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Oscar Watch: Why the PGA Awards win cements 'The Big Short' as the Oscar front-runner

"The Big Short" took the Producers Guild of America's top prize Saturday night, catching many by surprise, including, judging from the looks on their faces, the film's producers, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner.

But the signs pointing to a win for Adam McKay's movie, cementing its status as the Oscar front-runner, have been there from the beginning. It has just taken time for some people to wrap their heads around the idea that a film from the guy who made "Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby" and the "Anchorman" movies could indeed be the kind of movie that academy members would embrace.

The PGA winner has gone on to take the Oscar the last eight years, including the last six, when both the academy and the PGA expanded their best picture slates and adopted a preferential ballot to determine the victor.

There's some overlap in membership between the PGA and the academy, but the key component in making the PGA award such a significant indicator is its use of the preferential ballot, a system designed to reward movies that are voters' consensus choices. The PGA honor provided the first sign that "The King's Speech" would prevail over critic's favorite "The Social Network" and, last year, that "Birdman" would best "Boyhood."

As I wrote on Oscar nominations morning, "The Big Short" is about the here and now. Its truth-telling take on economic issues -- America's and, by extension, the world's -- concerns everyone, rich and poor, left and right. It's a movie that provokes serious, spirited conversation at its awards-season events. It plays at times like a madcap comedy. But at its center, as was noted last week at the AFI luncheon honoring the year's best movies, "The Big Short" is about a nation's heartbreak.

That social relevancy gives it a leg up on its competitors, including the brutal frontier western "The Revenant," a movie that led the field with 12 Oscar nominations but failed to secure a nod for writing. As I wrote here, that's significant since "Titanic" is the only movie from the last 50 years to win the best picture Oscar without winning an Oscar nomination for its writing. (Forty other movies in that time period, including "Gravity," a movie many pundits thought would win best picture, tried without success.)

This year's best picture race has been too fragmented to make a definitive call at the moment. With its deep bench, "Spotlight" could take the ensemble honor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Saturday. The Directors Guild might give its prize to Alejandro G. Iñárritu for "The Revenant" or George Miller for "Mad Max: Fury Road."

But I go back to a late October screening of "The Big Short," hosted by producer Lynda Obst and director Peter Bogdanovich at the Directors Guild. Introducing the movie, Bogdanovich noted that, unlike most films these days, "The Big Short" was "about something." Shortly after the closing credits rolled, the movie elicited a wave of accolades on social media from the likes of filmmakers Peyton Reed, Rod Lurie and Nicholas Jarecki and some in-person endorsements from Robert Towne and Buck Henry.

Reactions from hosted screenings such as these are sometimes hard to trust. But once the movie was over, nobody wanted to leave. People wanted to corner McKay and talk about the content of what they had just seen. Or debate it with other audience members.

And that reaction remained consistent at the countless industry screenings that followed in the last three months. The film's star, Steve Carell, told me the movie worked, not as a crowd-pleaser but as a "crowd-infuriater." In a political election year filled with unease and anger, that sounds like a best picture winner.

Twitter: @glennwhipp

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'The Big Short,' 'Inside Out,' 'Amy' win film prizes at Producers Guild Awards

Oscar Watch: Tracking the ups and downs of the awards season

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