“This was a real shot in the arm for me,” DGA feature film winner Guillermo Del Toro told me last last night as he carried his latest trophy for The Shape Of Water out of the Beverly Hilton International Ballroom. “I feel like I got my tetanus shot tonight!” Indeed he did. So, let’s get geeky and into the weeds of what it all means for the 90th Academy Awards.
In terms of importance, predictive accuracy and history, the DGA is probably THE key indicator of Oscar success. The oft-repeated statistic is that only seven times since its inception in 1948-49 has the winner of the DGA Directorial Achievement in Feature Film award not gone on to win the corresponding Oscar, the last being Argo’s Ben Affleck, who actually got a boost toward a DGA win by controversy surrounding his snub for directing Oscar nomination that year. In fact, three of those seven couldn’t go on to win the Oscar (Apollo 13’s Ron Howard in 1995, and The Color Purple’s Steven Spielberg in 1985 were the other two in addition to Affleck) because they didn’t even make the Academy’s ballot. So just four times when Academy voters were given the opportunity to choose a directing winner other than the DGA champ did they actually differ. That’s a pretty daunting stat.
For its first two decades, from 1948-49 to 1967, the DGA was actually 100% in lockstep with the Academy, and it has been a remarkable correlation ever since. Adding further to the importance of Del Toro’s victory last night is another little statistic: 51 times out of 69 the winner of the DGA award won for a film that also went on to grab the Best Picture Oscar. In that sense, the Directors Guild is not just choosing who they think is the best director, they are also in essence choosing their own Best Picture award, and two-thirds of the time the Academy has agreed.
So what does all this mean for the 2017 Oscar race?
Since Del Toro has also won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, and now DGA directing awards, he is the unquestioned front-runner for an Oscar win. At this point it is unimaginable that he could lose. After two wins for Alejandro G. Inarritu and one for Gravity’s Alfonso Cuaron, a Del Toro victory would mean a Mexican-born director will have won four of the last five years. Even Donald Trump could not build a wall around that extraordinary accomplishment. A BAFTA win on Feb. 18th is also likely, since The Shape Of Water leads all films there in nominations, just as it does for Oscar with a massive haul of 13 nods.
So why should we still proceed cautiously in saying this also means the race for Best Picture is just about over? After all Shape also took that prize at the often predictive PGA and Critics Choice awards. True, but last year La La Land followed the same trajectory only to shockingly (and infamously) lose to Moonlight when the correct Best Picture envelope was finally opened. In fact, the once-solid correlation between Oscar’s Best Director and Best Picture has been crumbling fairly consistently in recent years which may indicate an increasingly changing and more diversified Academy membership is looking differently at the idea of what makes a Best Picture and separating its director from that equation.
Screenplay. Argo, 12 Years A Slave, Spotlight and Moonlight all took Oscar’s top honor and a screenplay award while Best Director went to another film. The preferential ballot the Academy uses only in determining the Best Picture winner by trying to get a “consensus” seems to be the culprit here, allowing smaller films that likely got more No. 2 or 3 votes to overtake a favorite in that effort to find consensus. Also, could we see a repeat of what happened at the Golden Globes, where Del Toro took Director.
But another Fox Searchlight film called Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri beat it for Best Picture (Drama) and Screenplay? Despite the fact the Academy directors branch snubbed Billboards’ Martin McDonagh, I could still see that scenario playing out, or even well -liked contenders such as Get Out (which also took a First Time Director DGA prize last night for Jordan Peele) and Lady Bird sneaking in with only an Original Screenplay win to go with an upset Picture victory, much like Spotlight pulled off against The Revenant two years ago.
And don’t count out Dunkirk, which I see racking up at least four crafts awards that could also translate into a Best Picture boost, particularly from below-the-line members of the Academy. Pundits also will point to the fact that no film that wasn’t nominated for the SAG Cast award, as in the case of Shape, went on to win the Best Picture Oscar since Braveheart 22 years ago. The big difference here may be that there seems to be a lot of goodwill for both Del Toro and his movie and in the end that counts the most. In some years, the rules just don’t apply.
Next up are the WGA awards a week from today, where, due to that guild’s arcane rules, Three Billboards is ineligible. Even without the Oscar-favored Billboards script, Get Out and Lady Bird might be more likely to win with the writers over Shape Of Water, which has yet to rack up any victories in the ultra-competitive Original Screenplay category.
That contrast could shake things up a bit more, adding further intrigue to this very intriguing contest as we sail towards the Oscars exactly one month of Sundays from today.