Score one more for Ben Affleck’s historical drama Argo, which continued its awards season winning-streak late last night as the Producers’ Guild of America anointed it this year’s recipient of the Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures. The trophies went to Affleck and his co-producers, Grant Heslov and fellow actor-turned-director George Clooney, but more significant is what the victory might mean for the film as it enters the final month of Oscar campaigning.
Ever since Affleck missed out on a Best Director nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences—a shocking turn that left many awards pundits wondering if the film was no longer in the Best Picture conversation—the director has been seemingly invincible. First, Argo passed Zero Dark Thirty as the most awarded film on the critics’ groups awards circuit; next, the film won both Best Picture and Best Director at the annual Critics’ Choice Awards, a feat it duplicated three nights later at the Golden Globes. And just this weekend, Affleck was recognized with a prestigious Modern Master Award at the Santa Monica International Film Festival.
Certainly, all of those accolades were nice gestures, chances for Affleck to portray himself as the kind of charming, humble and self-deprecating presence that the Academy loves to have on hand for a great speech as Oscar night stretches into its third hour. But while each of those awards added to Argo’s momentum, none of them offered any indication as to where the Best Picture Oscar could fall in the end. Critics have their own tastes, their own favorites, and their award winners don’t always translate to Oscar gold (just ask The Social Network). And the Globes? Too small of a voting body to offer any insight at all into how the Academy might end up leaning.
The Producer’s Guild, however, has offered up another game change. Going into the awards presentation last night, most were still predicting Lincoln to walk away with it, crowning itself as the Best Picture frontrunner in the process. But something else was at play here. It can no longer be ignored that, 12 Academy Award nominations or not, Lincoln has had a disappointing awards season run from the start. The film landed softly with the critics’ groups and left the Golden Globes with only a single trophy to its name, and now, it’s missed a benchmark that each of the last five Best Picture winners hit without much fuss.
So what’s going on? Lincoln certainly seems like the kind of film that should be sweeping up awards left and right, from its out-of-this-world ensemble cast to its historical and directorial gravitas. But Argo is more accessible, more instantly likable and more agreeable across the board. Lincoln’s detractors call it overlong and messy, complaining that it buckles a bit under the weight of a script that, while often brilliant, wants to do too much. Conversely, Argo flows along with effortless grace, boasting its own terrific ensemble (one that, unlike Lincoln, is never dominated by a single performance) and strong film-making craft across the board, from cinematography to costuming. A pair of surprise sound nominations from the Academy showed that the film had support in unanticipated corners, and now, the PGA has revealed how the project’s “consensus pick” nature could change the course of Oscar night.
There’s a reason for all of this, and it’s what makes the PGA one of the most reliable barometers for Oscar potential. Both the Academy and the PGA use a preferential balloting system to decide their winners. Here’s how it works: voters rank the nominees in order of choice, from favorite to least favorite. As votes are tallied, the ballots are divided into nine or ten “piles” based on which film is ranked first on each. At the end of the tally, the film with the lowest count of first place votes—or with the smallest pile—is eliminated from contention, its first place ballots redistributed to new piles based on the voter’s next listed selection. This process repeats through numerous rounds, with films removed from the conversation at each turn and their votes passing onto something else. Eventually, one film earns a majority vote and is declared the winner.
All this complicated and convoluted vote redistribution has a goal: first, it means that every ballot counts. Second, the preferential voting process emphasizes a desire to find the overall “consensus” movie, and that means second and third place votes matter as much as firsts. Which brings us back to Argo, the likable, agreeable movie with strong across-the-board film-making craft; the movie that fits most snugly alongside recent crowd-pleasing winners like The King’s Speech and The Artist; the movie that, even if it doesn’t have the most first place votes after a single round, still probably shows up in slots two, three and four more than anything else. And that means victory, with or without a Best Director nomination.
Of course, a film can win the PGA and still lose the Oscar. In 1995, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 picked up Best Picture equivalents from the PGA, the DGA (Director’s Guild) and the SAG (Screen Actors Guild), and still couldn’t topple Mel Gibson’s Braveheart in the eyes of the Academy. And the telling sign of its weakness back then was the lack of a Best Director nomination, so this current situation feels very familiar, even if this year has continually marked itself as the most unpredictable awards season in recent memory.
Lincoln could easily make a comeback: tonight’s SAG Awards might very well see the film winning both Best Actor and Best Ensemble, while a win for director Stephen Spielberg at next week’s DGA presentation would help him to nail down a third Best Director Oscar. But Affleck and Argo are very much threatening in both of those arenas. A win for Argo tonight would be telling, especially considering the overlap between the SAG and Academy voting bodies, while another victory for Affleck from the DGA next week would have me ready to place my bets.
There are no guarantees here, especially this year, especially with Argo seeming to follow the path of Apollo 13 and especially given the historical precedent that films very rarely can even be in the running for Best Picture without a Best Director nomination. But there are also facts at play here that can’t be ignored. It is fact that, in the three years the Academy and the PGA have both used a preferential ballot, their Best Picture choices have matched 100% of the time; it is fact, now, that a preferential ballot can easily show favor to Argo and that it can do so without caring at all for precedent; it is fact that the Academy Directors Branch, while certainly a vital voice within the membership, only constitutes about 375 of over 6,000 voters; and it is fact that, had Ben Affleck received a Best Director nomination, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Argo would be the signed, sealed, delivered frontrunner for Best Picture (and, frankly, for Best Director), and Lincoln would be the well-admired runner-up that couldn’t convert its many Oscar nominations to a win in the top category. We’ve seen that story many times before, and I don’t think a single missed nomination can change the arc.
Oh, and not to bury the other news, but Searching for Sugar Man, Wreck-It Ralph, and Homeland all picked up awards as well (in the documentary, animation and television categories, respectively). Expect the first two to convert those wins to Oscar victories.