Oscars: With PGA Win, ‘The Big Short’ Is Your New Best Picture Frontrunner

We may have over a month to go but a significant piece of this year's Oscar puzzle just clicked into place.

Brad Pitt The Big Short premiere
Andrew H. Walker/Variety/Rex Shutterstock

The Big Short.”

Michael B. Jordan said the words so matter-of-factly, so quickly on the heels of recounting the list of Producers Guild of America nominees for theatrical motion pictures, that no one in the Hyatt Century Plaza ballroom quite knew how to react. The spotlight was floating around the room, looking for the winners.

“Wait, did ‘The Big Short’ just win?” That seemed to be what everyone was asking themselves and their table mates. Almost as if he sensed the question wafting throughout the crowd, Jordan stepped back up to the microphone. “Uh, yes, you won.”

Before I bolted for the door to beat the valet line, the last thing I saw was producer Jeremy Kleiner shooting out of his seat with hands raised high, two years after tying for the very same prize as a producer of “12 Years a Slave.”

History — recent history, anyway — tells us that might well be game, set and match for Adam McKay’s film in the race for this year’s best picture Oscar. (The director was unfortunately stranded on the east coast thanks to the blizzard that rolled through this weekend.) The reason is simple: the preferential ballot.

Not to put too much on it, but it’s notable that the PGA is the only other organization to use the ballot, and that it has predicted the winner every year since the Academy and the guild simultaneously instituted it seven years ago (including that aforementioned tie). It’s the only evidence awards watchers really get during the season of how the various contenders will perform under the process, which aims to achieve a consensus with a stack of ballots ranking the various nominees. Films that hover near the top of the ballot, landing in the number-two and number-three slots — i.e., generally agreeable players few can really argue with — tend to see success in this system. Movies that are more divisive, love it/hate it, tend to fall away.

It is for that reason, going into tonight, that I assumed the PGA race was down to one of four films: “The Big Short,” “The Martian” (yes, even with its curious stumble in Oscar nominations), “Spotlight” and, to a lesser extent, “The Revenant.” The movie about the ramifications of an economic crisis that we’re still feeling today claimed victory in the end.

And that is what “The Big Short” has going for it that none of the other films have, at least with such potency: immediacy. As I’ve written, each of those four movies taps into the zeitgeist in its own way, but we’re facing an election that will no doubt focus on oligarchy, the 1%, the distribution of wealth and avoiding the sins of the past. “The Big Short” has its finger on the pulse of all of that, and that kind of thing can be very, very attractive in an Oscar race.

Still, in a year in which much of what is “expected” hasn’t exactly panned out that way, it would be silly to assume we’re all done here. Inevitability could certainly set in if the film’s cast wins the ensemble prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards next weekend, if McKay manages to shock and claim the directors guild prize a week later (perhaps the tallest order here), and if Hank Corwin claims the American Cinema Editors prize in the comedy category at the ACE Eddie Awards next week (which feels like a foregone conclusion).

But what if “Spotlight’s” ensemble wins? What if Alejandro G. Iñárritu wins the DGA Award for the second year in a row or, perhaps more likely, George Miller?

No, it’s by no means over, but you can see the pieces beginning to click into place. And what sweet joy that would be for Paramount Pictures, a studio that has been right in the thick of it year in and year out with films like “Selma,” “Nebraska,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Hugo,” “The Fighter,” “True Grit,” “Up in the Air” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

We’re 36 days away from finding out. In the mean time, here is the full list of PGA winners.