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JAN
3
9 MOS

WGA Boosts Oscar Contenders Like 'Dallas Buyers Club' and 'Lone Survivor' (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst explains why the WGA's voting system and eligibility requirements often result in a different set of nominees than the Academy's.

Lone Survivor Film Still - H 2013
Courtesy of Universal
"Lone Survivor"

This morning, the Writers Guild of America announced its nominees for the 66th WGA Awards. The five nominees for best adapted screenplay are August: Osage CountyBefore MidnightCaptain PhillipsLone Survivor; and The Wolf of Wall Street. And the five nominees for best original screenplay are American HustleBlue JasmineDallas Buyers ClubHer; and Nebraska. The winners will be revealed at two simultaneous ceremonies in Los Angeles and New York on Feb. 1.

The announcement from the WGA, a major guild with some 12,000 members (between WGA-West and WGA-East), brought especially good news for a couple of films. Dallas Buyers Club, which continues to outperform earlier awards expectations can now boast a WGA nom along with the PGA nom it received yesterday and the SAG ensemble nom it received last month. Lone Survivor, which has been ignored by other awards groups, has now staked a claim of its own. But as a group, the WGA noms don't necessarily point to how the Oscar nominations for best adapted screenplay and best original screenplay will look when they are announced Jan. 16.

A number of awards hopefuls were ineligible for WGA consideration and therefore didn't figure in the noms. They included the adapted screenplays for 12 Years a Slave; Blue Is the Warmest Color; Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; and Philomena and the originals for Don Jon; Fruitvale Station; The Past; Philomena; and Short Term 12. There were also several high-profile scripts that were, in fact, eligible under the WGA's rules but still failed to make the cut: Gravity; Inside Llewyn Davis; and Lee Daniels' The Butler.

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There are two key factors that contribute to the annual disparity between WGA noms and Academy noms.

First, the WGA and the Academy employ different voting systems. The WGA uses a popular ballot, which means that all votes for contenders, regardless of how they are ranked on the ballot, are weighted equally, tipping the scales in favor of contenders that have the largest bases of support. The Academy, on the other hand, uses a preferential ballot, which means that contenders that are listed higher on a ballot carry more weight than contenders that appear lower, which helps films with bases of support that may not be large but are passionate.

Even more significantly, many of the films that are eligible for Oscar's screenplay awards are not eligible for the WGA awards because the WGA's eligibility requirements are more stringent than most other guilds' and those of the Academy itself. That, in turn, limits the number of nominees that the two groups end up sharing. Over the past 11 years, only 39 of the WGA's 55 nominees for best adapted screenplay and 30 of the WGA's 55 nominees for best original screenplay were subsequently nominated by the Academy.

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The WGA considers only scripts that are produced under the terms of its Minimum Basic Agreement (which applies to films with budgets over $1.1 million) or its Low-Budget Agreement (governing films with budgets under $1.1 million) in the U.S. or under a comparable collective bargaining agreements in the U.K., Canada, Ireland or New Zealand.

But many independent films are produced by filmmakers who are either unaware of the guild contract or unwilling to spend any portion of a limited budget on it. Many foreign films also are produced outside of the jurisdiction of the WGA and its sister unions abroad and are therefore ineligible. Some filmmakers, such as Quentin Tarantino, have opted not to join the guild or work under its terms out of a desire to maintain complete independence, even if they are supportive of unions.

Turning to the 54 original scripts that did qualify for WGA consideration this year, what explains the snubs to Gravity, Llewyn Davis and The Butler? In the case of Gravity, the screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas has been widely regarded as the movie's Achilles heel -- the space-set film doesn't feature many words and those that it does have largely come from a character talking to herself, a technique generally frowned-upon by screenwriters.

As for Llewyn Davis, its snub, coming a day after the film was surprisingly ignored by the PGA, is somewhat more surprising and disconcerting, especially since scripts by brothers Ethan Coen and Joel Coen are usually well received by the guild. The film will probably fare better with the Academy due to that group's use of a preferential ballot.

Regarding The Butler, it's possible that two-time WGA Award winner Danny Strong's work was overlooked because of confusion or displeasure over the script's categorization as original rather than adapted. Other original screenplays that failed to make the grade included Enough Said; Frances Ha; Mud; Out of the Furnace; Prisoners; Saving Mr. Banks; Side Effects; and Spring Breakers.

As for the adapted screenplays, the five films that most expected would be nominated actually secured nominations. But that still meant that other notable movies among the 41 eligible scripts in the category were shut out, among them The Bling Ring; The Book Thief; The Great Gatsby; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Labor Day; Much Ado About Nothing; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; and The Spectacular Now.

Last year, the Academy declined to follow the WGA's lead in the original category when, instead of the WGA-nominated Looper and The Master, it opted for the WGA-ineligible scripts Amour and Django Unchained -- and Tarantino's script took home the prize. In the adapted category, instead of the WGA-nominanted The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the Academy chose Beasts of the Southern Wild -- outcomes I predicted when last year's WGA noms were first announced.

This year, I am certain that, in the adapted category, the WGA-ineligible 12 Years will win a spot with the Academy, and I suspect that Philomena, which also was WGA-ineligible, may join it. They would most likely displace August: Osage County and Lone Survivor. As for the original category, I'm fairly confident that Llewyn Davis will rebound with the Academy, probably at the expense of either Dallas Buyers Club or Her -- I'll say Dallas Buyers Club, for the record, only because Spike Jonze's Her is a much more unusual sort of script, which I think will benefit from the Academy's preferential voting system.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg