Hey, We’ve Got Ourselves an Oscar Race

Harvey’s beaming and Scott’s sweating as the “King’s Speech” victory at the Producers Guild shakes up the Oscar race

Well, what do you know?

In the middle of what lots of people figured was a victory lap for “The Social Network,” a real race broke out.

King's Speech producersThe Producers Guild of America served notice on Saturday night that while David Fincher’s acclaimed drama may have put together an unprecedented sweep of critics awards, and capped that with a win at the Golden Globes, it’s not a lock to continue that winning streak through the Oscars.

In the aftermath of “The King’s Speech” taking the top PGA film award in a surprising and significant upset, you can be sure of a few things.

Harvey Weinstein is beaming. Scott Rudin is sweating. And the folks behind “The Fighter” are looking ahead to next weekend’s Screen Actors Guild Awards with the chance of turning this season into a three-way dogfight.

(Above: "King's Speech" producers Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Gareth Unwin at the PGA; photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Before the Producers Guild, I was mulling over ideas for a piece to be called “Is It Over?” “The Social Network,” after all, was dominant, winning all the awards that preceded last year’s Oscar victory for “The Hurt Locker,” and then some.

And in talking to Academy members over the past month, I found that almost all the voters under 50 scoffed at the idea that this was a real race. “Of course ‘The Social Network’ is going to win,” one told me last weekend. “You guys just want to pretend it’s a race so you have something to write about.”

But when I spoke to AMPAS members over 50 – and I don’t have a demographic breakdown, but that’s a big group – I heard something else entirely. I heard “The King’s Speech,” “The King’s Speech,” “The King’s Speech,” and then “The Fighter.”

Over and over, I’ve been hearing real love for those two movies – and also, every so often, for “Toy Story 3.”

Over the past four years, to be sure, Academy voters have tended to agree with the critics, particularly when one film became a consensus choice as the best movie of the year. It happened with “No Country for Old Men,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and  “The Hurt Locker,” none of them typical Oscar movies. And although I thought that “The King’s Speech” felt like an Oscar winner from the first time I saw it, I was persuaded that the weight of consensus would leave its mark on the Academy once again.

Now, though, I’m starting to wonder about the effect of all those early “Social Network” wins on what one Academy member described to me this morning as the “I don’t LOVE ‘Social Network’ thing.”

In the same way that the enormous success of “Avatar” may have made James Cameron’s film an irresistible target last year, and pushed the critics to be almost unanimous in their choice of “The Hurt Locker” as the alternative, so the unprecedented sweep of critics awards could serve to rally voters who are on the fence to come together behind another candidate.

I also have to wonder: if the Hollywood Foreign Press Association hadn’t been wracked with scandal in recent weeks, would Golden Globes voters have felt free to vote for the movie I bet they liked better, “The King’s Speech,” rather than the one that would show they have the same good taste as all the critics’ groups? But for a scandal or three, “King’s Speech” could be the movie now riding a winning streak.

Jesse Eisenberg“The Social Network” is probably still the frontrunner … but that frontrunner spot can be precarious, and the film no longer feels invincible. And the events taking place over the next few weeks could serve to muddy the waters even more.

When the Oscar nominations are announced on Tuesday morning, it’s likely that “The King’s Speech” will be the most-nominated film. Four days later, at the Directors Guild of America Awards, Fincher will almost certainly win for “The Social Network.”

The King's SpeechBut the day after that, the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Ensemble could go one of a few directions: “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech” were the only two films to send screeners to the entire membership, and both have a good shot at winning. But “The Fighter” is considered a strong contender as well, and perhaps even a favorite – it and “The King’s Speech” are the only films with three individual acting nominations, to one for “The Social Network.”

The Writers Guild isn’t as significant because it limits its nominees to guild members and guild-signatory projects, which disqualifies “The King’s Speech.” But the King has home-field advantage at the BAFTA Awards, and should prevail there.

The FighterIf “The Social Network” can somehow navigate this maze of awards and reassemble something of a streak, it’ll be in good shape coming into the Oscars. But if the PGA and the DGA and the SAG all go to different films, we could be looking at a very interesting Oscar night.

One other thing to consider: the PGA is the only other body that follows the Academy’s lead in tallying votes in its top category using the preferential system.

Under the system, a voter ranks his choices one-through-10, and the films with the fewest Number One votes are eliminated round-by-round until one movie ends up with more than 50 percent of the vote. To win, a film doesn’t need the most Number One votes: it needs to be a consensus favorite ranked highly on the ballots where it’s not the first choice.

The system was widely thought to be an obstacle to the love-it-or-hate-it “Avatar” last year – and the failure of “The Social Network” to win at the PGA may mean that it too is more divisive than some of its competitors, regardless of what all those critics think.

Stay tuned. This could be fun.