Earlier in the week, Universal got their Academy Awards campaign moving by launching their For Your Consideration site, which included uploading a selection of screenplays for their major movies online. Some feel optimistic at best ("The Lorax," "Snow White and the Huntsman," "Ted"), some are a little more viable ("This Is 40," "Les Misérables"). But fresh off reading the Judd Apatow script (which is kind of terrific, and has the potential to be the director's best film yet), and having covered the acting categories in previous weeks, we thought we'd turn our eye to the screenplay races.
As ever, the potentials in two categories: Original Screenplay (usually a thinner field, thanks to the relative dearth of movies that are just movies, rather than based on board games or whatever), and Adapted Screenplay, which doesn't just encompass literary work, but plays, magazine articles, comic books, and even sequels and spin-offs of other movies (yes, that counts as an adaptation — it's why "Toy Story" was an original screenplay, and "Toy Story 3" was an adaptation).
Given that it's likely a smaller batch (though not as bad as previous years), it probably makes more sense to start with the original category. Relatively few of the serious Best Picture contenders qualify, but it does open the way, potentially, to the kind of film that's unlikely to get Academy recognition elsewhere — see recent nods for "Bridesmaids," "The Messenger," "In Bruges," "The Savages," "Lars and the Real Girl" and "The Squid and the Whale," among others. It's a somewhat more open-minded category than others.
Of the Best Picture hopefuls, Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" is looking good, even as its chances at the big prize fade somewhat. After all, even those who don't think the film works as a whole must acknowledge that it features some of the most memorable scenes of the year — the early questioning sequence between Lancaster and Freddie is the kind of moment that should get taught in screenwriting classes for years to come. Indeed, there's a good chance that we could see Anderson winning his first gong here, even if it turns out to be a consolation prize for not doing so well elsewhere.
Otherwise, the category's always been a little more open to foreign language nominees than some, ("Y Tu Mamá También," "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Barbarian Invasions" were all nominees in the last decade or so), and as such, Michael Haneke's script for "Amour" is in with a good shout. His films have been threatening to crack the mainstream Oscar categories for a while (see a cinematography nod for "The White Ribbon"), and while we're not 100% convinced that "Amour" will be all over the top ones, the film, like "A Separation" like last year, should make the final five for its script. Also looking very good, regardless of how it does with Best Picture, is Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," the kind of movie that always does well in this category (and arguably the other Anderson's biggest threat for the win).
So that's three that are essentially locked up at this stage. Who else could sneak in? Top of the list are three big Oscar contenders that will remain under wraps until December — Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," Mark Boal's script for "Zero Dark Thirty" and the screenplay for Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land," by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski. All have screenwriting Oscars already, bar Krasinski, and all could well end up in the final five, but all have strikes against them too. Tarantino's only actually been nominated twice, and will "Django Unchained" be more "Inglourious Basterds" or more "Kill Bill?" Boal won his first time around for "The Hurt Locker," but will some of the controversies about the research process on the film undo him? And while the Academy loves seeing movie stars show their typewriter skills, they're less keen on polemic, which the fracking-themed "Promised Land" seems to be, at least from a distance.
"Flight" and "The Impossible," penned by John Gatins and Sergio G. Sanchez, respectively, are both in the mix, but the former may be undone by its starry studio heritage in a category that doesn't always reward that, and the latter doesn't particularly feel like a writer's film, although if it picks up momentum, it might yet happen. Harvey Weinstein still has high hopes for "The Intouchables" (from writer/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano) but it doesn't seem like it's going to fly to us, particularly given that "Amour" is already looking good for a nomination.
Hovering around the unlikely fringes of the category are films like "Safety Not Guaranteed," "Ruby Sparks," "Smashed," "Take This Waltz" and "Hope Springs," though probably the film with the best chance at a surprise "Margin Call"-style nod is "Arbitrage," which has a steadily growing buzz. But there are two commercial pictures that might have a better shot: surprise hit "Magic Mike" from Reid Carolin, and Rian Johnson's "Looper." The latter in particular has the makings of attracting votes from fans of smart genre fare (don't forget Pixar has had multiple nominations in the last few years, and "District 9" and "Inception" both made it in), and is a definite dark horse to watch in the category, particularly if the WGA come through for it.
Our five picks for Original Screenplay at this stage of the race are below. Head to page two for the Adapted Screenplay category.
Paul Thomas Anderson – "The Master"
Wes Anderson – "Moonrise Kingdom"
Michael Haneke – "Amour"
Rian Johnson – "Looper"
Quentin Tarantino – "Django Unchained"
Best Adapted Screenplay
It's not so much a case of what's going to make the cut as what won't in the adapted field, as most of the big Best Picture hopefuls are in this race. But the writers' branch doesn't always reward a movie just for being a big swinging dick in the awards race if they don't feel it was a quote-unquote writer's movie (think of "Avatar" missing out in 2010, for instance).
For instance, bar the film being a disaster, we're expecting "Les Misérables" to be a serious challenger in most races, but with much of the text of William Nicholson's screenplay coming straight from the stage show's lyrics (indeed, in the version published by Universal, he shares credit with the original writers) will voters feel that the "Gladiator" writer simply copy and pasted? Or will the difficulties of the adaptation job (which can sometimes bypass the Academy) shine through? Similarly, "Life of Pi" is going to be a big player, but early reviews pointed to the script by David Magee ("Finding Neverland") as one of the film's stumbling blocks, and for such a visually driven film, that could see it miss out (that said, John Logan's equally problematic script for "Hugo" made the cut last year, albeit in a weaker field).
On safer territory are two of the frontrunners, "Argo" by Chris Terrio (based on a Wired article) and "Silver Linings Playbook" by David O. Russell (based on Matthew Quick's novel). They're both the kind of smart, funny writing that always does well at this category, and are certainly the two frontrunners so far. It's possible that "Argo" may be seen as more of a director's movie, so we'd probably give the edge to Russell (who's only had one nomination before, for directing "The Fighter") but it's definitely going to be a tight contest.
Elsewhere, Tony Kushner certainly has a good chance for a second nomination (after "Munich") for "Lincoln," which is by most accounts a very writerly, almost theatrical film. But his chances of winning the thing are slimmer; the only Oscar victory in this category for a Spielberg film remains Steve Zaillian's script for "Schindler's List" in 1993. On a much smaller scale, while we're still to see if Sundance films "Beasts of the Southern Wild" by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar (based on her play) and "The Sessions" (by Ben Lewin, based on the article by central character Mark O'Brien) have the legs for Best Picture, they're both in with a good shot at making the final five — though we'd argue that the screenplay is the weakest part of "The Sessions."
Otherwise, "Hitchcock" remains something of a question mark, but the screenplay, an adaptation of the book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho" by "Black Swan" co-scribe John J. McLaughlin, has been a popular Black List contender in the past, and if the film lives up to Fox Searchlight's hopes, this should certainly make the cut. Less likely is "This Is 40" — as we said above, we thought the screenplay was a cracker, but the spin-off nature of the film may be its undoing. It would have a good chance if, like last year's nominee "Bridesmaids," it was in Original Screenplay, but with tougher, more serious competition in Adapted, it's less likely to happen. If the film picks up great reviews, though, don't rule it out altogether.
None are likely to bother Oscar in major categories, but the difficulty of adapting seemingly unadaptable novels "Anna Karenina," "Cloud Atlas" and "On the Road" could see them surprise — we'll see what happens if any get a boost from the WGA, where films like 'Beasts' are likely to be disqualified from competition. They're arguably in with a better chance than something like "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" or "Quartet," which appeal more to actors than writers, or for Playlist favorites like "Rust & Bone" and "Killing Them Softly," which are unlikely to get the traction. And those with fingers crossed for blockbuster nominations for "The Dark Knight Rises," "Skyfall," "The Hunger Games," "The Hobbit" or "The Avengers," it's probably best not to waste your time (even though Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have two nominations and a win for the "Lord of the Rings" films, and we could argue that the success of "The Avengers" was principally down to Joss Whedon cracking that screenplay).
So, our five picks for Adapted Screenplay at this stage of the race are…
Tony Kushner – "Lincoln"
John J. McLaughlin – "Hitchcock"
David O. Russell – "Silver Linings Playbook"
Chris Terrio – "Argo"
Benh Zeitlin & Lucy Alibar – "Beasts of the Southern Wild"