Pre-Oscars Analysis: CODAs Winning Weekend Turns Best Picture Into A Horse Race, But How Reliable Are The Guilds To A Global Academy?

CODA is on a roll this final weekend of Oscar voting (ballots are due at 5 p.m. PT on Tuesday), getting a major shot of adrenaline by taking the PGA’s top Best Picture prize, and now picking up the WGA Award for Adapted Screenplay today, after winning the SAG Award for Motion Picture Ensemble. If you are scoring along at home, that gives it a solid three of the four major guild honors (DGA, PGA, SAG, WGA) to put itself in a strong position going into the last stop of this long season: the Oscars next Sunday. What this one-two-three punch will mean to the ongoing Oscar balloting is anyone’s guess, but the headlines of these major peer-group wins from groups that definitely have some significant crossover with Academy membership will be hard to ignore.

Let’s geek out.

In a season where Belfast was the early front-runner, perhaps peaking too soon — and now coming up empty at the four major guild awards (due to WGA’s arcane rules, it wasn’t eligible to compete there) — it looks to be a horse race for Best Picture between Netflix’s The Power of the Dog and Apple’s CODA.

The former had as good a run last weekend — taking DGA, Critics Choice, and BAFTA honors — as the latter is having this campaigning weekend. Focus Features, which is heavily for Belfast, remains hopeful, and anything is possible here. But, at least with conventional wisdom, it looks finally that a streamer will take Best Picture, unless Belfast can go against the odds and pull off what now would be considered a surprise marquee win at the Oscars despite striking out at the guilds.

Since SAG started its own awards show 27 years ago and joined PGA DGA and WGA on the precursor circuit, no film has gone on to win Best Picture without at least one of those four major guild prizes, and only four films in that time have gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar with only one of those guild prizes (Green Book, Million Dollar Baby, The Artist, Moonlight). You can bet that’s not a statistic Netflix wanted to hear for its The Power of the Dog, which is leading all comers at the Oscars with 12 nominations but only picked up the widely expected DGA win for Jane Campion, losing the other three to what is becoming the little engine that could this season, CODA. 

However with often-strong indicators like Critics Choice and BAFTA (and even the, uh, Golden Globes) all going for Power of the Dog, that stat might be misleading in this case, especially with the film, like Belfast, ineligible at WGAs, the final story clearly still to be written. Netflix is heavily counting on the Academy’s ever-growing international voter bloc to bring the bacon home for Power, I am told, but Focus believes that Belfast also can benefit from those international voters who don’t really figure into the guild memberships. Both campaigns feel CODA’s strength is not international, but actually that film’s roots are with the 2014 French film on which it is based, La Famille Belier. How international do you have to be to play in this sandbox?

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But CODA is clearly looking like a major threat now, and even at BAFTA — where it wasn’t nominated among their five Best Film nominees — it still picked up a telling Adapted Screenplay win over The Power of the Dog and The Lost Daughter (also ineligible at WGA), which could be some sort of indicator of a late-breaking surge. History is encouraging for Apple. Since 1995, four films (American Beauty, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire and Argo) won all four of those guilds and then went on to take Best Picture. But in a comforting fact for CODA, it now joins an elite group that won three of four guild prizes (CODA failed to get Siân Heder a DGA nomination) and went on to Best Picture including Chicago, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The King’s Speech, Birdman and The Hurt Locker.

In 2005 Crash came roaring in to upset a presumed Best Picture winner Brokeback Mountain, which also had taken three of four guild prizes and still lost the big one at the Oscars. But it’s far more the exception than the rule when a film racks up these kinds of wins, which is why pundits are taking CODA very seriously tonight, despite a mountain of other statistics that would seem to discount its chances. That includes only three Oscar nominations (you have to go back to the 1930s for an example of a Best Picture winner coming in with so few noms), no directing, no DGA, no editing noms and no crafts either. I could go on, but in these times that doesn’t seem to matter as much. The PGA win was eye-opening because the producers are the only group that uses the same ranked-choice accounting for Best Picture and, like the Oscars, has 10 Best Pic nominees. It tends to favor films that are easier to like than admire, the heart-vs.-art argument. Apply it where you will, straggling Oscar voters, but a No. 1 vote might not be as important as your second or third choices.

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To put it bluntly, this ballgame might be going into extra innings.

I am thinking of the 1951 Oscar race right now. It was a battle to the end between Paramount’s A Place in the Sun and Warner Bros’ A Streetcar Named Desire, according to nearly everyone. On Oscar Night, however, the winner turned out to be an MGM musical released much earlier in the year, An American in Paris. The shocker of a win caused MGM to take out an ad in the trades the next day showing a sheepish Leo the Lion saying, “All I was doing was waiting in the sun for a streetcar.”

As for the other notable development out of the WGA, Netflix had some good news with Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up winning for Original Screenplay, a bit of a surprise over Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. While that is encouraging news for Don’t Look Up, it could also be good tidings for the aforementioned WGA-ineligible Belfast, as all three face off at the Oscars in what suddenly is looking like a real contest. Belfast beat them at Critics Choice, Licorice Pizza triumphed in the category at BAFTA, and now Don’t Look Up has taken WGA. All sides have reason for optimism and concern when it comes to the competitive Best Original Screenplay race at the Oscars.

Similarly, with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter taking the USC Scripter Award, Campion’s The Power of the Dog taking Critics Choice, and Heder’s CODA grabbing both BAFTA and WGA, the Adapted Screenplay category also is turning into a nail-biter. If I were Oscar show producer Will Packer, I would put both awards right at the start of the show and then let everyone sweat it out for the next three (hopefully) hours.

One week to go. This is getting interesting.

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