Yesterday’s story focused on how original screenplays, and not adapted, could feature into the Best Picture race. But today, I’d like to focus more closely on both categories in terms of which scripts could make it in.
First, it’s important to note the major stops along the way before Oscar voters even get their ballots. What drives the buzz getting certain scripts into contention. That has generally been left to the various early and influential critics groups. The Broadcast Film Critics have never been an influential voting body, partly because their awards come late-ish, but also because they aren’t considered in the same “class” as top-tier critics groups like New York, LA, the National Society, etc. The critics function like Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada: they help shape the considerations that eventually lead to the bag of stuff that everyone else will flock to embrace.
But the Broadcast Film Critics have recently pushed their announcement date way up, to compete with the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review. The latter does have influence over the race — they always have — despite the protestations of many in the film criticism community as the NBR membership standards have occasionally been called into question. They have influence because their annual awards have been around since 1929, and because their name is a brand and that brand lends prestige. The Critics Choice Awards have made strides to distinguish their brand, as well, and are gradually acquiring a patina of prestige, but as yet, they have not been pivotal in shaping the race like the National Board of Review has done for decades. That might change with their date change, their efforts to be first out of the gate. We just don’t know. Evidence points to it likely having an impact in terms of boosting a potential nominee or helping to define the early part of the race. It’s too soon to know.
So, how do we determine or predict which films will make it into the screenplay categories? There are a couple of ways. First is great writing. But even great writing can’t get in on its own. There has to also be one of the following additional factors:
- Best Picture heat. This is especially true since Best Picture expanded its number of nominees. Rare is the year that most of the screenplay nominees do not have a corresponding Best Picture nomination and vice versa. Last year, 6 out of 10 of Oscar’s screenplay nominees were Best Picture nominees and the ones that didn’t get a Best Picture nomination were “in the conversation.” The previous year, 7 out 10 again matched. The outliers were Pixar’s Inside Out and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. The year prior to that, 8 out of 9 of the Best Picture nominees had corresponding screenplay nominations. So that’s a big one.
- Be a screenwriter who’s a woman or a person of color. It really does seem to help in the years where voters are trying to be more diverse with their choices. In the case of Gillian Flynn, however, that did not help when voters wanted to nominate Whiplash instead.
- Be a well known, much lauded writer. Although this isn’t fool proof. Aaron Sorkin was shut out for Steve Jobs because the film did not have Best Picture heat. Still, that was surprising. But members of the writer’s branch have durable respect for talents like Paul Thomas Anderson or Charlie Kaufman. Writers like that can usually break through.
- Be an original, lauded Pixar film or other animated feature. That can overcome the Best Picture rule — since Best Animated Feature serves as a de facto spin-off to live action films — but it’s not a done deal. For some reason, Pixar seems to be the only studio to pull this off, managing to have enough prestige to get into the screenplay category, which they’ve done five times, going all the way back to Toy Story.
- Represent a consolation nomination to honor a difficult and admired work that was not popular enough to get in for Best Picture, like Ex Machina last year.
Either way, all the top contenders for nominations start to take shape with the New York Film Critics, the National Board of Review, and most importantly, the Golden Globe nominations. None of these are 100% — nothing ever is — but they help give an idea of a consensus building.
And then, of course, the Writers Guild will certify professional perceptions of screenwriting excellence yet again before we get to Academy voters.
That’s how we get there. Where are we now?
Original Screenplay – Frontrunners
- Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea – Written by the film’s director, Kenneth Lonergan. It probably can’t lose, especially if La La Land or another film wins Best Picture. La La Land is a musical so it will have a harder time winning screenplay. Being the sole writer/director of Manchester may make Lonergan’s chances to win in both those categories a long shot. We covered this already yesterday. Manchester by the Sea is a very well-written, surprisingly funny, human story of grief and the struggle to be the kind of person our loved ones wish we were or hope we could be.
- Barry Jenkins, Moonlight – Co-written and directed by Barry Jenkins, a bittersweet coming-of-age story about a gay black man coming to terms with his identity amidst the hyper-masculine culture in his community. In three acts, we watch the evolution of a boy who struggles with a multitude of internal and external conflicts in becoming a man. It is one of the most important American films of the year.
- Damien Chazelle, La La Land – Even with the stigma of it being a musical, La La Land remains a force to be reckoned with. The screenplay is more than just the songs. It’s clever writing throughout, particularly in bringing Emma Stone’s character to vibrant life. As both a tribute to Los Angeles and to cinema, La La Land will be hard for most voters to resist.
- Jeff Nichols, Loving – Nichols, it should be noted, has written two really great films this year: Loving and Midnight Special. The latter will be remembered as one of 2016’s sleeper hits, I bet, but Loving is the one with Oscar heat. The story of the fight to make mixed marriages legal in the United States echoes the current struggle of LGBT families to achieve equality in the eyes of the law and basic human rights.
- Mike Mills, 20th Century Women – This very clever screenplay bobs back and forth between the internal worlds of its various character, the women who surround the central male figure. What it really does quite beautifully is highlight how the world on the cusp of the millennium was about to dramatically change. The film is a tribute to the women who shaped Mills’ life.
- Noah Oppenheim, Jackie – If any film can upend the above mentioned five, it’s this one. It will depend on how strongly Jackie is received overall but it is certainly one of the most talked about films of the year.
- Nicholas Martin, Florence Foster Jenkins – Variety’s Kris Tapley is convinced this will be Paramount’s big get for the Oscars, along with Fences. If it is recognized for Actress and Picture, Screenplay should be an easy call.
- Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water – It’s hard to say what makes this such a good film — the screenplay or the direction, or both. No one knows whether this film will hit with Oscar voters the way it has with critics, but if it hits big it should land in Original Screenplay with ease.
- Andrea Arnold, American Honey – If voters are looking to nominate women, no doubt Arnold made quite a splash with this film this year, even if it isn’t general-audience friendly.
- John Perrera, Miss Sloane – Reverberating with the rat-a-tat of an Aaron Sorkin script (it will get that comparison a lot), there is no doubt that this blacklist script is ferocious writing, and though it will probably depend on Best Picture heat to get in, the writing specifically should not go unnoticed.
And the rest of the potential contenders here:
- Warren Beatty, Rules Don’t Apply
- Ben Younger, Bleed for This
- Steven Knight, Allied
- Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou, The Lobster
- Guy Hibbert, A United Kingdom
Adapted Screenplay – The Frontrunners
The bench for Adapted Screenplay does not appear to be quite as deep or competitive as original, and it also doesn’t yet seem to have a clear frontrunner. The reason for this is that many pundits seem unsure about what should easily be the frontrunner in this category, and that’s Arrival. While some members of the Academy might be “too confused” about the plot, I’m betting the writers will not be. They might appreciate the adaptation of Story of Your Life, and particularly Eric Heisserer’s personal devotion to bringing that unique story to the big screen. Nonetheless, the awards pundits are stuck on the same beat, which is the same old song we hear year after year, and that’s “what type of scripts get selected.” If we remove Arrival from this hunt, we’re left with more traditional Oscar fare: Lion, Sully, Silence, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Hidden Figures, etc. Even still, Adapted does feel “thin” this year. Here is how I see it shaping up right now.
- Eric Heisserer, Arrival – This dreamy moody meditation on the evolution of language itself, and the gift women have to be such good listeners is one of 2016’s standouts. Heisserer went deep into research to make sure his adaptation is precisely right. He does part ways with the original, most excellent short story, and that is made manifest in his extended rumination on time and the future — for wont of a better word, whether our “fate” is fixed or not. Changing that aspect of the very brief short story opens the film to interpretation on one point, and that is the matter of choice. Any mother who raised a baby, after giving birth or adopting, knows the bond that’s built ever-stronger each time you see, speak with, embrace, protect, guide your child. You will never get those moments back to relive or do differently, no matter how much you may wish. Thankfully we live our lives with the built-in self-protection of not knowing when and how our lives will end. How would we cope if the shield of that emotional veil were to be lifted? What a deep, complex and philosophically fascinating story this is.
- Jay Cocks, Silence – Shûsaku Endô’s profound novel must surely have been a deeply involving, complex book to adapt. Because of the level of difficulty and Scorsese’s popularity overall, this could vault to become the frontrunner if the film is as good as we hope it will be. No more than that is known at the moment.
- Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse, Finding Dory – This seems like another strong bet for adapted screenplay. Many are currently predicting it on Gold Derby. The film has earned close to $500 million, which is astonishing. It’s currently the third highest-grossing Disney film of all time, even surpassing Frozen and Inside Out. But it’s a sequel and the Academy is weird about animated sequels.
- August Wilson, Fences – This was originally going to be adapted by Tony Kushner but is now listed as being written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author himself. He is no longer living, of course, so I suppose a screenplay nod posthumously seems a lot to ask for. I’m not ruling it out, but yeah, that’s probably a long shot at this point.
- Luke Davies, Lion – Again, this is going to depend on whether the film is a Best Picture nominee or not. If it is, well, it should have no problem getting a screenplay nod, particularly since the book’s author is the real-life protagonist of the film. Lion is already proven to be very popular, winning the audience award at Middleburg and very nearly winning in Toronto.
- Todd Komarnicki, Sully – This seems plausible if the film itself, a huge hit by Clint Eastwood, goes all the way to the BP circle, along with an acting nomination for Tom Hanks.
- Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls – This is one of those adaptations that could go either way. This film has personal meaning for the author, as it was inspired by an idea from his dying mother. Yes, it’s like that. Heartbreaking.
- Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals – This one has been hit and miss with audiences, but the novel and the writer seem to have the kind of cred that could boost it into the screenplay category. It’s a long shot but you never know.
- Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures – It seems like a strong bet, but it’s another film no one has seen. It’s always difficult to predict unknowns.
- Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, Hacksaw Ridge – Another unpredictable landing puts the idea of this getting any major nominations up in the air. It just will depend on how it’s received overall. But it does promise poignancy in an era that is very much anti-violence, and anti-war.
- Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Seems like it’s faltered somewhat for any major awards, due to the way it was received at the New York Film Festival, but one never knows how these things will go.
- James Schamus, Indignation – Suffering perhaps from buzz that came too early than faded, this is one adaptation I wish would not be forgotten. It’s no easy task, adapting Philip Roth, but Schamus did a marvelous job bringing this story to the big screen. The acting is great across the board, with Logan Lerman, Tracy Letts, and Sarah Gadon all turning in awards-worthy performances. Why do some stick and some fall away? I don’t know.
- William Wheeler, Queen of Katwe – This is a wonderful subject to make a movie about. We ask for more stories about women of color. Then we get them, and then no one pays attention to them. And so it goes. It remains an honorable contender nonetheless.
- David Paterson, The Great Gilly Hopkins – Not a lot of buzz currently on this, but it’s said to be a meaningful adaptation by Paterson, whose mother wrote the original book. It stars top-tier actresses Kathy Bates and Glenn Close and was written specifically to showcase women. Probably it won’t get anywhere near the conversation but it deserves our attention nonetheless.
- Whit Stillman, Love & Friendship – Adapting Jane Austen is never an easy feat, and Stillman has a really good shot of getting attention for this adaptation, considering how successful it was, and how much writers admire Austen.
We’ve got a little ways to go yet to see which films solidify and which ones fall away. There are many different ways the Academy could go. We’re a month out from the critics forming their consensus. When that happens the dominoes will start to fall.