By Mary Milliken
BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - Hollywood producers injected drama into the race for Oscars on Sunday by choosing not one but two movies as their best films of the year, the space thriller "Gravity" and the slavery drama "12 Years a Slave".
It is the first time the Producers Guild of America has declared a tie in the 25-year history of its awards. The PGA has correctly chosen the eventual Academy Award winner for best picture for the last six years, including Iranian hostage drama "Argo" a year ago.
The PGA decision clashes with that of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which on Saturday chose the 1970s-set corruption caper "American Hustle" from director David O. Russell for its top prize, best film ensemble cast.
But SAG has a mixed record on foreshadowing the Oscar best picture with its ensemble cast award, correctly predicting the Academy Award in six of the last 10 years.
Nevertheless, after an intense week of awards, the Oscars are shaping up to be a three-way race between these films. "American Hustle", with its strong performance, and "Gravity", with its technical innovation, lead nominations with 10 nods a piece, while "12 Years a Slave" and its brutal depiction of pre-Civil War slavery in the United States has nine.
The highest honors of the film industry from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be handed out on March 2. Voting among the 6,000 members runs from February 14 to 25.
It was a crucial night for "12 Years a Slave", which won the coveted Golden Globe last Sunday for best drama but failed to bring in any other awards that night. It has also lost out on key acting awards.
Director and producer Steve McQueen, in accepting the PGA award along with co-producer and actor Brad Pitt, addressed an issue that could complicate the film's Oscar potential: talk that it is too difficult to watch.
"When the film first came out in Toronto, some people were saying that this was a brutal film, that no one would go to see it," said McQueen, a British filmmaker. "Box office here in the United States and in the U.K. has proven differently."
'AMAZING YEAR IN CINEMA'
The film from Fox Searchlight Pictures is based on the true-life story of Solomon Northup, a free man tricked and sold into slavery in Louisiana plantations who witnesses and is subjected to horrific treatment. He is played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.
"Gravity," from Mexican director and producer Alfonso Cuaron, is based on a script he wrote with his son Jonas Cuaron inspired by their own setbacks as filmmakers. It is about an astronaut played by Sandra Bullock who is stranded in space after a space station is destroyed and her fight to return to Earth and a life marked by deep loss.
Cuaron said that it took more than four years for him and co-producer David Heyman to make "Gravity" and that the director (himself) "was difficult, stubborn and uncompromising".
Cuaron tested the patience and budget of Warner Bros. with his technical innovation to portray the weightlessness and the vastness of space.
Cuaron also touched on one of the big themes of the year, the extraordinarily high number of quality films that have made this awards season a celebration of a thriving industry.
"This has been an amazing year in cinema and I am talking about these amazing films that were nominated and many other films that were not nominated," Cuaron said.
The next big test for these films comes at next Saturday's Directors Guild Awards. Cuaron, McQueen and Russell are all nominated for the top DGA award and for the Oscar for best director.
But the longer time lag this year between Oscar nominations, voting and the ceremony could spell some unpredictable voting among Academy members, adding more uncertainty to the highly competitive race.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)