When I ran into Ben Affleck at the Golden Globes on Sunday he told me he thinks this wide open Oscar race won’t really come into focus until the Producers Guild names its choice for Best Picture on January 19th at the Beverly Hilton. Of course Affleck (with George Clooney and Grant Heslov) won at the PGA last year for Argo and it went on to take the Oscar for Best Picture as well. Now about to celebrate their 25th anniversary the PGA awards have become one of the most reliable bellwethers of eventual Oscar glory. In fact the last six films in a row that have taken the Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures has gone on to win the Academy’s Best Picture prize too, a list that in addition to Argo includes The Artist, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire and No Country For Old Men. In fact it was the PGA that turned the race completely around for The Hurt Locker by unexpectedly choosing it over Avatar and picking King’s Speech over The Social Network, the favorite until that point. The PGA turned both races on a dime. In fact since handing out awards a quarter century ago the Guild has had a strong overall track record in matching Oscar’s sentiments. Perhaps one reason is they work very closely with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in vetting producers credits and determining which producers are eligible not only for the PGA award, but also the Oscar, although the final decision on the latter is up to the Academy’s producers branch.
Since being founded as the Screen Producers Guild in 1950, the PGA has grown by leaps and bounds. But it is the current century where dramatic change has taken place from a membership that numbered only 350 in the year 2000 to over 6, 000 members today – and counting. The Guild , under current Presidents Mark Gordon and Hawk Koch who are now in their last term (an election for their successor(s) will be held in June, the same month the annual two day Producers Conference will take place on the Warner Bros lot), has also achieved a landmark victory in getting all the major studios to sign on in recognizing the p.g.a. mark, a symbol next to a producer’s name that legitimize’s the title and carries Guild approval for a designation all too misused in the industry. Now it’s about real producers and actual producing duties on a project.
This year the Producers Guild Awards, in addition to honoring film and TV, will also be handing out special awards to James Bond Producers Barbara Broccoli & Michael Wilson, Robert Iger, Peter Jackson & Joe Letteri, Chuck Lorre, Chris Meledandri and the film, Fruitvale Station which is getting the Stanley Kramer Award. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the PGA awards I spoke with Koch, Gordon and National Executive Director Vance Van Petten about the milestones they have achieved, the big night upcoming on Sunday and plans for the future.
DEADLINE: The Producers Guild has had an enviable track record in recent years in leading the way to the Best Picture Oscar with their own choices.
HAWK KOCH: I’m happy the producers have become the forerunners, we’re the arbiters.
MARK GORDON: The forecasters! I don’t really know the answer to the question. I haven’t thought about it. On the one hand you could say the people in the Producers Guild must have the same perspective on movies that the Academy voters do. What you can’t say is the Producers Guild has a populist view because the Academy Awards are not chosen by the people. They are obviously chosen by the Academy.
KOCH: And I would bet you that at least 350 to 400 members of the PGA are also in the Academy. But here’s what I can say. I do believe that our Guild really does their due diligence and really looks at all the movies. I can’t say that for all the other Guilds but, like the Academy members who really want to make sure they have seen everything (Koch is a former President of AMPAS), we have so many screenings that are so well attended by our members. I am proud of them.
GORDON: And I think we have ten good films this year.
DEADLINE: Sometimes the PGA, unlike the Academy, goes for a blockbuster grossing movie among their nominations such as last year’s James Bond hit, Skyfall.
GORDON: That’s one of the reasons we are really excited this year about giving Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli our Selznick Achievement Award. The fact is there’s nothing wrong with popular entertainment. And the fact that a James Bond movie, and more importantly the producers of these movies for the past 30 years, are being recognized with our highest award for the motion picture producer is really exciting for us because how great are those movies? And how terrific what they have done to revive the franchise over the past 10 or 15 years, how smart they have been. You have to give them a lot of credit.
DEADLINE: Talk about your relationship with the Academy. You vet their Best Picture nominated producers don’t you?
GORDON: We recommend based on the fact that the Academy doesn’t do the same kind of vetting we do. In fact they charge us with vetting the produced by credit for the Academy.
KOCH: And with the Producers Mark this year, as opposed to only during awards season, now because we have had the mark all through the year there won’t be that rush of ‘oh my God which producers are going to be nominated?’ You will see it all the way through the year because of the p.g.a. mark.
DEADLINE: So you must have a p.g.a. mark on your credit in order to be eligible for an award?
VANCE VAN PETTEN: Technically no, but if you had a producers mark you are automatically vetted for an award. If for some reason you opted out and initially did not want a producers mark then we would consider them for eligibility for an award they might otherwise have qualified for.
DEADLINE: The producers mark is proving to be quite successful for you.
VAN PETTEN: Yes. Right now we have 20 films in process just for this week.
KOCH: Everybody wants it. People now know if you get the mark you are the real producer.
DEADLINE: In terms of this year’s producing nominees you vetted only three of the five producers for The Wolf Of Wall Street but you did NOT include two big names on that producing team: director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo Di Caprio.
VAN PETTEN: We are just trying to analyze the functions that are specifically performed in producing. We don’t want, in any way, in ANY way to minimize Marty’s or Leo’s contributions, even as producers. They did make contributions as producers on that film. They just did not reach the standard according to our arbiters of performing a majority of producing functions of the film from development through post. We are not dunning them. They just didn’t meet the standard, that’s all.
DEADLINE: So will that be the same criteria the Academy will follow for a ‘Wolf’ Best Picture nomination?
KOCH: That’s up to the Academy, not us.
GORDON: Their criteria is basically the same as ours. We gave them our recommendation based on what our arbiters determined, and then they have the opportunity to look at all the data that was looked at by our arbiters and why the decision that was made was made. And then they have the right to change it, keep it, adjust it any way they see fit. Although I have to point out that it is very rare that the Academy has not taken the Producer’s Guild recommendation, but they have every right to and I believe there has been one or two isolated incidents over the past many years. (ED. NOTE: The Academy has yet to determine the producers credits on Wolf Of Wall Street and left out any names as nominees when it was announced as a Best Picture nominee on Thursday – the only Picture nominee with the eligible producers still in question).
DEADLINE: Do you think a movie like Lee Daniel’s The Butler, which didn’t get nominated, might have been hurt in a culture of producers who know there were 41 producing credits given on that movie?
KOCH: I don’t think that’s the reason. I can’t say who votes for what. I don’t think it is because there were 41 producers. I don’t think there’s a backlash. I think we look at the movie itself and say ‘I’m voting for the movie’. When our ballots come to us it doesn’t say ‘produced by’. I know for me I am just looking at the movie and saying whichever one it is is one of my top ten.
DEADLINE: The Producers Guild has come a long way since it was founded and since the PGA awards started 25 years ago. What does the future look like. What is the state of the guild?
VAN PETTEN: We’ve never been healthier. Under Mark’s and Hawk’s leadership 2013 was the best year the guild’s ever had. By any parameter or any measurement you want to give me, we had the highest number of members ever join the guild in the last 12 months. We had over 750 members join, or attempt to join, in the last year. That’s a 20% growth. That’s one thing. Getting the producers mark established and just to say the following words is almost unbelievable coming out of my mouth: we got six studios to sign contracts, without any collective bargaining status, to agree to live by credits that affect the movies that they make. It’s just unheard of. It’s quite an accomplishment. And it’s due to Mark’s and Hawk’s complete devotion and time and commitment and relentlessness. And also with the years of accumulated credibility we have gotten vetting these awards shows. Remember it is not just the Oscars, it’s also the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes, they follow our rules. All of the major honorary societies do follow what our recommendations are for Best Picture (producers). We’ve done so well. We will have two new Presidents in June and they are, I’m sure, going to have a new agenda. I am looking sadly at losing two of most favorite bosses of all time. I don’t know what the new bosses are going to bring to the table, but I am still reveling in the success we have had in the past year.
KOCH: We have credibility now. A lot of us came into this guild because we wanted the rights of producers to be looked after. Nobody had ever really looked after them. There was a lot of disrespect of both movie and television producers and the whole producing team. We feel like we’ve been able to turn that around.