By Ben Travers | Indiewire January 22, 2014 at 8:41PM
"Well, I guess it's over." After Sunday's Producers Guild Awards, it would be easy to imagine many "American Hustle" fans muttering the aforementioned lament about their favorite film's Oscar odds. After all, the PGA has accurately predicted the Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards six years running, and "American Hustle" placed third—at best—after the history-making tie between "Gravity and "12 Years a Slave." So is David O. Russell's latest doomed to repeat the director's most recent past and miss out on many attainable Oscars?
Yes, both "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle" earned Best Picture nominations as well as nods in all four acting categories. Yes, David O. Russell is behind both, and they feature much of the same cast. Yes, Jennifer Lawrence is just as hot as she was last year and could be poised to take home another Supporting Actress Oscar (though Lupita has the lead). With all that being said, there are still five key reasons "American Hustle" is looking to take home more trophies than "Silver Linings Playbook"...and why it's still got a shot at Best Picture.
First came the nominations. When "Silver Linings Playbook" Oscar prognosticators awoke to discover Russell's film earned eight Oscar nods last year, they weren't shocked. At least six of the eight nominations were seen as locks by early January. Only Jacki Weaver's inclusion in the Supporting Actress field and arguably the film's editing nod took people off guard. Meanwhile, "American Hustle" not only landed two more total nominations, Christian Bale's appearance in the Best Actor field shocked most onlookers and Amy Adams fought off some stiff competition to make the Best Actress cut.
The 10 nominations tied for the most of any film (with "Gravity"), and then came the precursors. The Golden Globes showered the celebrity cast with attention including nominations galore and wins for Best Actress, Supporting Actress, and Picture (all in the Musical or Comedy category). The Screen Actors Guild Awards, though, was where something truly special happened. It wasn't looking great for "American Hustle" the evening of the SAGs, especially after Jennifer Lawrence lost to Lupita Nyong'o in "12 Years a Slave," a film that made a strong showing with four nominations in the top five film categories. In addition to Nyong'o, "12 Years a Slave" received nods for Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and ensemble cast. Yet, at night's end, it still lost out on the top prize to "American Hustle," the Best Ensemble winner despite only one actor earning an individual nod.
The year prior, Russell's film lost ensemble to "Argo" despite receiving a nomination in every category other than Supporting Actress and even winning the Best Actress trophy (a key victory for Jennifer Lawrence in her campaign for Oscar). An interesting reversal, no? So after the Globes, the SAGs, and the PGAs, where does "American Hustle" stand? Top two? Top three? I'm not sure, but it's certainly not dead. Voting hasn't even started yet.
"American Hustle" only tops "Silver Linings Playbook" by 1 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It barely wins on CriticWire with an A- compared to a B+. It's got its biggest lead on MetaCritic with a 90 rating rather than the 81 sported by "Silver Linings." These are slight edges, but a slight edge up in adoration may have been enough to earn "Silver Linings Playbook" a Best Picture last year (you know, without the Affleck snub).
More importantly, the vocal praise seems louder for "American Hustle." The believers more fervent. Critics are crucial to campaigns because they keep public opinion favorable. The more writers who like "American Hustle," the less writers there are to take it down a peg in print (or, more commonly, online). Voters may not care that much about what a critic thinks of their favorite or least favorite Best Picture contender, but anyone on the fence might. This year, with so many fantastic films, I imagine there will be a good number of voters looking to be swayed.
3) Megan Ellison could be the new Harvey Weinstein.
With her films earning 17 Oscar nominations this year, Megan Ellison is beating Harvey "The Oscar Whisperer" Weinstein at his own game. The old guard may have to stand down to make room for the new, and what's truly remarkable about the switcheroo is the night and day differences between producers. Ellison is hesitant to step into the spotlight, not granting interview requests and even shying away from speaking at public events (at this year's AFI Fest, Spike Jonze walked out into the crowd and retrieved his "Her' producer, forcing her to say a few words during the post-screening Q&A). Harvey Weinstein, on the other hand, is ready to pick fights on the world stage (see last year's title fight over "Lee Daniels' The Butler"). Ellison has cultivated a reputation as a supporter of the filmmakers' visions, not someone who steps in to edit a director's movie (see "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"). Most obviously, she's a she and he's a he. The change couldn't be more welcome.
It's hard to imagine voters don't feel the same way. After years of being badgered by Weinstein's intricate campaigns, perhaps they'll respond to Ellison's hands-off approach. At the very least, voters may want to jump onto the bandwagon while they can, allowing "American Hustle" to reap the rewards (assuming they don't fall for Ellison's other Best Picture nominee and Indiewire favorite, "Her"). No matter how you slice it, Ellison is the hot hand in Hollywood right now. It can't hurt.
For many, last year's Best Picture race will be remembered as a boring, one-sided exercise in patience until "Argo" could claim its prize. Last year's competition was over the second Ben Affleck's name wasn't read among the Best Director nominees, and "Argo" was a lock for Best Picture from that moment on. No matter what Harvey Weinstein did to try to convince voters "Silver Linings Playbook" was the best film of the year, nothing was going to trump the Academy's snub of a beloved director at the peak of his career renaissance.
2014 is a different story. As evidenced by the aforementioned PGA Awards tie for Best Picture, no one can settle on one clear frontrunner for Oscar gold. "American Hustle" may not be the odds on favorite (or maybe it is), but its status in the top three contenders is much more valuable than when "Silver Linings Playbook" found itself in a similar position last year. Given the right circumstances and a well-executed campaign, "American Hustle" can actually win. "Silver Linings Playbook" was just as well off in second place as it was dead last.
Because it's not squaring off against "Argo," standard Academy trends can apply. Meaning if the main competition for "American Hustle" is "12 Years a Slave," Russell's film has recent historical precedent on its side. Ever since "Shakespeare in Love" stole the Best Picture trophy from "Saving Private Ryan," the Academy has earned a reputation for liking softer, funnier films. Be it a change in attitude or just a remarkable campaign strategy that set the tone for years to come (a strategy from, you guessed it, Harvey Weinstein), there has been a tendency of late for Oscar voters to lean toward the lighter side of life. "Argo" beat "Lincoln." "The Artist" trumped all. "The King's Speech" took down "The Social Network."
There have been exceptions. "The Hurt Locker" bested "Avatar," but most of the races over the past decade have featured one depressing film trumping another depressing film. "No Country For Old Men" over "There Will Be Blood." "The Departed" over "Babel." "Crash" over...well, that was just a travesty. The point is thus: "American Hustle" is undoubtedly lighter fare than "12 Years a Slave." That could work in its favor.