Guild awards help clarify Best Picture Oscar, but confuse Best Documentary race

Last year, the winner of the Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature was a only foregone conclusion: there wasn’t much the industry guilds agreed on more than “Searching for Sugar Man,” which won awards from the PGA, DGA, WGA, and the American Cinema Editors, and was also nominated by the Motion Picture Sound Editors.

But this year there’s no such consensus to be found.

And with voting for the winner now open to the entire academy membership, are there any tea leaves we should be reading?

The Producers Guild didn’t even nominate any of the Oscar nominees. While two films from the academy’s list of 15 semi-finalists made the cut – “Life According to Sam” and “Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington” – but both lost to Alex Gibney‘s “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.” Easy to see why the PGA has only predicted three of the last seven Oscar-winners. 

At the Directors Guild, three of the Oscar-nominated docs were in contention — “The Act of Killing,” “Cutie and the Boxer,” and “The Square.” “The Square” pulled off an upset despite ranking third in our Oscar predictions. Does this win make it the Oscar frontrunner?

It’s hard to say. While three of the last four DGA winners went on to win Oscar (“Sugar Man” in 2012, “Inside Job” in 2010, “The Cove” in 2009), those were the only times the two groups agreed in the last decade. Three other times the eventual Oscar winner wasn’t even nominated by the DGA (“Undefeated” in 2011, “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006, “March of the Penguins” in 2005).

So what about the Writers Guild? Can we turn to them for insight? Winners will be announced this Saturday (February 1), but only one of the Oscar nominees is in the running there: “Dirty Wars,” which wasn’t nominated by the DGA or PGA. It faces the PGA winner, “We Steal Secrets,” as well as “Herblock: The Black and the White,” “No Place on Earth,” and DGA nominee “Stories We Tell.”

But even if “Dirty Wars” wins – unlikely, as it ranks third in our racetrack odds – that may not predict Oscar either. Only four WGA winners for Documentary Screenplay won the Documentary Feature Oscar in the last nine years: “Sugar Man,” “Inside Job,” “The Cove,” and “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007). However, 2002 Oscar champ “Bowling for Columbine” managed a rare win for a documentary in the WGA’s Original Screenplay race.

When we look to the American Cinema Editors, we still find little consensus. Only one Oscar-nominee is in the running there: “20 Feet from Stardom,” which leads our predictions in that race despite being snubbed by the PGA, DGA, and WGA. It’s nominated against a pair of films that were on the academy’s shortlist: “Blackfish” and “Tim’s Vermeer.”

The ACE Eddie Awards have a slightly better recent track record, predicting five of the last 10 Oscar champs: “Sugar Man” (2012), “The Cove” (2009), “Man on Wire” (2008), “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), and “March of the Penguins” (2005).

Why is there so much disagreement between the top industry guilds when it comes to documentaries, when there’s so much consistency among nominations for narrative films? Is it because the Oscar-campaign machine is so much less aggressive for documentaries? If so, I think the greater diversity of nominations is a good thing.

When groups are faced with so many worthy choices and not guided towards the same dozen or so options by studio campaigns, it’s almost inevitable that the groups will reach different conclusions. So while a divided field is the bane of an Oscar predictor, it’s good news for a documentary-lover.

But it may be foolish to look to the past at all as the academy has changed the way they pick the Best Documentary Feature winner. Last year marked the first time that the entire academy membership was allowed to vote for the winner, if they attested to viewing all the nominees. Before that, only members who attended special screenings could cast a vote in the category.

Does that mean more populist fare will always win? Or the most publicized films? Maybe in another 10 years we’ll discover that one industry group has become more accurate than the others in predicting Oscar. But for now it’s too early to answer any of those questions. And maybe that too is a good thing for the discussion of what represents the best in documentary film.

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