Oscar Frontrunners’ Critical Weekend: What ‘American Hustle,’ ’12 Years a Slave’ and ‘Gravity’ Need to Do

This weekend’s SAG and PGA Awards will set the tone for phase two of Oscar campaigning

Last Updated: July 10, 2014 @ 7:15 PM

Oscar nominations are out, and phase two has begun. For frontrunners like “American Hustle,” “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave,” and for contenders hoping to rally, that means no more parties, fewer Q&A screenings, no more wining and dining the voters.

But before the phase-two campaigning really has a chance to get rolling, the top nominees will have to make it through what might be the most important two days until Oscar weekend.

The Screen Actors Guild will present its awards on Saturday. The Producers Guild of America will follow on Sunday. And by Monday morning, we could very well have a legitimate Oscar frontrunner instead of an uneasy trifecta.

Also read: Oscar Nominations: The Complete List

Last weekend, which culminated with the Golden Globes on Sunday, was a time to party; this weekend is when we really start to figure out what’s going to happen at the Dolby Theater on March 2.

For one thing, this weekend will be the first time that moviemakers, rather than critics or journalists, are giving the awards.

Remember: Three years ago, “The Social Network” had won everything up to this point, including the top Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Movie Awards (both of which went to “12 Years a Slave” this year). But the tide turned in favor of “The King’s Speech” at the Producers Guild Awards and then at SAG a week later, and that film rolled to Oscar gold.

At stake are two coveted awards, SAG’s Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture honor and the PGA’s Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures.

The SAG ensemble award, as it is known, has been considered an Oscar bellwether since “Shakespeare in Love” and “Crash” won it at a time when they were considered Oscar underdogs. It only goes to the Oscar best-picture winner about half the time, and it favors films with large casts (sorry, “Gravity” — no nomination for you), but it can be a crucial sign of support, as it was last year when “Argo” was the surprise winner.

The PGA is even more important as an Oscar barometer. The near-6,000-member organization has an extremely good track record predicting Oscar winners, agreeing with the Academy for the last six years in a row and 17 times in the 24-year existence of the awards.

See photos: 17 Biggest Snubs & Surprises: Oscar Nominations 2014

More to the point, when the Academy expanded its Best Picture field from five to 10 nominees in 2009, the PGA followed suit – and it also brought in the preferential system to count final ballots in the category, making it the only guild award to share the Academy’s idiosyncratic method of determining a winner.

Since it did so, the PGA’s winner has gone on to win the Oscar every year – and the wins for “The Hurt Locker,” “The King’s Speech, “The Artist” and “Argo” were key signs that those films had what it took to forge the consensus needed to win under a preferential count.

So for “American Hustle,” “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave,” the weekend looms large. Here’s the breakdown for the three big contenders:

: The Hot Newcomer.
Backstory: It didn’t start screening until just before Thanksgiving, long after the other two films had established themselves as frontrunners. And initial reactions were all over the map for David O. Russell’s freewheeling, seriocomic caper film. But “Hustle” has been on a roll lately; and it scored 10 Oscar nominations, including nods in all four acting categories, making Russell the first director to do that with two consecutive movies.
Task: Solidify its support among the actors, but also move beyond that.
Keys: First, it needs to win SAG ensemble, where it’s considered the favorite. Since the film opened so late and SAG voting took place early, Jennifer Lawrence was the only one of its stars to land a nomination – but a win for Lawrence over “12 Years a Slave” star Lupita Nyong’o in the supporting-actress category would be another sign that it has the actors in its corner. Winning PGA will be tougher for a film that is arguably more divisive than its main competition. But a victory there would be huge, and would immediately catapault the film into the odds-on Oscar favorite.

Also read: David O. Russell on ‘American Hustle’ Nominations: ‘You Try to Expect Nothing’

: The Dazzling Blockbuster.
Backstory: From the moment it debuted at the Venice Film Festival, Alfonso Cuaron’s spectacle managed to win over critics who saw it as more than just a thrill ride through Earth orbit. While the film has grossed more than $250 million in the U.S. and $400 million around the world, Cuaron has dominated in best-director awards. His film set a Critics’ Choice Movie Award record on Thursday with seven wins, though it lost the best-picture honor to “12 Years a Slave.”
Task: Win an award that’s not for directing or below-the-line crafts.
Keys: With its only nominated actor, Sandra Bullock, in a category all-but-conceded to Cate Blanchett from “Blue Jasmine,” and a cast of two that was far too small to win it an ensemble nomination, “Gravity” has no expectations for the SAG Awards. But the PGA is absolutely crucial, because the producers who vote are thought to favor big, successful movies. It doesn’t always happen like that (“The Hurt Locker” shocked “Avatar” here four years ago), but “Gravity” absolutely needs to win PGA to remain a frontrunner.

Also read: ‘Gravity’ Behind-the-Scenes Featurette Takes Audiences From Script to Screen (Video)

: The Critical Favorite
Backstory: Debuting at Telluride and then Toronto in September, Steve McQueen’s harrowing drama was immediately anointed the frontrunner – and, in some circles, the sure winner. Beset by murmurs that Academy voters might find it a little too hard to handle, it has nonetheless won the vast majority of critics’ awards, including the top prize at the Globes and Critics Choice.
Task: Show that the industry can embrace a tough, brutal film.
Keys: It has a real shot at SAG ensemble, and could definitely use that boost. Nyong’o faces tough competition from Lawrence in the supporting-actress race, and needs to hang onto the frontrunner status she’s had since Telluride. And PGA, again, is crucial to show that guild voters will look at a dark, unflinching movie and find the humanity (and, McQueen says, love) at its heart.

Also read: TheWrap Screening Series: The 12 Best Quotes From ’12 Years a Slave’ Q&A

: Underdogs.
Backstory: “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” are also best-picture nominees, and they’re not going away.
Task: To find signs of weakness in the frontrunners and present themselves as alternatives.
Keys: There’s not much chance that most of the films could do enough on their own to make a move this weekend. The biggest shakeup would happen if “Dallas Buyers Club” manages an upset victory in SAG ensemble on top of wins from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

Otherwise, the other contenders will have to hope that the two guilds spread the wealth so evenly, and so confusingly, that nobody comes out of the weekend looking like a frontrunner.

If that happens, we’ll be in for a six-week free-for-all.