LOS ANGELES — On Groundhog Day Hollywood’s black-tie set will watch the Directors Guild of America hand its feature award to a filmmaker whose movie will go on to win the best picture Oscar three weeks later.
At least it has worked that way 9 out of 10 times in the last decade.
But this year not even Punxsutawney Phil, who emerges to look for his shadow on Feb. 2, can be sure. For those who make an annual game or even business out of Oscar predictions, 2013 has turned into a weird weather year where film directors are concerned.
On Jan. 10, three days before the Oscar nominations were announced, the “Gurus o’ Gold,” a panel of 14 awards watchers who write for the likes of Entertainment Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter, got it notably wrong.
In a prenomination poll, the Gurus reached a consensus that the nominees for best director would be, in order: Steven Spielberg, for “Lincoln”; Ben Affleck, for “Argo”; Kathryn Bigelow, for “Zero Dark Thirty”; Ang Lee, for “Life of Pi”; and David O. Russell, for “Silver Linings Playbook,” or Tom Hooper, for “Les Misérables.”
A handful on the panel threw votes to Michael Haneke, for “Amour,” and two thought Quentin Tarantino would sneak in, with a nomination for “Django Unchained.”
But Mr. Affleck, Ms. Bigelow, Mr. Hooper and Mr. Tarantino — who all made relatively large-scale films that have attracted a wide audience — were snubbed in the Oscar voting. Instead Mr. Haneke, whose French-language “Amour” played largely within the confines of an elderly couple’s apartment, was nominated. So was Benh Zeitlin, for his first feature film, the small-scale fable “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
As things go here, it might as well be raining tadpoles.
“Absolutely, it was surprising,” said Kristopher Tapley, one of the Gurus. On his blog In Contention, Mr. Tapley had correctly predicted Mr. Haneke’s nomination, but missed the Affleck, Bigelow and Hooper snubs.
Chaos in the directing field, Mr. Tapley said in an interview from the Sundance Film Festival this week, probably reflects a certain amount of gamesmanship among Oscar voters. Some, for instance, might want to cut the frequently honored Ms. Bigelow down to size. Or they might have figured that Mr. Affleck would be taken care of by others while they slipped a vote to Mr. Zeitlin.
“I was shocked by Benh Zeitlin’s nomination, but more surprised that Ben Affleck was snubbed,” Mr. Tapley said.
At any rate, the Directors Guild, normally a reliable Oscar barometer, is now at odds with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which grants the Oscars. The guild’s nominees include three who are missing from the Academy Awards list — Mr. Affleck, Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Hooper — and leave off Mr. Haneke and Mr. Zeitlin. Only Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lee overlap.
Things got even stranger on Jan. 13, when Mr. Affleck was named best director at the Golden Globes, and “Argo” the best drama, to rousing approval from a crowd that was filled with potential Oscar voters and included the suddenly snubbed front-runner, Mr. Spielberg.
Among Hollywood’s players, there has been no shortage of theories about the omissions from the Oscar list of directing nominees. But most of those are offered privately, because Academy members receive a yearly admonition to avoid public discussion of their votes, and because professional awards campaigners risk having their films subjected to disciplinary action by the Academy if they engage in negative talk about rivals.
One theory has it that Ms. Bigelow is being punished because some in the Academy interpret “Zero Dark Thirty” as implying that information derived from torture assisted in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
A twist on that theory even suggests that backers of one or another of Ms. Bigelow’s politically connected professional rivals helped prod several powerful senators into criticizing “Zero Dark Thirty.” This theory (which is not advanced by the Bigelow team) would be more tantalizing if it were offered with a shred of evidence, which it isn’t.
A less conspiratorial line of thought holds that Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Hooper, having won directing Oscars recently — she for “The Hurt Locker,” he for “The King’s Speech” — were politely set aside by the Academy’s directors branch, which decides the directing nominations. The idea, supposedly, was to make room for Mr. Haneke and Mr. Zeitlin, who had never before been nominated (and, in Mr. Zeitlin’s case, had never made a feature film).
That same logic might cover the exclusion of Mr. Tarantino, who was nominated as best director in 2010 for “Inglourious Basterds.” But it doesn’t explain what happened to Mr. Affleck, whose only prior Oscar nomination, and win, came in 1998, when he was honored as co-author of the screenplay to “Good Will Hunting.”
A more positive view of Mr. Haneke’s nomination — putting aside the obvious explanation, that he has directed a fine film — is rooted in the historical behavior of the Academy’s directors. By this theory, the branch members, who number about 370, and certainly talk among themselves, occasionally decide to honor a generally overlooked maker of foreign-language films whom they believe to be at the top of his or her game.
“It’s not so surprising that he was nominated for directing and screenplay,” Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which is distributing “Amour” in the United States, said of Mr. Haneke. “The Academy has a long history of this.”
So Akira Kurosawa was nominated in 1986 for “Ran”; Lina Wertmüller in 1977 for “Seven Beauties”; François Truffaut in 1975 for “Day for Night”; Ingmar Bergman in 1974 for “Cries and Whispers”; and Federico Fellini in 1962 for “La Dolce Vita.” (None won.)
Similarly, in 2001 Mr. Lee was nominated, but didn’t win, for his Chinese-language film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” In 2006 he won both the directing Oscar and the Directors Guild award for “Brokeback Mountain.” But it became the only film in the last decade to be honored by the guild without later winning the best picture Oscar. (That went to “Crash.”)
Still, the simplest explanation for this year’s rejection of filmmakers behind the popular, studio-style movies favored by the Directors Guild (which has 15,000 members who work in various capacities on films and television shows) may lie in the changing identity of the Oscars’ tiny directors branch, which accounts for about 6.5 percent of 5,856 Oscar voters.
In recent years death has claimed senior members of the branch, including many who were known for sophisticated mainstream films like those just made by Mr. Affleck and Ms. Bigelow. Among branch members who have died since 2008 are Sydney Pollack, Tony Scott, John Hughes, Blake Edwards and Sidney Lumet.
Studio types all, they have been replaced in the branch in recent years almost entirely by foreign-speaking or indie-oriented directors. Those to whom membership was offered lately include the brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne; Philippe Falardeau; Rodrigo Garcia; Michel Hazanavicius; Michaël Roskam; Wong Kar Wai; Gregg Araki; Neil Burger; Yojiro Takita; Jacques Audiard; and Lone Scherfig.
Of 25 directors invited to join the branch in the last three years, only one — Adam Shankman, who directed “Hairspray” and “Rock of Ages” — has deep roots in the studio world. The rest, by and large, have directed, and presumably admire, small or foreign films, like “Amour” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” So an evolving electorate in the branch has changed the mix of nominees for the directing Oscar.
But Hollywood’s answer to Punxsutawney Phil, the Directors Guild award, may still be the best predictor when it comes to the big picture.