Chloé Zhao's "Nomadland" cemented its Oscar front-runner status Wednesday, winning the top award at the 32nd annual Producers Guild of America Awards.
"Nomadland," Zhao's recession-era portrait of itinerant people in the American West, is only the second woman-directed film to win the producers' Darryl F. Zanuck award for outstanding producer of a motion picture. The other was Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" in 2010.
In a delayed, virtual and very long awards season that has marched along during the coronavirus pandemic with little of the usual pomp, projecting a clear Oscar front-runner has been challenging. But if any film could claim that mantle, it's "Nomadland," winner of the Golden Globe best picture award for drama. Zhao, too, is considered the favorite for best director. If she does win, she would only the second female director to do so, again after Bigelow.
"Nomadland" — made for less than $5 million and starring co-producer Frances McDormand, though with many nonprofessional actors — is an unusually low-budget winner for the PGA honor, which has traditionally gone to larger-scale productions.
"In a year where we have been all been leading such isolated lives and movies felt so vital, we are proud to have produced a film about community and what connects us," said producer Peter Spears, accepting the award in a taped message.
The PGA Awards are watched especially closely as an Oscar bellwether. The producers use the same preferential ballot as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and their best-picture fields often nearly mirror each other. This year, the producers nominated a few movies the academy passed over for best picture ("Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm," "One Night in Miami" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom") while skipping one that landed the Oscar nomination: "The Father."
In the 11 years since the Oscars expanded the best-picture category, the PGA and the film academy have picked the same winner eight times.