Oscars: Why the Academy Decided 'Loving' and 'Moonlight' Are Adapted Screenplays — And How That Affects Their Prospects

Moonlight Loving_photofest - H Split 2016

Moonlight Loving_photofest - H Split 2016

Loving and Moonlight have been classified as original screenplays by the Writers Guild of America, but the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences has concluded that they should compete for the adapted screenplay Oscar. What, you might ask, gives?

Moonlight, which would be regarded as the Oscar frontrunner in either category, was written by Barry Jenkins after Jenkins, in 2010, read In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a play written in 2003 by Tarell Alvin McCraney that was never produced. The two projects share the same core story, which is deeply personal for their writers, who both grew up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami in the 1980s with a crack-addicted mother; however, McCraney, like their protagonist, is gay, whereas Jenkins is not.

McCraney, who was appointed chairman of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama earlier this month, has been vocally supportive of Jenkins' script and the film, which he acknowledges has been changed in significant ways from his play; and Jenkins regularly has credited McCraney's play as a pivotal inspiration for the film.

The WGA apparently felt that an unproduced play does not constitute pre-existing material, but the Academy, which generally takes a more conservative view about such matters, disagreed.

Loving, a film about the Virginian couple behind the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case that rendered interracial marriage legal throughout the U.S., provoked a very different debate. Jeff Nichols' screenplay was accepted by the WGA as an original one, but the Academy took issue with that classification because it was drawn not only from the public record, but also from Nancy Buirski's 2011 Oscar-shortlisted documentary short film The Loving Story, as Nichols publicly has acknowledged and as the feature acknowledges in its credits (Buirski is one of Loving's producers).

Each year, the executive committee of the Academy's writers branch meets to review the WGA's classifications and identify any that it finds problematic. It is particularly sensitive to — meaning, prone to reclassify as adapted — scripts that have elements of existing intellectual property in their title (e.g. 2006's Borat, previously a character on a TV series), remakes (e.g. 2006's The Departed and 2010's True Grit) and sequels (e.g. the follow-ups to 1995's Before Sunrise and Toy Story).

Rarely does the WGA deem something to be adapted that the Academy then deems original, but that, too, has happened, most notably with 2005's Syriana. And sometimes things get really bizarre: 1996's Fargo got an original screenplay nom, even though it claimed to be based on real events (it wasn't); and 2002's Adaptation got an adapted screenplay nom because portions of it were inspired by Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, but most of it was not and one of its nominated screenwriters, Donald Kaufman, doesn't even exist. But I digress.

These sorts of debates date back at least to 1943's Casablanca, which was a film from a script (by Howard Koch and the brothers Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein) that, in turn, was based on an unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick's (by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison); it won the best adapted screenplay Oscar. (Fun fact: The film's theme song, "As Time Goes By," references "moonlight.") More recently, 2012's Beasts of the Southern Wild used a script (by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin) that was inspired by an unproduced play called Juicy and Delicious (by Alibar); the WGA didn't consider it in any category because Alibar wasn't a member of the guild, but the Academy deemed it adapted. And 2014's Whiplash was nominated as an original screenplay by the WGA, but the Academy and BAFTA deemed it adapted because they felt it was inspired by the same filmmaker's short film of the same title; it still got an Oscar nom.

This year, the Academy's reclassification of Moonlight and Loving's screenplays actually may boost their Oscar prospects, since the adapted race seems to be thinner than the one for originals. Instead of facing the likes of Manchester by the Sea and La La Land (which just shared the best original screenplay prize at the Critics' Choice Awards, topping Moonlight), and possibly Hell or High Water, 20th Century Women, Captain Fantastic, Jackie or Zootopia, Moonlight and Loving will be up against a field that includes Lion, Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences, Sully, Nocturnal Animals and Silence. Sometimes it pays to be original ... but not always!