Oscar screenplay race lacking originality

Only a few titles are near-locks this year

Awards season might have an originality issue.

Since it was introduced 70 years ago, the Academy Awards' original screenplay category has been a breeding ground for fresh new voices, launching careers and solidifying the legacy of writers as diverse as Orson Welles, Billy Wilder and Paddy Chayefsky.

But this year the category looks as thin as a supermodel on a crash diet.

The Coen brothers' "A Serious Man," Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Bob Peterson and Pete Docter's "Up," on which Thomas McCarthy also contributed to the original story, are likely near-locks for noms. That leaves two slots, one of which could go to Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber for their quirky breakup story "(500) Days of Summer."

Beyond that, the voters are going to have to look farther afield. Almost certainly vying for attention are the duo behind the "Star Trek" update, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who also count cinematic tour de force "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" among their 2009 credits, though the Academy could qualify it as adapted. (The writers branch will meet in the coming weeks to make rule determinations that could affect pics like "Trek," writers branch governor Phil Robinson said in an interview.)

The field has changed pretty dramatically during the past several decades. The last time Tarantino was nominated (in 1994), he went up against Woody Allen, Richard Curtis and Peter Jackson; this go-round he could end up pitted against "The Hangover" scribes Scott Moore and Jon Lucas (most recent credit: "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past"), who also are jockeying for a spot.

If this were just a down year, that would be one thing. But the lack of established writers is catching the eye of many in the development community as something more permanent.

"I think you can look at the state of the category as a direct result of studios' reliance on known brands and the death of the spec market," says one agent.

Original screenplays used to comprise the bulk of what Hollywood did. But ever since the studios became obsessed with remakes and sequels, there's been a depletion of new plot ideas that might have populated the category.

About the only fresh material these days comes from purely personal stories such as "A Serious Man" and "(500) Days" -- movies that come together only through an alignment of the planets and despite a highly unreceptive climate.

When execs at Sony passed on "(500) Days" -- joining nearly every other studio in doing so -- they asked Neustadter if he and Weber could pen "The Pink Panther 2" instead.

"I was like, really? Have you read our script?" Neustadter recalls (though the pair did end up doing a draft for the "Panther" sequel).

All this would be troubling enough if the Oscars existed independently of the realpolitik of Hollywood. But the current lack of original screenplays might reinforce the negative trend: Studios don't produce many, the Academy doesn't have many to choose from, and then the category loses stature, further disincentivizing studios from greenlighting those types of movies.

Because the category is relatively free of the politics of the acting categories and depends upon a more defined group of voters for its first-round selection than does best picture, original screenplay has an uncanny way of reflecting the movie zeitgeist.

When socially realistic, auteur-driven pictures such as "Chinatown" and "Network" were being cultivated by the studios in the 1970s, they won original screenplay Oscars. When such indie pics as "The Crying Game" and "Fargo" were taking the film world by storm in the 1990s, they won the prizes, signaling and fueling the renaissance of offbeat fare.

This year could see the same. If movies such as "Star Trek" and "Hangover" are in the mix, the current vogue for big-budget remakes and low-budget broad comedies will be reflected. The Welleses and Wilders of today just might be Kurtzman and Orci.