Friday, April 19, 2024

The Advantage Of Being A Director/Writer In The Oscar Screenplay Categories

Any screenwriter hoping to one day win an Oscar should consider kickstarting a directing career. In the last five years alone (2018 – 2022), the Academy has exclusively awarded writer-directors in the two Screenplay categories, with all Oscar-winning screenplays written or co-written by the movie’s director. 

For Best Original Screenplay, the last five winners include directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Kenneth Branagh for “Belfast,” Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman,” Bong Joon-ho for “Parasite” and Peter Farrelly for “Green Book.” In fact, the writer-director winning record extends even further in this category, with the last movie not written by the director being David Seidler for “The King’s Speech” in 2010. For Best Adapted Screenplay, the previous five winners include directors Sarah Polley for “Women Talking,” Sian Heder for “CODA,” Florian Zeller for “The Father,” Taika Waititi for “Jojo Rabbit,” and Spike Lee for “BlacKkKlansman.” The last writer-only winner was James Ivory for Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” in 2017. However, Ivory himself is a highly respected director and industry legend for “Howard’s End,” “Room with a View,” among many others.

This 100% win rate for writer-directors represents a marked shift for the Academy over the last 20 years. For the 15 years prior (2003 – 2017), only 53% of the Oscar-winning screenplays were won by writer-directors (6/15 winners in Adapted and 10/15 winners in Original). The shift can be seen in the nominations as well. In the last five years, 90% of the Best Original Screenplay nominees were for writer-directors vs. 71% for the 15-year prior period. In Best Adapted Screenplay, the difference is even starker, with 72% of nominees being writer-directors in the last five years vs. 43% for the 15-year prior period.

Why did this shift happen? 

Across Hollywood, the lines between film disciplines are blurring. We’re increasingly seeing overlap in responsibilities between actors, producers, directors, and writers. While Frances McDormand was just the first woman to be nominated in both Best Actress and Best Picture in 2020 for “Nomadland,” Emma Stone has now matched this feat for “Poor Things.” Directors are also increasingly showing up as Best Picture nominees with producing credits. In the 2000s, typically, only two out of five Best Picture nominees would feature directors as producers. In four of the last five years, the majority of Best Picture nominees credited the directors as producers. This peaked in 2019, when “Little Women” was the only Best Picture nominee out of nine without its director nominated as a producer (Greta Gerwig would earn a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, though, thus keeping the track record for directors in the writing categories alive).

The emerging class of top directors (e.g., Jordan Peele, Damien Chazelle, Greta Gerwig, Chloe Zhao, Barry Jenkins) have embraced this trend, all of whom write their own scripts in addition to directing. While some of the old guard have always written their own screenplays (e.g., Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola), many legacy directors have often outsourced the writing to collaborators (e.g., Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood) or acted as a studio gun-for-hire (e.g., David Fincher, Ridley Scott). As the yearly Oscars conversation shifts to the new guard, the likely Best Picture contenders will thus increasingly feature shared writer-director duties.

Within the Screenplay categories, these writer-directors benefit from greater name recognition against their competition. Directors are usually more prominent in the media than writers, giving them a brighter spotlight on the campaign trail and more time to endear themselves to voters. A voter might view a Screenplay nomination as an additional opportunity to recognize a writer-director they admire who is unlikely to win the Best Directing prize. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to create a thrilling telecast moment when a rising star or more prominent public figure like Jordan Peele or Taika Waititi takes the stage to accept their writing award.

This has only become more important since the massive expansion and diversification of the Academy’s demographic makeup and Oscars voting body. Since the #OscarsSoWhite reckoning in 2015, the Academy has grown from ~6,000 voting members to over 9,000, with the difference made up of mostly younger, diverse, and global members. As membership gets broader and disparate, it becomes harder for nominees to cut through the noise and reach all the different pockets of voter types. Big-name writer-directors can do so as they have the upper hand in publicity that helps them gain voters’ attention over screenwriters. As these shifts occurred, the film industry has grown more polarized between high-budget tent poles and auteur-driven indies. The traditional studio-developed and packaged mid-budget Oscars bait drama (e.g., “The Reader”) rarely gets greenlit anymore or acquired at festivals, given their underperformance at the box office. In its absence, the Academy has moved towards recognizing the smaller auteur movies, with the exception of “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” (or one could even argue “Barbie” this year) as a few well-received commercial hits.

What clues could this history give us for the 2024 Oscars race? Especially when both screenplay categories are so tough to predict this year. In Best Adapted Screenplay, four of the nominees have screenplays written by their directors (“American Fiction,” “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer,” and “The Zone of Interest“). “Poor Things” is the only nominee that would be at a disadvantage, with the screenplay written by Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” collaborator Tony McNamara.

Of the writer-director nominees, a “Barbie” win in Best Adapted Screenplay would be an attractive opportunity for the Academy to reward Greta Gerwig’s dominance in pop culture last year (and kill two birds with one stone by also rewarding her partner and acclaimed director Noah Baumbach). Gerwig is highly beloved, particularly amongst the actors, and there seems to be a genuine passion for her deserving an Oscar, not only for the “Barbie” juggernaut but also for recognition of her past three nominations on “Lady Bird” and “Little Women.” This sentiment has only ascended since this year’s Oscar nominations with the social media outrage and press coverage over Gerwig’s perceived Best Directing nomination snub for “Barbie” (a second miss in this category after “Little Women“). Gerwig’s Academy fans might look to the Best Adapted Screenplay category as an opportunity to rectify the slight and give Gerwig her flowers, similar to Sarah Polley’s Best Adapted Screenplay victory last year for “Women Talking” after her miss in Best Director as well.

In Best Original Screenplay, the trend could be a more meaningful signal. “The Holdovers” is considered one of the frontrunners, having carried a number of critics’ screenplay awards. With director Alexander Payne ceding scribe duties to David Hemingson, could this be the movie to break the 12-year streak? After all, two Payne films have won Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars previously (“Sideways” and “The Descendants“), and “The Holdovers” is considered a dark horse Best Picture contender with two competitive acting contenders in Paul Giamatti for Best Actor and Da’Vine Joy Randolph for Best Supporting Actress. Crucially, though, both “Sideways” and “The Descendants” were written and directed by Alexander Payne himself. Payne’s last Best Picture nominee with a different writer, “Nebraska,” failed to convert its Best Original Screenplay nomination into a win. “The Holdovers” also had a mixed bag on nomination morning, with no Best Director nomination for Payne himself, something the film was widely predicted to get after he landed BAFTA and DGA nominations.

Instead, look to “Anatomy of a Fall” to get a boost for a rare foreign-language screenplay victory from the Academy. Justine Triet, co-writer, and director, has been steadily building her own personal buzz and international name recognition since the movie debuted at Cannes in 2023 and won the Palme d’Or. Triet gave prominent speeches to voters after gracing the stage twice at the Golden Globes for the film’s wins in the Screenplay and Foreign Language categories. With the WGA pushed until after the Oscars and the Critics Choice announcing Best Original Screenplay in a montage (which went to a film which isn’t even nominated in Original Screenplay this year with “Barbie“), Triet has the advantage of giving the only televised Screenplay winners’ speech of the season so far (and this may continue at BAFTA this weekend). Surprise Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Film Editing show the love for “Anatomy of a Fall” within the Academy, and Best Original Screenplay is likely its only competitive category for recognition since it was not France’s selection for Best International Feature Film this year.

If either “Barbie” or “Anatomy of a Fall” prevails, another emerging screenplay trend will continue at the Oscars. After all-male winners in both screenplay categories from 2009 – 2020, the Academy has consecutively rewarded at least one female writer for the last three years. Given that 2023 was such a banner year for female moviegoing, it would be a shame if the Academy bucked the trend now. Still, Hemingson in Best Original Screenplay, Christopher Nolan (“Oppenheimer“), and Cord Jefferson (“American Fiction“) in Best Adapted Screenplay would all be respectable winners in either of their respective categories.

Can BAFTA give us any clues this weekend before the WGA nominations are announced on February 21st? “Barbie” is still in Best Original Screenplay there, so it’ll be tough to know for sure, but if “Anatomy of a Fall” wins over it, “The Holdovers” and “Past Lives” (Celine Song is yet another potential writer-director winner) it would be a massive sign of strength heading into the Oscars as it would have both the Golden Globe and BAFTA awards, a combination which has only lost in recent memory twice to a film that won both the Critics Choice and WGA award. Given “Barbie’s” category placement, such a scenario is not going to play out again this year. If “Past Lives” or “The Holdovers” prevails, though, that could be a sign that the tide is turning, but it would be less certain. Over in Best Adapted Screenplay, if “American Fiction” repeats its Critics Choice Award win at the BAFTA Awards, it’s likely to win Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars, given how much more the Academy embraced it compared to BAFTA. If “Oppenheimer” wins, then it could perhaps go on to sweep this award along with all the other Oscars it’s going to win, putting Christopher Nolan alongside Peter Jackson, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (2014), Bong Joon-ho, and Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert as a writer-director who won both Best Director and Screenplay in the same evening.

Who do you think will win Best Original and Adapted Screenplay at BAFTA, WGA and the Academy Awards this year? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account. Also, please check out their latest Oscar winner predictions here and the 2023 precursor awards tally here.

You can follow Ian and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @iantpower

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