Numlock Awards: What's it going to take to make Nomadland a runaway?

Plus, Chloé Zhao is working towards one of the greatest award season performances of all time.

Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Walter.

Welcome back!

This Sunday is the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which will illuminate — if not, in several cases, end — a number of our acting prize races. Before those races come to dominate, I wanted to look at the race for Best Picture because it’s possible we’re going to get some new intel at SAG that will potentially set up the primary rival to Nomadland.

The Producers Guild awarded Nomadland a win, launching it from first place to, er, very first place. The PGA is a really predictive award, but it’s even more significant this year because of how it appears the season is going to shake out; I hesitate to say that Nomadland director Chloé Zhao has a DGA Award in the bag, but I simply have never once seen, after scouring more than two decades of data, any year in which a director has swept as thoroughly or decisively as Zhao.

Out of 28 local critics’ prizes that have gone out for this year, Zhao has won 25 of them, losing only in Austin (to Lee Issac Chung, Minari), in London (to Steve McQueen, for the Oscar ineligible Small Axe) and the African American Critics Award (to Regina King, One Night In Miami…).

Since the late ’90s, the single best performance for a director among the local critics was Alfonso Cuarón in 2018, who won 20 out of 31 for Roma; Zhao is beating that well before all the awards are even out yet. Moreover, I actually don’t think I’ve seen a performance as dominant as Zhao in any category; Helen Mirren in The Queen in 2006 is the best I could find for any acting performance and she only won 20 out of 29.

If she keeps it up, Chloé Zhao could have put up the single best award season of any contender in decades.

Simply put, after winning an unprecedented number of local critics’ prizes, the Critics’ Choice, and the Golden Globe, I would be shocked — like, leading a crowd of villagers outside of the Directors Guild headquarters with pitchforks and torches levels of “not really cool with this” — if the DGA doesn’t give Zhao the win.

So with that assumption in mind, Nomadland winning the Producers Guild is actually an outstanding sign for its journey; all signs point to a likely DGA win, and if it were to win those two awards it’s impossible for the film to not be frontrunner on Oscar night.

But here’s the wonderful thing about Oscar night: frontrunners don’t always win.

In the past 10 years alone, there have been three occasions — 1917, La La Land, and Gravity — where a film that won both the DGA Award and the PGA Award did not win. Those later years were each upsets, but winning two of the top prizes hardly guarantees the Oscar.

This is part of the changing Academy, and the precursors going from near locks to mere indication. Earlier this season I looked at the reliability of different precursors over time; the DGA and PGA are not looking so hot:

Now, that leaves us with the SAG Awards this weekend and BAFTAs next weekend. Nomadland didn’t pick up a SAG nomination, so this is a chance to shore up some of the competition. We can play out a few things about each depending on how they go down:

  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 does great at both: In this event, the sole film up at both SAG and BAFTA wins at either or both. This would set up the Sorkin film as the main competitor to Nomadland. Should it fail to win at either, it’s increasingly hard to make the case for its Oscar chances.

  • Minari wins at SAG: This would put Minari in the driver’s seat for a few days, and though it’s not nominated at BAFTA, that could work out in its favor: it may leave it as the underdog to Nomadland should that film win at both BAFTA and the DGA.

  • Da 5 Bloods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, or One Night In Miami… wins at SAG: None of these films are nominated for the Oscar for best picture. For the purposes of the Oscar Best Picture race, this would be a win for Nomadland as it deprives either of the competing contenders any momentum from the win, and cements its lead. If this event were coupled with a Nomadland win at DGA and BAFTA, this would kind of end the Best Picture race.

  • Promising Young Woman picks up a BAFTA win. Though not nominated at SAG, a head-to-head win at BAFTA against Nomadland would instead place Promising Young Woman firmly in the underdog slot with solid endgame momentum, especially given its bump from the Writers Guild Awards.

That’s where things stand. Nomadland is in excellent position now. It’s currently the frontrunner, it needs one easy break to happen for it to be the guaranteed frontrunner, and it just needs to keep up the pace among the British in order to be a prohibitive frontrunner. While it looks like a fairly straight path to drive, there’s no guarantees of anything this year, and as it stands we’ve seen weirder upsets.