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Is awards season having a Donald Trump moment?

Is awards season having a Donald Trump moment?
Leonardo DiCaprio in Alejandro G. Inarritu's 'The Revenant' (Twentieth Century Fox)

Like the presidential primary season, the Hollywood guild awards do not come as a perfect or predictable whole.

Each guild has its own quirks--its favorites, pet peeves and demographics--that help determine the winners. A triumph among actors, for instance, doesn't assure a win among directors, just as a victory in New Hampshire hardly locks down success in South Carolina.

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Still, taken as a composite, certain patterns emerge. As a rule of physics, awards bodies do not tend to jut off completely in their own direction. Movies that win one of the major prizes have a higher probability of winning another. And at some point, as with primary‎ season, all that momentum tends to snowball and create an air of invincibility, which is how movies like "Slumdog Millionaire," ""Argo" and "The King's  Speech" each swept the three major guild awards and then went on to win the Oscar best picture in their respective years.

All of this is why the win for Alejandro G. Inarritu's revenge-survival epic "The Revenant" on Saturday night at the Directors Guild Awards -- the last of the troika of prizes from major guilds that also includes producers and actors -- is so surprising. (The fourth such honor, from screenwriters, doesn't carry the same weight because the guild's eligibility rules are more restrictive and exclude a number of top contenders.)

"The Revenant" had not won top honors from the other two major bodies, the Screen Actors Guild or Producers Guild of America -- those went to Tom McCarthy's journalism-centric scandal pic  "Spotlight" and Adam McKay's financial-crisis black comedy "The Big Short," respectively.  

In fact, Inarritu was actually a question mark at the DGA. He had won the group's prize last year, for "Birdman," which made some pundits think voters would tire of him and choose someone else. (He's the first director to win the DGA prize in consecutive years in the 65-plus-year history of the award.) So right off the bat the win is a little unexpected.


But Saturday night's developments are even more surprising  because, with "The Revenant" win, we now have a recent awards season anomaly. The Inarritu victory means that for the first time in 11 years, no movie that triumphed with one of the three major film guilds topped the list of another.

Yep, in each of the previous 10 years, a film has won the top prize from at least two of the three guilds (including that wacky 2013, when there was a PGA tie between "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave;" "Gravity" also won the DGA) .

In five of the eight years before this one, a single movie actually won all three prizes. This includes last year, when "Birdman" swept the trio on its way to the best picture Oscar.

But that all went to seed this year.

The split we just witnessed signals what those of us in the punditry business, very officially, call "a wide-open race," or less officially, a "we don't really know what's going on so we'll just keep forecasting" race.

Certainly there are specific dynamics to why that happened, and if you're even a casual reader of awards-season commentaries, you'll know some of what they are. The three guilds consist of people with different temperaments, valuing different skills, and each of the three winners played to those preferences.


"Spotlight" is the sort of robust ensemble piece that every actor dreams of being a part of, so the movie won SAG's top prize. "The Big Short" is the kind of tonally tricky effort that keeps a lot of plates spinning, so it attracted the affections of producers. And "The Revenant" features the kind of bold filmmaking — and, maybe even more important, the directorial self-sacrifice — that filmmakers tend to prize. So it won the DGA.

But that doesn't entirely explain the split. Contenders come with different strengths in many years. And yet we rarely see this kind of divergence.

At least, we rarely see this kind of divergence of late. You'll notice that a lot of these patterns involve recent awards season history. The 10 years that preceded this one has indeed been a period of consensus and lock-step. But if you go back to the 10 years before that (the SAG awards were created in 1995, so this is essentially the beginning of contemporary guild-award history), something else was happening.

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In three of those years, we had the same divergence we had this year -- no movie managed to win more than one guild. That's how it went down in the 2000 season ("Gladiator," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and "Traffic" split PGA, DGA and SAG); in 2001 ("Moulin Rouge!" "A Beautiful Mind," and "Gosford Park"); and in 2004 ("The Aviator," "Million Dollar Baby" and "Sideways"). No group could seem to agree with any other group.

Basically what it comes down to is that for the first 10 years of guild-award history the split happened three times. In the following 10 years it didn't happen at all. (If you're curious and/or Inarritu's publicist, you'll be interested to know that it was the DGA winner that went on to win best picture in two of the three previous split years.)

Which leads to an interesting theory. The past 10 years have been a time of increasing coverage of awards season. First that was true with the blogs and print special sections that began taking off in the 2000s and, later, with the social-media platforms that amplified their megaphone. It all turned awards prognosticating into a noisy, real-time (if still very much pseudo-scientific) enterprise. And more noise, as my colleague Charles McNulty has eloquently written, tends to drown out those voices arguing for outliers and passion choices.


Award season bodies are too small, and guild choices too entropic, for any of this to be empirical, let alone airtight. But certainly it's a coincidence worth noting. Before awards coverage reached its modern fever pitch, awards groups would at least somewhat regularly go their own way. Since the decibel level was cranked up, it's hardly happened at all.

So what's going on this year? The blog and social-media noise hasn't gone anywhere--in fact, it's louder than ever. So is this just an exception to the trend? Or is it a sign of a kind of bristling, a hive-mind reaction against all the predictions and recommendations that so many people who don't vote for awards make to people who do?

Is it a momentary outlier? Or a restless response, as in our politics, to a handed-down status quo?  That already seems to be afoot at the Oscars with "Room," an outside-the-system upstart that defeated three better-funded and more traditional contenders in three different categories, including the most establishment of establishment candidates, Ridley Scott.

Is this all just a blip, or something that signals a more deep-seated resistance to how awards season is supposed to go?

There's no immediate answer to these questions. But they've become increasingly noteworthy ones to ask, just as they have with politics. Are the Donald Trumps and Bernie Sanders of the world -- and, indeed, the larger unpredictable group of candidates of which they're a part -- simply a function of a strange and anxious moment? Or a harbinger of a new reality, in which convention and consensus becomes a non-factor, even a hindrance?

I'm not suggesting that some kind of grassroots uprising is happening in Hollywood. Awards season voters are still very much subject to what movies the studios send out and campaign for -- and, yes, for better or worse, what ink-stained wretches like myself and my colleagues say. Movies aren't politics, and all three of these guild winners are well-oiled, conventionally backed contenders (even if the more modestly budgeted "Spotlight," coming from the smaller distributor Open Road, is a far more independent choice than its Big Studio rivals).

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But at a cultural moment emphasizing the upstart and the outsider, one that almost seems to be reveling in a kind of electoral chaos, it's fair to wonder if voters are also feeling that itch, wanting to hark back to a time when Oscar season wasn't a foregone conclusion. One academy member I spoke to recently said they were tired of being told by "all these pundits"  what they should do and think. A curmudegonely sentiment, to be sure, but not, I suspect, an uncommon one. (This feeling might also apply to how voters feel about the widespread coverage of the diversity debate, but that's another matter.)

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One of the movies, "The Big Short," has an even more direct connection to the current political-revolution moment: It's become a favorite of Sanders, who said "damn right I have" when asked if he'd seen it and called it an "excellent film."

Sadly for both our sanity and the collective good, neither the current awards season nor the presidential election cycle is near the finish line. The way voters have been wriggling around, we may yet see a few more surprises before all is said and done this year. And, perhaps, even beyond this year.

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