Today’s Screenwriting Oscars: It’s More About the Message Than The Writing
Countless screenwriters have practiced their Academy Awards acceptance speeches. Okay, we all have at some point. And the winner is…. [insert your name] While there is no question that the Oscars are an imperfect voting system for honoring the best movies of any given year, the Academy Awards still carry significant attention, acclaim, and prestige for filmmakers, including screenwriters. Although nothing carries more weight than a billion-dollar box office gross, winning peer-reviewed awards can still significantly boost a screenwriter’s career. On the more immediate front, Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning films that are still in theaters often enjoy a modest bump at the box office.
With that in mind, it’s no secret that there are particular types of films that attract more Oscar nominations than others. If your screenplays primarily feature super-powered individuals, giant robots, or are straight-up comedy, it’s much less likely that your writing will be recognized by the Academy. However, that does not mean that it is an easier path for a screenwriter of serious dramas to get nominated for an Oscar, let alone win. While recent history proves there are definite trends on the genre of films that are nominated, there is something of a playbook that could be followed – but even then, there are always surprises and exceptions.
The most obvious point is that for a film to be in the awards conversation for a screenwriting Oscar, it also must be in the conversation for Best Picture. This also used to be a given for nominees for Best Director. To the Academy – and the industry in general – film is still thought of as primarily a director’s medium rather than a writer’s medium. In fact, it used to be a given that a movie that won the Best Director Oscar would also win Best Picture. It became so common that outlets like The New Yorker and Indiewire have published pieces questioning the point of having the Best Director category.
However, starting in 2013 it has become less common for one film to be awarded both the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars. From the 2013 through 2018 ceremonies, only twice have both awards gone to the same film. In contrast, during that same six-year period only once did the Best Picture winner fail to win either screenplay Oscar (The Shape of Water, 2018). Before that, the last time the Best Picture Oscar winner won neither screenwriting award was 2005, when Million Dollar Baby was awarded Best Picture (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind won Best Original Screenplay, while Sideways won Best Adapted Screenplay). This might suggest that Academy voters are increasingly recognizing the vital importance that a screenplay has in creating a great film and that a great director, while important, is less key to the creation of a great film.
Furthermore, in recent years when a Best Screenplay Oscar was also awarded to a Best Picture Oscar winner, whether the screenplay was adapted or original has not been consistent. The Best Picture winner also won Best Adapted Screenplay in 2017, 2014, 2013, and 2009 while the Best Picture winner also won Best Original Screenplay in 2016, 2015, 2011, and 2010. In other words, for movies that win both Best Picture and a screenplay Oscar, there isn’t a clear favorite when it comes to which screenplay Oscar carries more weight.
As with most Oscar categories, the award ceremonies that precede the Academy Awards can serve as a telltale sign for what are the films to beat at the Oscars. For screenwriting, the most accurate “predictor” award has been the WGA Awards – since 2000, the winners of the WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay and the WGA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay have corresponded with the Oscar winners in those categories approximately 70% of the time.
A more visible, but much less successful predictor is the Golden Globes. Interestingly, the Golden Globes only has one screenplay award, with no distinction between adapted or original screenplays. With that said, Golden Globe screenplay nominations and winners tend to skew more for original screenplays. In most cases, the Globes nominations align closely with the Oscars, with the five Globe nominees usually matching five of the ten Oscar nominees. However, recently the winners have been different (for example, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won the Golden Globe for Screenwriting in 2018 and La La Land won the award in 2017, and Steve Jobs won in 2016 despite not even being nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar). Being that there is a very small number of Golden Globe voters and that they are more than likely not professional screenwriters, it’s not surprising that the results are so drastically different.
Of course, Oscar winners are always subject to the fickle nature of the Academy voters. More importantly, few Oscar-winning films in recent years have been box office hits. Over the past 20 years, the Academy has increasingly tended to award its highest honors to critically acclaimed, but less popular movies at the box office. This has been a significant issue that the Academy has tried to address (hence the briefly instituted but currently abandoned idea of an Academy Award for “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” to recognize blockbusters that rarely receive awards consideration).
With that in mind, it’s unlikely that a major blockbuster will win either Best Screenplay Oscar – the last time that happened was the 2004 ceremony, when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay – or the Best Original Screenplay Oscar – which last went to a major box office hit in 2012 for Django Unchained – as long as this trend continues. While many fans of blockbusters saw it as a victory that Logan was the first superhero comic book adaptation to ever be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for the 2018 ceremony, the idea that superhero or other similar blockbusters will regularly get nominated for screenwriting Oscars is a hurdle that the Academy is currently trying to navigate.
Recent Oscar-winning screenwriters also have had a great variety in screenwriting experience. For example, the two winners of the 2018 screenwriting Oscars have vastly different careers. Get Out (Best Original Screenplay) was only the second produced screenplay by screenwriter Jordan Peele, while James Ivory, the screenwriter of Call Me by Your Name (Best Adapted Screenplay) is a filmmaker who has written screenplays over seven decades. Both wins set significant milestones – Peele became the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, while Ivory became the oldest-ever winner of a competitive Oscar. Ivory also had spent numerous ceremonies on the losing end of the Academy Awards (and had never previously been nominated for screenwriting) before finally winning, while for Peele it was the first year that he had been nominated for Oscars. Similarly, looking over the last several winners of the screenplay Oscars there isn’t a clear profile of the type of film or screenwriter that is nominated and ultimately wins, with the exception of the nominees still being overwhelmingly male.
In addition, the screenplays couldn’t have been more different in terms of genre – Get Out is a horror film (a genre that rarely gets recognized by the Oscars) and Call Me by Your Name is a romantic drama. But what the two winners do have in common is the tapping into the cultural moment – both Get Out and Call Me by Your Name screenplays resulted in films that reflected significant current cultural conversations.
Academy voters have received both praise and criticism in recent years for increasingly awarding films that address social issues like racism, homophobia, criminal justice, among many other important issues rather than awarding popular entertainment. Other films nominated for screenwriting Oscars in 2018 that also involved such issues included The Big Sick (interracial marriage); The Shape of Water (immigration and nativism); Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri (violence against women and police corruption); and Mudbound (racism). And even the “comic book movie” Logan addressed social issues in its own way. Whether intentional or otherwise, Academy voters are clearly recognizing films that either directly or subtlety comment on social issues.
So does a screenwriter need to reflect or comment on the current cultural situation to get nominated for an Oscar these days? There is clear evidence that movies that make a statement on contemporary social issues gain more attention from current Academy voters than more escapist fare. Going back to 2003 when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, there was a lot more variety in the two screenwriting categories: romantic drama (Lost in Translation), family film (Finding Nemo), a thriller (Dirty Pretty Things), an immigration drama (In America), a novel adaptation (Mystic River), a hybrid biography/comic book adaptation (American Splendor), an old-fashioned sports film (Seabiscuit), and even two foreign films (Les invasions barbares and Cidade de Deus). In comparison, the 2017 and 2018 ceremonies saw much less variety across the two categories by focusing almost entirely on lower-budget dramas, many of which were released by indie studios (and in the case of Mudbound, Netflix).
Per the current trend, it appears the Academy voters are generally more likely to recognize films for their overall “message” rather than for other technical aspects of screenwriting – dialogue, structure, etc. Of course, the Academy has been publicly addressing on ways that it plans to recognize more popular movies, so the trend might be changing sooner rather than later.
If you’re a screenwriter who is looking for an idea to pen an Oscar-winning screenplay, it couldn’t hurt to take some time observing the cultural conversation and drawing inspiration from that to inform your work. Does that mean that this is a winning formula? Well, if your screenplay addresses issues that are currently being debated by the talking heads on cable news channels, you should consider getting your tuxedo or dress dry cleaned for your big night.
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