If Bernie Sanders needs to win Iowa to show he’s got the goods, Spotlight needed a big guild award for the same reason. Had it not won the SAG Award tonight, Spotlight probably would have been out of the Best Picture race. But a plurality tally of 160,000 film and television actors (as well as broadcast journalists, radio announcers and on-air television news talent) picked Spotlight to win.
At first, the night seemed like it might be headed in Straight Outta Compton’s or Beasts of No Nation’s direction, once Idris Elba won Supporting Actor, beating Christian Bale and Mark Rylance. For a while there, people were thinking the SAG voter’s display of diversity might end with Compton winning Outstanding Ensemble. But ultimately SAG maintained its tradition of awarding its Ensemble Award to one of Oscar’s Best Picture nominees. The other option was The Big Short, which many of us thought was poised to win. The reason being that the more dramatic and overall flashy performances usually win the day with SAG voters.
Perhaps the most important thing about Spotlight’s win was the way they made the most of it. The actors didn’t spend a lot of time at the mic thanking people personally, but went right to the heart of the film’s message about the widespread abuse of the Catholic Church and the countless victims left in its wake. They even said something like “the good guys win.” That puts it in direct contrast to The Big Short, where the bad guys definitely win, and pointedly so.
How those two themes will play out with Oscar voters is a different story. I do know that the majority of pundits I know and read are in Spotlight’s corner all the way and will be very happy with this win tonight — just as the Producers Guild win for The Big Short was a big bummer for them. I think I’m literally the only one out there who wholeheartedly loves The Big Short, though I do believe Spotlight is a great movie and a formidable winner for sure. I don’t think there is any film nominated for Best Picture that would be a drag to see win at this point.
But where does that leave us with this race? It’s sort of a crazy thing. SAG’s history is tricky now that they’ve merged with AFTRA because we’re not talking about just actors anymore. This might account for some of the unexpected nominations and the Idris Elba win. The 60,000 new AFTRA voters make a huge difference. There are a lot of broadcast journalists now voting for the SAG Awards since the two unions merged, so the guild is a different hybrid compared to what it used to be. It’s maybe a little more like the Broadcast Film Critics Association.
We can’t know for sure what that means, but one could possibly make the case that the new infusion of on-air news people could be more sympathetic to the plight of journalists to get a story right than film industry people might be. On the other hand, winning over any huge group like the SAG does show where Spotlight’s strength lies: it is accessible to almost everyone and remains an across-the-board loved film. It doesn’t alienate anyone, it doesn’t offend anyone, and it doesn’t confuse anyone. Spotlight tells a story everyone feels angry and upset about, while being sympathetic toward the trauma of the victims and the struggle of the reporters. This lofty sense of social consciousness is in keeping with many of the films that have won Best Picture, with the exception of last year’s winner, Birdman.
Unless the Directors Guild goes for a movie other than Spotlight or The Big Short, the contest between these two is likely to be decided by the DGA. If Adam McKay wins there, or if Tom McCarthy wins — I could see either happening — then it’s probably a done deal. The DGA winner will likely trump the PGA (if it’s Spotlight) or concur with the PGA (if it’s The Big Short)
If some other movie wins the DGA, then you are on your own in predicting Best Picture. It is literally a roll of the dice. The somewhat confusing thing about this year (and one reasons it’s been so hard to predict where the race is headed) is that prominent Oscar people like Anne Thompson ARE journalists and others like Jeff Wells like to believe they are. Which means Spotlight is their Valentine. They might have preferred the movie anyway, but there is no denying that Spotlight also stands for getting the story right and doing it honestly, in a way that doesn’t often happen anymore. McCarthy’s film is a tribute to the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe as much as it is about the victims and the Catholic Church. That’s why real journalists often show up at Spotlight events — and that optic matters. That is a part of the story. If that type of thing is in the wheelhouse of an awards writer, it can throws perceptions off and tilt them away from a movie that isn’t.
Still, you can’t deny the attraction of a film that is about something universal, one that appeals broadly and universally, egos set aside. You see, we in the punditry world can get our egos tangled up in a movie winning so that it becomes important to BE RIGHT and not BE WRONG — so that observers won’t point at us and say, “See you were wrong, why should I listen to you?” Try as we might to avoid those feelings, it inevitably turns out that way.
But this is a weird year. By all rights, if Spotlight were truly the frontrunner, it should have won the preferential ballot at the PGA. It would have received an ACE Eddie nom and a BAFTA nom for Best Director. But if Spotlight didn’t have hidden strength, The Big Short would have won the SAG Awards Ensemble. So you see, we’re in a pickle. Quite a pickle.
But let’s quickly look at a few things.
1) Only four films have won Best Picture without winning any of its SAG nominations: The English Patient, Gladiator, The Hurt Locker, and The Departed. All but Gladiator won the DGA. All but The Departed won the PGA. But again, SAG is now SAG-AFTRA so in a way, history begins anew. (a challenge for The Big Short)
2) No film has ever lost the PGA, won SAG Awards Ensemble, then won the DGA. (a challenge for Spotlight)
3) No film has ever lost PGA, won SAG without also winning an Eddie and then won Best Picture. (a challenge for Spotlight)
4) No film has ever won Best Picture without at least a SAG Ensemble award nod (except Braveheart). (a challenge that neither Spotlight nor The Big Short need worry about)
We’re kind of back to where we were before the SAGs. We’re either about to witness something that has never happened before (like Idris Elba winning the SAG after being overlooked by the Oscars) or else things will begin to fall in line like they usually do.
At this point, I think the only sensible thing to do is wait to see what the Directors Guild does. If George Miller wins the DGA, what then? Then Best Picture is a spin on the roulette table. I’d probably still go with The Big Short just because betting against, or shorting, the PGA and its preferential ballot winner is a riskier proposition.
I think Spotlight has a really great campaign team pushing it and all it needed was one big win. If it also wins the BAFTA, that will be another huge indicator. If it wins the DGA, it’s probably all over but for the shouting.