Not only is the prize highly valued among showbiz's most important kudos, but it points the direction toward what will happen in the top two Oscar races: director and picture.
So who's ahead for this year? Three directors seem like safe bets.
Martin Scorsese ("The Departed")
Scorsese's clearly the frontrunner to win both DGA and the Oscar. The esteemed veteran hasn't won either award in the past (6 DGA losses, 7 Oscar defeats), although he reaped an honorary DGA award in 2002.
Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls")
Since "Dreamgirls" is "Departed's" chief competition to win best picture at the Oscars, Bill Condon will probably make the DGA cut, too. He hasn't been nominated as a helmer by either group, but did win an Oscar for penning "Gods and Monsters." He has a good shot to win the guild prize considering Rob Marshall -- who directed another musical written by Condon, "Chicago" -- beat both Martin Scorsese ("Gangs of New York") and the contender who ended up winning best director at the Oscars: Roman Polanski ("The Pianist").
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Clint Eastwood ("Letters from Iwo Jima," "Flags of Our Fathers")
Industry favorite Clint Eastwood seems likely to be nominated, too, but for which film? "Flags of Our Fathers" was well received, but didn't live up to extravagant expectations. "Letters from Iwo Jima" picked up lots of critics awards, but it probably came out too late in the year for DGA members to see it.
That's a key point to consider when weighing DGA possibilities. Voters can't receive DVD screeners. The guild's 13,000 members must attend industry screenings or public viewings at theaters.
Voters receive nomination ballots the first week of December and must have them mailed in by early January. Most ballots were probably returned by the third week of December -- just as "Iwo Jima" opened in limited run at a few theaters in New York and L.A. DGA members are nationwide, many located in cities that don't feature frequent screenings.
A few years ago voters turned out to see Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby," which was released in late December, too, but that featured much-hyped performances by big stars like Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman. It's less likely that guild members will rush out to see a Japanese-language film that makes Americans look like the bad guys at a World War II battle that the U.S. won.
However, if Eastwood gets nominated for both, that hikes his chances to beat Scorsese. Only two directors have been nominated twice in the same year by DGA and both won: Francis Ford Coppola (won for "The Godfather, Part II," also nommed for "The Conversation") and Steven Soderbergh (won for "Traffic," also nommed for "Erin Brockovich").
Sometimes the guild members like to demonstrate their artistic sense by nominating non-Americans who helmed foreign-language films. That phenomenon happens more frequently at the Oscars, but occasional outlanders like Roberto Begnini ("Life Is Beautiful") get in. Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") even won.
This year there are several foreigners who have a serious shot:
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, ("Babel")
Inarritu has long been admired on the art-house scene and is now achieving huge mainstream prominence. Some Oscar pundits discounted his "Babel" early this awards season, but it recently made strong showings at the actors and producers guilds. If Inarritu gets nominated by DGA, that will be a strong signal that "Babel" will probably be up for the best-picture Oscar.
Pedro Almodovar, ("Volver")
Pedro Almodovar has a strong DGA shot, too. He was nominated for best director by the Oscars and even won the screenplay prize for "Talk to Her, " but has not yet been recognized by the guild. That could change this year since he achieved his biggest mainstream success with "Volver," which was also a hit with critics.
Guillermo Del Toro, ("Pan's Labyrinth")
A bid for Mexican helmer Guillermo Del Toro is also possible since "Pan's Labyrinth" was just voted the year's best picture by the National Society of Film Critics, but it's not likely considering it's a late-December release.
Alfonso Cuaron, "Children of Men"
Another contender is Mexican-born Alfonso Cuaron who distinguished himself on the artsy scene in 2001 with "Y tu mama tambien" and as the director of a commercial blockbuster, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," in 2004. Now he has the breakout sci-fi hit "Children of Men," but most voters probably didn't see it due to late-December release.
Stephen Frears, ("The Queen")
Coming out earlier helps a different foreigner, Britain's Stephen Frears, who is overdue for guild notice. He was nominated in the directors' race at the Oscars in 1990 for "The Grifters," but has only been recognized in the DGA TV races so far. His "The Queen" has strong Oscar best-picture buzz so he'll certainly be on the minds of DGA voters.
Guild members will also pay attention because "The Queen" is a critically hailed hit. Having a commercial feel is often a good thing at DAG. One major factor behind this guild's awards is that the vast majority of its 13,000 voters work mostly at making TV series, commercials and music videos, not feature films. Therefore, they have a more commercial sensibility than the 370 feature directors who belong to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
That benefits directors like Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who helmed the year's biggest indie hit, "Little Miss Sunshine," plus Paul Greengrass, who directed one of the year's most controversial flicks, "United 93." Both films have the added advantage of coming out early this year.
Another early release could also surface this late, but not because it was a commercial or critical hit. Rather, because its helmer was a beloved veteran who recently died: "Prairie Home Companion's" Robert Altman. Altman received an honorary DGA prize, but never won a competitive kudo for film work.