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SAG Award Bounce Puts Spotlight on ‘Spotlight’

After Adam McKay’s housing crisis dramedy “The Big Short” claimed this year’s Producers Guild prize Jan. 23, Team “Spotlight” needed to bounce back. It did just that at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Saturday, as the film’s tight-knit ensemble (featuring Billy Crudup, Brian d’Arcy James, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci) claimed the award for outstanding cast in a motion picture.

Resiliency has been a strength for Tom McCarthy’s journalism drama. The film rounded out 2015 by dominating the critics awards circuit, yet came up short among the craft guilds at the start of the new year. After landing just three mentions from the British Academy (which notably passed over McCarthy in the directing field), it lost the best picture, drama Golden Globe to “The Revenant.” But the Directors Guild breathed new life into the journalism drama a few days later, with a nomination for McCarthy, and soon after, key Oscar noms for director and film editing assured that “Spotlight’s” contender status was not on the wane.

The PGA and SAG awards have continued the roller-coaster ride, and there are likely a few more ups and downs left on the track before all is said and done.

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Indeed, “The Big Short’s” PGA credentials might be more valuable than “Spotlight’s” SAG triumph, not least because the producers group is the only one that relies on the same kind of preferential balloting system the Academy uses to determine its best picture winner. Additionally, the SAG prize hardly guarantees Oscar victory, despite the Academy’s actors branch being its largest group; only 10 times out of 20 has a SAG ensemble winner gone on to best picture glory. The PGA, meanwhile, has been batting 1.000 for seven straight years.

Perhaps the Directors Guild will shed more light on matters Feb. 6, but perhaps not. If George Miller wins, prepare for prognosticator pandemonium. But at the moment, “Spotlight” vs. “The Big Short” certainly feels like the race for best picture. So how did we get here?

“Spotlight” began its journey not unlike last year’s best picture winner, with a Venice Film Festival world premiere and a Telluride bow immediately thereafter. Six of the last seven best picture winners have played Telluride, making it an ersatz good-luck charm, but “Spotlight” also asserted itself as a popular drama with broad appeal. It played Toronto before hitting theaters Nov. 6, and has a domestic box office tally just north of $33 million.

“The Big Short,” on the other hand, wasn’t even guaranteed to be out of the editing room in time for a 2015 release for most of the year. Paramount began screening it for industry audiences in October, far from press scrutiny. Then came the official premiere at the annual AFI Fest in November, an event that, largely due to its place on the calendar, has been a dicey prospect for Oscar hopefuls; no best picture winner has ever premiered there. The film was well-received by critics, but mercifully avoided the awards spotlight (no pun intended) throughout the season, never being tagging as the “front-runner,” per se — an increasingly difficult burden for Oscar hopefuls to bear. The film was released on Dec. 11, and has raked in around $60 million in domestic box office receipts.

A year ago, neither McKay nor McCarthy seemed likely to find himself in this position. McCarthy was licking his wounds after bowing “The Cobbler” to a sea of pans at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival. It opened, and promptly died ($24,000 — for an Adam Sandler movie), in March. McKay, meanwhile, was still just Will Ferrell’s cohort, riding high on an “Anchorman” sequel.

Now they’re locking horns for the industry’s top honor. Who knew?

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