Pete Hammond

It’s starting to get serious. This wild ride of an awards season may not be predictable, according to conventional wisdom. But in the end the winner of the Producer Guild’s Best Picture award Saturday night was completely predictable in my opinion. After all, Warner Bros’ Argo features a key role for a Hollywood movie producer who rises to the occasion and helps make a difference in the world, winning the hearts and minds of a group of producers. Imagine that. This is the first guild to weigh in so we have a tentative frontrunner in Argo now for the Academy Awards’ Best Picture. Had producer/director/star Ben Affleck not been snubbed for a Best Director Oscar, the word “tentative” wouldn’t even be used. When I talked to Affleck  in the Beverly Hilton ballroom moments after his picture won, he still seemed to be reeling from the roller coaster ride he’s been on, but clearly happy. (Co-producer Grant Heslov suggested they should call their fellow producer George Clooney in Berlin and tell him the good news.) “When I didn’t get the Best Director nomination after everybody told me I would, I was depressed. But then that same day I won at Critics Choice which was really torturous because everyone kept asking me all night how I felt,” Affleck told me. “Then we win at the Globes.” Argo was also named the year’s Best Picture at the Critics Choice Movie Awards. And today it was also recipient of the Golden Tomato as Rotten Tomatoes’ winner for ‘Best Reviewed Film In Wide Release’ with a 96% positive score. And now it has the PGA under its belt.

It was a fun show marked by some terrific speeches, especially from Norman Lear Achievement In Television winner J.J. Abrams and The Weinstein brothers Harvey and Bob who received the guild’s prestigious Milestone Award. The  new “p.g.a. mark” on film productions was a source of talk and pride – but the PGA’s “mark” on this awards season could be just as significant. This Guild is an Oscar bellwether that has predicted accurately the last 5 straight years and in 2009 sent The Hurt Locker and in 2010 The King’s Speech on their way to eventual Best Picture Oscar triumphs. Or is this a year when the Guilds may not matter as much? The race does not yet appear out of reach for competitors like The Weinstein Company’s Silver Linings Playbook, Fox’s Life Of Pi, or DreamWorks’ LincolnThe latter may be feeling a severe case of frontrunner-itis after many pundits had made it the favorite – thus setting it up to fail. It has yet to score a major precursor victory. And, outside of a sure-thing Best Actor win for Daniel Day-Lewis at tomorrow’s next big acid test, the SAG Awards, it is facing an uphill climb to prevail there for Ensemble Cast which is more likely to go to Silver Linings or Les Miserables or Argo with a cast of about 130 parts. Both Silver Linings and Les Mis in particular have been strongly emphasizing their “ensemble” attributes in advertising during the SAG voting period.

An Oscar strategist for another film immediately emailed me in a bit of a panic after the PGA’s Argo win and wrote, “Oh no. Now what?” Actually with a year as fractured as this has been, and with a full month to go before the Oscar telecast, the race may still have a few more surprises in store. At this morning’s lively PGA producers panel at the Landmark Theatre, I talked to a couple of Academy members who said they expected Argo to win PGA but Lincoln to prevail at the Oscars. Of course, that could still happen even though Lincoln’s momentum has slowed. But Oscar often has his own ideas. And, although not unprecedented, a film whose nomination count is consideraby less than the leaders generally cannot be considered the favorite. Lincoln, leading with 12, Life Of Pi with 11, and Silver Linings and Les Mis with 8 apiece, all beat Argo’s 7. And Argo doesn’t have a directing nomination: no film has won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination since Driving Miss Daisy 23 years ago – and that was an abberation even then.

But something’s in the air. Argo could be emerging as a kind of consensus choice in a year of outstanding films, a beneficiary of a severely split vote. It is significant that the PGA uses the same preferential vote counting system as the Academy so there is a high level of correlation between the two groups. Assuming it comes up short at SAG,  Argo will be tested next Saturday when Ben Affleck is up for a DGA award. A win there could set up a very interesting Oscar night. A surprise win for Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty (which is also in the Best Pic mix and could still be a factor due to strong boxoffice response and continued off-the-entertainment-pages publicity such as Bigelow’s Time cover) or Tom Hooper would do the same thing. Weird year. DGA ballots aren’t due back until Friday so how this PGA victory affects that vote is anyone’s guess at this point.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.