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The State of the Race: Do the Guilds Tell Oscar What to Do?


“People will think…” “What I tell them to think.” — Citizen Kane

This year has set up a situation where it really does test the influence of the growing guilds. So much so that you have to wonder whether there is any point to having an Academy at all.  Why bother inviting members or creating an exclusivity when anyone can basically join these other large guilds if they work in the industry and they get to decide what the Best Picture of the Year is.  In a way, it’s the reverse of 2010, when the critics unanimously chose The Social Network but the guilds said no. And the Academy followed suit.   The Oscar directors branch is the single most important group in the Oscar race.  To override them is to break with Academy history in such a significant way that it would signal a power shift in Hollywood away from the Academy and towards the guilds.

When Oscar announced that they were pushing back their ballot deadline to occur before the guilds announced, it was the rare opportunity to see what the Academy, unfettered by the guilds’ influence, really thought about the films in the conversation. My pundit friends said oh no, they think the same way the guilds do so there won’t be any noticeable difference.  Except that there was.  The directors everyone thought should be there weren’t there.

When the Oscar nominations came out and suddenly, Ben Affleck, the popular movie star in the race was what the public likes to call “snubbed.”  At the same time Argo won the Critics Choice and the Golden Globe, making the “snub” seem even more unfair. Two standing ovations at the Critics Choice awards around the same time as the PGA, SAG and WGA ballots were turned in signaled a near unanimous decision by the guilds to “correct” the Academy’s mistake.   Now it’s up to the Academy to decide if yes, they made a mistake leaving off Ben Affleck. Or no, they didn’t.

The dominance of the guilds is a recent thing.  The last time we saw a near unanimous decision by the guilds to support one movie was Apollo 13.  Before that, when the Color Purple won the DGA, the guild awards, as such, didn’t exist.  The SAG awards only started in 1995. The Producers Guild awards only started in 1990.  By contrast, the WGA and DGA started in 1949, and the Eddie in 1950.   For years, they were the only major guilds and their influence was somewhat minimal, all except the DGA.

Back when I first started Oscar blogging, the Oscars were still held in March.  The Golden Globes were considered the major influencer, not the guilds.  There was enough time between the Globes and the Oscars to ruminate on the frontrunner.  There was time to change things around and the Academy mostly did what they wanted to do.  But when the Academy pushed their date back to February for the ceremony, the awards predicting game got really easy.  Everybody voted at the same time in the same order.  The bloggers and critics herded the contenders into the pen — you had your de facto frontrunners.  The guilds announced their nominees, which were never that hard to predict.  The Academy then announced their nominees.  Everything followed a predictable pattern and the Oscars were the easiest thing to call because by that time it had all been decided.

If Ben Affleck had gotten a Best Director nomination it’s hard to know whether Argo would have been the frontrunner, or whether leaving him off the list gave voters a stronger sense of urgency to award this very nice guy for his good movie and his pretty wife and his nice family. What did he ever do the Academy? I even heard people hating on Michael Haneke because he stole Ben’s spot.

All of the pundits now say Argo can’t lose.  Those of us thinking the Academy won’t break with tradition and will pick the film with 12 nominations and the strongest box office of all of the nominees are currently being called “crazy.” Yet, most of those usually steady pundits have been scrambling around like a pile of ants who just got their jar of honey taken off the counter.  They know it can’t be Lincoln (too boring), they thought it might be Silver Linings Playbook (maybe), Les Miserables (nope), and then maybe Zero Dark Thirty (nope) so then okay, okay, fine, Argo. Argo. Argo.  And those of us who have stuck to Lincoln all along are the crazy ones.

The pundits are gathering securely around Argo and pretending like they know what they’re doing and that it’s not a risky choice. And indeed, it’s hard to not think Argo will defy history four different ways and win. It’s the safe choice to be sure.  If I wanted to be less embarrassed I would just follow what everyone else is doing. But what good is a pundit if all they do is follow what the guilds are doing? Seems to be any old Joe on the street could do that.  Oh the PGA/DGA and SAG said Argo? Okay, Argo.  That’s not really a pundit. A pundit is being Kris Tapley and calling Argo before any of the guilds did.

The thing that will probably convince me is if the WGA goes Chris Terrio’s way.  At that point it will seem a little more likely that Argo can do what no movie has ever been able to do, to me anyway — people like Tom O’Neil and Jeff Wells will continue to berate and humiliate anyone who goes against the status quo.  Argo will very likely take the Eddie. Apollo 13 did not get the WGA or the Eddie the year it was beaten by Braveheart.  Shakespeare in Love also had the WGA.  So I think if you have those two guilds you are unstoppable to win, despite Oscar history.  At that point I would probably have to switch.

But I will do so acknowledging that the guilds own the Oscars now.  And I will wonder if any film can ever win without the guilds supporting them.

How Argo has to break with history to set a new precedent.

1. Become the first film to win Best Picture without an Oscar nomination riding on a DGA win (DGA decided. In the past, Oscar rejected only two times it  happened before, Color Purple and Apollo 13)

2. Become the first film to win being fifth in line for most nominations:

1. Lincoln-12
2. Life of Pi-11
3. Les Miserables-8
4. Silver Linings Playbook-8
5. Argo-7

the lowest before that was Chariots of Fire, 4th in line:

1. Reds-12 (director won DGA and Oscar)
2. On Golden Pond -10 (also won screenplay and 2 acting Oscars)
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark-9 (art direction, fx, editing, sound)
4. Chariots of Fire-7 (won Picture, screenplay, costume, score)
5. Atlantic City-5 (zero Oscars)

3. In the years when Oscar used the preferential ballot, with five director slots, the film with the most nominations won Best Picture. Argo would also make history in that way.

It’s really the combination of a lack of a director nod and being so low on the list for nominations that puts Argo in the long shot category for the Oscars.  That is, the Oscars before the guilds took over the power of the awards race.

The last time a film with the most nominations didn’t win either Picture or director was in 1966 when Bonnie and Clyde lost both to The Graduate (director+DGA) and In the Heat of the Night (picture).

This weekend are the Scripter awards where Argo, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook face off.  WGA ballots have long since been turned in. It will be one of those true injustices if Tony Kushner doesn’t win for his monumental screenplay for Lincoln. I know how voters are. They don’t care. They “facebook like” what they like.  Argo’s is a good screenplay. It crosses all the i’s and dots all the t’s and has many memorable lines.  But Lincoln’s towers above all others, with the possible exception of Life of Pi.  Argo really doesn’t even belong in the adapted category since it’s really an original screenplay and that is where it should really be.  Nonetheless, I’m bracing myself for this possibility of a Kushner los.  Moreover, the way the other campaigns have been pummeling Lincoln it is clear that they want to win a lot more. And if people want to win that badly, best to get out of their way.


The gurus for director — most have Steven Spielberg winning there and that would be a solid prediction; I used to think if they give it to Spielberg they’ll also give Lincoln Picture but it’s also likely that in a split the film with the most nominations would, at the very least, win either Picture or Director.  You have to go back to 1966 to find an argument for Ang Lee winning. So if you have Argo to win Best Picture (without a director nom) and Ang Lee to win Director you really are predicting something that HAS NEVER HAPPENED.  When Steven Soderbergh won out of the blue for Traffic, that film had already won elsewhere.  But Life of Pi has not won anywhere.  I think if Ang Lee is strong enough to win Best Director why in god’s name wouldn’t a film with 11 nominations also win Best Picture? Because they like Argo that much better? Not buying it.

It’s far more likely someone out of the blue would win there, like Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild or Michael Haneke for Amour.


Adapted screenplay has pundits picking Argo over Lincoln for that, which makes sense if Argo is to win the Eddie, the WGA and the Best Picture Oscar without a director nom — again, it’s never happened.  This might be the year it does happen.  But you will never find a year where the Eddie and Best Picture matched and there was no director nomination attached.

One last thing to contemplate. When Chariots of Fire and Driving Miss Daisy won they did so because they were sob-inducing, emotionally powerful films — and I’m guessing that the heart overrides all.  To that end, I am surprised there isn’t at least one pundit predicting Silver Linings Playbook, or Life of Pi to snatch the award, as they are the ones that appeal more to the heart.  But no one wants to look stupid and risk being ridiculed by their fellow pundits.

Let’s always remember that none of this really determines “best.” It is merely best as agreed upon by a few thousand people.

The rest of the categories, all of them, can be found over at Movie City News.