focus Features' Moonrise Kingdom ($46 million), which the Academy replaced with Sony Classics' Amour ($7 million). For 2011, the PGA nominated Universal's Bridesmaids ($169 million), Sony's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ($103 million) and Sony's The Ides of March ($41 million), which the Academy replaced with Fox Searchlight's The Tree of Life ($13 million) and Warner Bros.' Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ($32 million).

For 2010, the PGA nominated Warner Bros.' The Town ($92 million), which the Academy replaced with Roadside Attractions' Winter's Bone ($6 million). And for 2009, the PGA nominated Paramount's Star Trek ($257 million domestically) and Warner Bros.' Invictus ($37 million), which the Academy replaced with Warner Bros.' The Blind Side ($255 million), yes, but also Focus Features' A Serious Man ($9 million).

That's understandable enough, considering that a big part of the way producers measure the performance of a movie is its bottom line. But what it means is that Tuesday's nominations should not be interpreted as a best picture Oscar death-knell for the likes of art house fare such as Carol, Room, Bleecker Street's Trumbo, Netflix's Beasts of No Nation, Fox Searchlight's Youth and Focus Features' The Danish Girl. In my view, one or more of them still could bump out one or two of studio-made, commercially successful but highly divisive PGA nominees — perhaps Mad Max: Fury Road or Straight Outta Compton. (While most think the former is a safer bet, I'm not so sure.)

But for films that were made on a big scale and/or very commercially successful and still did not show up Tuesday, this could be the beginning of the end. Those include Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as Warner Bros.' Creed, Universal's Steve Jobs, The Weinstein Co.'s The Hateful Eight, Fox's Joy and Sony's Concussion and The Walk.

Whichever film ends up winning the PGA Award, which has been presented annually since 1990, will be in good company: 19 of the past 26 years the winner of the PGA Award — or I should say winners, since there was a tie two years ago — went on to win the best picture Oscar, including each of the last eight: No Country for Old Men (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The Hurt Locker (2009), The King's Speech (2010), The Artist (2011), Argo (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Birdman (2014).

The PGA Awards were and remain the first major guild-hosted awards ceremony on the calendar, meaning they potentially offer insight about the views held by people who actually work within the industry, unlike Globes voters, but like Academy voters. While Slumdog Millionaire, The Artist, Argo and 12 Years a Slave were widely anticipated winners, The Hurt Locker, The King's Speech and Birdman were facing uphill climbs — they had been beaten at several major awards shows when they were recognized with the PGA Award, which marked the beginning of a turnaround in their fortunes. In other words, until the PGA declares a winner, nobody else can with any real degree of confidence.