It was not a good day for the major studio entries in this year’s awards race. Snubs of two expected nominees, Paramount’s Selma and Universal’s Unbroken — both, coincidentally, directed by women — lead the no-shows on this morning’s list of 10 contenders for the Producers Guild Best Picture prize, the Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures. Only two movies distributed directly by the majors, Warner Bros’ American Sniper and 20th’s (and New Regency’s) Gone Girl, made the list, while Disney’s Into The Woods, Sony’s Fury and another Paramount (with Warner Bros) hopeful, Interstellar, also were blanked.
Certainly the specialty divisions of the majors are well represented — Focus has The Theory Of Everything, Sony Pictures Classics has Foxcatcher and Whiplash, Fox Searchlight has The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman — but the initial hope in the PGA expanding to 10 picture nominees the same year the Academy did was to encourage more nominations for some of the bigger, more popular blockbuster-type films such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (which was snubbed by the Academy in the top race that year but not PGA). Today’s list is very indie-centric. The budgets on some of these films probably couldn’t buy a trailer for Tom Cruise on Mission: Impossible 5. In past years, the PGA has been the friendliest port in the awards-season storm for bigger films. Nolan’s Interstellar was, in fact, widely considered to be a major contender before its November opening but has faded on pundits’ lists in recent weeks. If it had a real shot of showing up with a key Best Picture nomination, it was thought to be the more blockbuster-friendly PGA. In addition to Dark Knight in 2008 (when there were only five nominees), the PGA also nominated Nolan’s Inception (as did the Academy) in 2010. But never say never. Interstellar just wrapped a heavy New Year’s weekend of campaign events with a Brad Grey-hosted lunch at the Palm, a Saturday night party and a big American Cinematheque screening among other things — all targeted at Academy members. And I am told the turnout was strong.
Today’s list is a particularly big blow to the chances of Universal’s Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie and a box-office success that many thought might dominate awards season after its preview in March at CinemaCon. Screeners were sent to the membership, but I am told they got them later than other movies that were sent. And the PGA snub of Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, is not helpful at this crucial point in its late-breaking awards campaign. Controversy over the film’s treatment of the involvement of President Johnson in the 1964 Selma march reared its head last week just as balloting for the PGA was still in progress. But a simpler, and more likely, explanation might be that not enough members saw the film, which opened Christmas Day in limited release and doesn’t go wide until Friday. Although Paramount has sent screeners to Oscar voters, the studio did not send them to the PGA membership (Interstellar wasn’t sent either; Nolan, rightly so, wanted it to be experienced on the big screen, if possible. Blu-rays went out to Oscar voters). At the PGA’s own official screening, though, high-profile producer Oprah Winfrey made a Q&A appearance along with Plan B’s Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, who shared the PGA’s top prize last year for 12 Years A Slave (which tied with Gravity). Brad Pitt, their partner at Selma producer Plan B, was an executive producer on this film as well. All is not lost for Plan B, though, as the PGA is honoring the company with a special award at the January 24 Beverly Hilton ceremony this year.
With the list dominated by more independent-minded movies including The Weinstein Company’s hit, The Imitation Game, IFC’s 12-years-in-the-making phenomenon Boyhood, and the real comer in this race, Open Road’s Nightcrawler, it appears more true than ever that movies generally rejected by the majors are still the ones the industry wants to embrace with awards love. Epics and epic-budgeted films seem cursed. Since its Toronto Film Festival debut in September, Nightcrawler slowly has been gaining steam because of word-of-mouth in the industry and the fact that Open Road is getting it seen. And there can be no question that screeners matter. Selma, for instance, didn’t have screeners ready in time for the SAG Awards nominating committee, either, and the film also was snubbed there. And it won’t be showing up on the WGA list because it is ineligible due to the fact it wasn’t produced under the guild agreement.
The guild races generally are a real Oscars harbinger since most Academy voters also are a member of a guild. These nominations give us a real indication of the sentiment of the industry, as opposed to critics awards. With SAG and PGA in, and WGA, DGA and others still to come before the January 15 Oscar nominations (voting closes on Thursday), it’s becoming clear that the 2014 race is still wide open — but strongly favors the little guys the ones who don’t have a whole lot of money to spend. Isn’t that ironic?