Predicting the PGA prizes

It’s probably safe to bet a gay cowboy’s ranch that “Brokeback Mountain” will win best pic this Sunday from the Producers Guild of America, a key forecaster of the top Oscar. Over the past 17 years, the two best picture prizes have agreed 12 times. The five exceptions:

PGA members chose “The Aviator” last year (Oscars picked “Million Dollar Baby”), “Moulin Rouge” in 2001 (Oscars: “A Beautiful Mind”), “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998 (Oscars: “Shakespeare in Love”), “Apollo 13” in 1995 (Oscars: “Braveheart”) and “The Crying Game” in 1992 (Oscars: “Unforgiven”).

One thing is clear from their voting pattern. Voters tend to go with the early derby leaders. “The Aviator” and “Saving Private Ryan” were way out front at first, but then tripped up in the home stretch. At the start, “Apollo 13” was considered a fave to win too, but it got eclipsed by a surge from “Sense and Sensibility” in early kudos.

“Apollo” rallied right before the Academy Awards. Many pundits thought it would win. In fact, in the L.A. Times that came out on Oscar morning, the paper’s top two film critics predicted the film would beat “Braveheart”.

“Apollo 13” also won the paper’s poll of 50 top film-industry honchos who dared to guess the best picture outcome. That tells us that producers’ guild members probably thought they were riding the victorious Oscar horse too.

But what should we make of the victory of “The Crying Game” in 1992?

Photo: Those gay cowboys have nuthin’ to fret about at PGA, many award watchers believe.
(Focus Features)

Fascinating, that choice. Maybe those stodgy money guys and gals wanted us award watchers to know how cool they were.

Back then “The Crying Game” was all the buzz of sophisticated America. Everybody wanted to know if everybody else had seen it yet and discovered its shocking, gender-bending secret. “Crying Game” not only beat early Oscar favorite “Unforgiven” at PGA, but it also beat “A Few Good Men,” the highest-grossing film of the year ($141 million domestic, $101 million international) that had any serious shot at the best picture Oscar. Four other films earned more box office gold, but didn’t have a prayer at Academy Award gold — like “Aladdin” and “Home Alone 2.”

Producers are usually suspected of being money-grubbers, so shouldn’t we be surprised that they preferred “Crying Game” to “A Few Good Men”? No, come to think of it. If greed was what inspired their voting, “Crying Game” was the best bet because it provided, percentage wise, a much better return on investment. Produced for only $5 million, it grossed $62 million just in the U.S. Or — let’s stop being skeptical — maybe they really thought it was the best film of the year.

The producers’ past choice of “Crying Game” matters a lot this year because it tells us that the business side of filmmaking, often considered to be a heterosexual haven, is extremely gay-friendly. That sure helps “Brokeback Mountain,” which has lots of other PGA pluses too. It’s the early kudos leader and this “Mountain” sure hit the mother lode for its investors. Made for only $14 million, it has already earned more then $33 million domestically and is right now the No. 1 movie in America.

But beware of “Crash.” It’s the one film that has a chance to tower above “Mountain.” It has enormous secret support in the industry and lots of new momentum, as witnessed by how well it’s performing at other guild awards and BAFTA. And if producers truly care a lot about returns on investment, well, “Crash” is a bonanza. Produced for only $6.5 million, it earned more than $55 million at the U.S. box office and was the top-selling DVD for the first two weeks of its release.

I don’t think “Good Night, and Good Luck” has any chance to win PGA. Its odds jump hugely at the Directors Guild of America, however, where “Crash” will be a serious rival too.

But for now let’s see if “Brokeback” can prevail on Sunday with the producers. If it’s really the awards juggernaut that it appears to be, we’ll see more evidence — albeit inconclusive — there.

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