No clear Best Picture frontrunner three weeks out

Usually predictive PGA, SAG and DGA Awards give muddled picture, but “The Revenant” may narrowly lead

aetherevenantcourtesy20thcenturyfox

"The Revenant" seems the best bet for this year's Best Picture winner.

By this point last year, “Birdman” had just finished its sweep of the top three Hollywood Guild Awards, given out by the Producers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America. Despite attempts to portray the Best Picture race as still up in the air, any movie winning in this sweep is all but guaranteed to win the top Oscars prize — but this is a different kind of year.

In fact, it’s only the fourth year where the three guilds all gave the top prize to different movies. These mixed signals mean this year's race is still pretty wide open, since no movie has the broad support to lock down all three — or even just two — guild awards.

While there is not a single frontrunner, we can easily identify the three top movies competing for the big prize — along with one mad dark horse. “The Big Short,” “The Revenant” and “Spotlight” look like the movies to beat. The problem is, it's not clear which one is the one to beat.

“The Big Short” placed one of the best feathers in its cap when it won the PGA award. For an impressive eight-year streak, the Best Picture winner has also won a PGA award, starting with “No Country for Old Men” in 2008. The PGA vote is also taken under a preferential system similar to the Academy's, so a win is a sign of broad support among producers, and not the plurality of a split decision. “The Big Short” also competed against and beat most of its Best Picture competition, which has to count for something.

“The Big Short” could have put it all away if it had repeated at the SAG Awards, but critical favorite “Spotlight” took home the Best Ensemble Cast Prize. While the award is the least-relevant guild award in predicting Best Picture — it’s only correlated with Best Picture half the time in its 20 year existence — it keeps hope alive for “Spotlight” in the frontrunner game. It looks like a two-way race.

However, “The Revenant” came surging back when director Alejandro Iñárritu won the DGA Award, despite losing Golden Globe momentum with its PGA Award loss and missing out on a nomination for the SAG Best Ensemble award. He is the first director to ever win the award for two consecutive years, and this win potentially sets him up as the first repeat Best Director winner at the Oscars in over 50 years — and only the third ever.

In its long history, this award has only failed to predict the winner of the Directing Oscar seven times. In three of those seven instances, the DGA winner was not Oscar nominated, which makes the record look even better. It’s also often an excellent predictor of Best Picture, failing to match the eventual Oscar winner only 14 times in over 60 years.

Additionally, the Oscars frequently award the same movie with Best Picture and Best Director, making a very strong case for “The Revenant” in the Best Picture race. It also doesn’t hurt that “The Revenant” just won the BAFTA Award for Best Film.

So which of the three is most likely to win? It's hard to say. Since the SAG Ensemble prize has the weakest predictive power, “Spotlight” sits in third. It is by no means out of the race, as previous Best Picture winners “Shakespeare in Love” and “Crash” both won the SAG award while missing out on the other guilds — and “Spotlight” is held in much higher esteem than those two oft-derided winners.

Between “The Big Short” and “The Revenant,” it's too close to call. While the PGA award has a great predictive record, the 2013 tie between “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” means the PGA only kept its track record by a hair. Similar to how the BAFTA Best Picture predictive streak ended last year, these streaks are accurate until they're suddenly not. The PGA is the only guild to give out an actual Best Picture award, so it may be considered the best authority in the matter.

On the other hand, while the production of “The Revenant” is the stuff of movie-making legend, it is the least well-reviewed Best Picture nominee. It sits at 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which is nothing to scoff at but is still several points lower than the 92.5 percent average of all nominees.

“The Revenant” also lacks a Best Screenplay nomination, and only “Titanic” has won Best Picture without a screenplay nomination in the last few decades. The most recent film to perform this feat before “Titanic” was “The Sound of Music” in 1966. On the other hand, audiences have spoken with their wallets, making “The Revenant” the third highest grossing nominee with over $350 million worldwide as of publishing date, with more room to grow.

Each makes a great case for the win, but “The Revenant” is number one by a hair. It leads in nominations with 12, indicating broad support among branches. It won a surprise Supporting Actor nomination for Tom Hardy, which could mean the Academy actors like it more than the SAG body.

It has the most plausible path to a win. For a movie to win Best Picture, it needs to build up a few wins along the way to Oscar night. “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” are favorites to split the Screenplay prizes, and while they have the right specific nominations to win Best Picture, they are not favored in any other categories. After all, “The Departed” won Best Picture with only five nominations.

The problem comes with converting this potential to awards. Sylvester Stallone and Alicia Vikander are frontrunners in the Supporting Acting categories, and “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a favorite for Best Editing. Unless either of the Best Picture nominees is strong enough to convince voters to send a surprise Best Editing or Supporting Acting award their way, each would win Best Picture with only a Screenplay award to go with it. A Best Picture winner hasn't won with two total awards in decades.

On the other hand, “The Revenant” is the clear frontrunner for the high profile Best Director and Best Actor races, as well as for Cinematography. Along with Best Picture, this is a strong winning set of four awards. It's also competitive in all of its technical nominations. While unlikely, it could plausibly walk away with 10 Oscars, or even tie the all-time record with 11. Since “The Revenant” has a clearer path to the big prize, it has the edge.

Count on “Mad Max: Fury Road” as the dark horse behind these three. “Mad Max” could have surely used either a PGA or especially a DGA win. Before Iñárritu won the DGA, George Miller even looked like the Best Director frontrunner. However, even with these high-profile loses, “Max” shouldn’t be counted out. Its passionate supporters cheered its every nomination when announced, and the support is broad enough for it to trail only “The Revenant” with 10 nominations.

The other four nominees' run at the gold is a long shot. “The Martian” couldn't convert Ridley Scott's snub in the Best Directing category into momentum to reward Scott — who's never won an Oscar — as a producer. It needed guild wins, and it didn't get them. The four nominations “Room” received are all in the right high-profile categories, but it had very weak guild support and is the least popular nominee in terms of box office success. Despite leading the nominations, "Bridge of Spies" could only muster up a Best Supporting Actor win at the BAFTAs. Its lack of other wins this season means its Best Picture prospects are dicey. “Brooklyn” likewise only has nominations and lacks the major precursor wins to be truly competitive.

Regardless, this is the most open Best Picture contest in years. In a season full of surprises, it makes sense to expect more twists as A&E chooses potential winners and the awards are handed out next week.

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