In the last two years the winner of the Producers Guild of America’s Best Picture award (aka Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures) has turned the Oscar race on its head. The choice in 2010 of low-grossing indie The Hurt Locker over the highest grossing movie ever Avatar just one week after its Golden Globe win was a shocker. So was last year’s defeat of The Social Network by Harvey Weinstein’s upstart The King’s Speech also just one week after Sony Picture’s Facebook film triumphed at the Globes. But Saturday night’s victory by frontrunner The Artist isn’t inspiring the same comparisons.
If the PGA winner had been any film other than The Artist, then the race would have taken a new twist. Instead it went the way most pundits expected. And it would appear, on the surface at least, the little French black-and-white silent movie is well on its way to victory at the Oscars. After all, the PGA is the first real industry test and it has a good track record matching its winner with the eventual Best Picture Oscar for the past four years. (It has missed three others in the last decade though). The PGA is the first guild to reveal its choice and many members are also Oscar voters so it carries a great deal of weight. The glum faces of competitors in the Beverly Hilton lobby afterwards would seem to indicate the seemingly inevitable crowning of The Artist at the Kodak Theatre. But it ain’t over til its over — and in fact we don’t even get the Academy Award nominations until Tuesday.
Still, Thomas Langmann, producer of The Artist, played the role of underdog in his classy acceptance speech when he said, “We were just writing a love letter to American cinema. We never dreamed we would get to taste the American dream”. It went over well in the room, especially when he pointed out none of them could believe they were in the same room as Steven Spielberg, much less the same category. While I was congratulating Langmann in the lobby, Harvey Weinstein came up and warned him there is still a long way to go and that nothing should be taken for granted. He recalled being on the opposite side last year when it seemed inevitable that The Social Network was going to win. In fact last year Harvey didn’t make the trek up to LA from Sundance just for the PGA night like he did this year. But then this year he knew he might have the winner — and Harvey looked like the cat that just ate the canary.
Later in the lobby Executive Producer Richard Middleton told me they really didn’t dare to dream this big. “[The director] Michel [Hazanavicius] would just tell me he hoped to get a nice DVD out of it. It never occurred to anyone we would be sitting here today. It really didn’t”.
Next weekend has both the DGA and SAG awards: this is where one of the rival films is going to have to stop the momentum of Harvey’s little-movie-that-could before Academy voters start sniffing a winner. It’s a strategy Lionsgate employed in 2005 when Focus Features’ Brokeback Mountain seemed just as invincible. (Lionsgate put everything it had, including a DVD screener mailed to the entire SAG membership, in order to help Crash pull off an upset. And that’s exactly what it did by beating Brokeback for the coveted SAG ensemble prize and winning the Oscar.) In fact all five SAG ensemble cast nominated films have sent screeners to the 90,000-plus SAG membership, a pricey move that underlines this guild’s strategic and psychological importance. Stranger things have happened just as final Oscar ballots are put in the mail.