It’s been a wild and woolly Oscar season, so perhaps it’s fitting that a film about an unstable market, The Big Short, won the Producers Guild of America’s top prize last night. If you were to graph the goings-on over the past few months, you’d have surging trend lines and plunging fortunes so mixed-up that even Christian Bale’s prescient The Big Short analyst might be tempted to throw up his hands: Spotlight came out of the gate in September as the Best Picture front-runner but has proved vulnerable to other contenders; The Martian picked up momentum and then careened to earth after presumed front-runner Ridley Scott failed to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Director; and The Revenant rode box-office success and key Golden Globe wins to the top of many pundits’ prediction lists.
And yet it was The Big Short, not one of those three highly buzzed-about films, that scored with the PGA. This is a significant bellwether for several reasons: The PGA winner has gone on to take home Best Picture at the Oscars for each of the last eight years, ever since the Academy and the PGA both adopted an expanded field of over five nominees and began using a preferential ballot to determine the eventual victor. The PGA also boasts a large array of actual Academy members in its membership rolls, something the awards bodies that have previously weighed in this season (like the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards) cannot claim.
More to the point, the PGA has had an unerring recent knack for halting faded frontrunners and bestowing the eventual Best Picture winner with its first major prize of the season. Think of when critical favorite The Social Network, a film that had waged a sterling awards-season campaign, fell to PGA winner The King’s Speech, or when last year’s Birdman flicked aside Boyhood at the PGAs and then went on to win the rest of the major prizes on the board, including Best Picture.
Will The Big Short next shore up its support at the other two major guilds, winning top honors from the Screen Actors Guild (for its ensemble) and the Directors Guild of America (for director Adam McKay)? The first victory is the most likely, I think: Spotlight has been the presumed SAG front-runner for a while, but The Big Short has a deep cast that can just about match it, and as Anne Thompson pointed out, it’s a flashier movie than that subtle journalism drama. The DGA trophy could then go to McKay, but Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller, who has momentum of his own, makes a great case for a split.
Whatever those two guilds determine, The Big Short is now our front-runner. As I’ve noted here before several times, only two movies this season — The Big Short and Spotlight — have checked off all the boxes that a Best Picture winner usually requires, including real-world thematic resonance, a SAG nomination for the film's cast, at least one Oscar nomination for its actors, and nominations for the film’s editing and screenplay. (Mad Max and The Revenant lack several of those precursor nods, which has always hindered their Best Picture chances.) Now, by winning the PGA award, The Big Short has finally pulled away from Spotlight, and is sitting pretty as the final stage of Oscar season begins in earnest. Unless you're going to ignore the conventional wisdom and go your own way — which, come to think of it, is exactly what a character in The Big Short might do — it would look foolish at this point to place a Best Picture bet on anything other than McKay's surging finance comedy.