When the Oscar nominations were announced, and both Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow were left out of the Best Director category, it looked as though Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln had the big prize all sewn up. After all, only three movies have ever won Best Picture without getting at least a nomination for Best Director—and only one movie (Driving Miss Daisy) has done so since 1933. Argo and Zero Dark Thirty had seemed like the only real threats to Lincoln, so, barring some unexpected momentum for, say, Silver Linings Playbook or big-time underdog Beasts of the Southern Wild, the result appeared to be in the bag.
Maybe not so much: This weekend, Argo won both the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Here’s why that matters: Unlike other non-Oscar awards—the Golden Globes, the various critics awards, and so on—the guild awards are actually decided by many of the same people who belong to the Academy, and thus vote for the Oscars. That’s probably why the last five winners of the Producers Guild Award have gone on to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
The SAG award has not matched up with Oscar as consistently in recent years: The Help beat the The Artist last year, and Inglourious Basterds beat The Hurt Locker. But that may simply reflect the SAG award’s emphasis on an acting ensemble: The Artist and The Hurt Locker were both largely one-man shows. When the Best Picture favorite draws on several fine performances, as Lincoln does, it usually wins the big award from the actors guild as well—which makes sense, given that actors are the single largest contingent of Academy voters.
It’s not unprecedented for a movie to win both the PGA and SAG awards and lose Best Picture: Little Miss Sunshine did just that back in 2006, when the Academy went with The Departed instead. Of course, the Oscars rarely favor comedies—and while Argo has its funny moments, it’s mostly a serious drama. Some have criticized Argo for not being terribly accurate, but most viewers don’t seem to mind.
Argo has at least one other thing on its side: It’s the only Best Picture nominee that’s about the power of the movies. If there’s anything the Academy loves to pay tribute to, it’s the power of the movies. Will that be enough to beat the impeccably prestigious Lincoln? It’s hard to say. But, at the very least, we have a bona fide race this year for Best Picture.