WGA Awards: Big Names Among Nominees but Meaningless for Oscar (Analysis)

WGA New Logo 2011

WGA New Logo 2011

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is a great and important organization, but unlike its fellow guilds -- among them the PGA, DGA, and SAG -- its year-end awards ceremony, the WGA Awards, are of little interest to anyone other than the handful of individuals it nominates each year.

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This is because the requirements that a script must meet in order to qualify for consideration are so stringent that, year after year, a considerable number of the top contenders for the best adapted screenplay and best original screenplay Oscars aren't even eligible to be nominated for WGA Awards. As a colleague noted this week, "In the past decade, only 27 of the Guild's 50 best original screenplay nominees have also nabbed an Oscar nod; that figure rises to 35 in the adapted race, but it's still a low strike rate compared to other guild awards."

Working under a WGA contract -- which means paying a writer at least the minimum amount dictated by the Minimum Basic Agreement (a 400-page contract that governs all dealings between producers and screenwriters collaborating on films with budgets over $1.1 million) or the Low-Budget Agreement (which governs dealings between producers and screenwriters collaborating on films with budgets under $1.1 million) -- is an option that is not available to some and not desirable to others, which explains some of the disparities.

Most foreign films are produced outside of the jurisdiction of the WGA and its sister unions abroad, and are therefore ineligilble. Many independent films are produced by people who are unaware of the guild contract or unwilling to spend any portion of a limited budget on adhering to it. And some American filmmakers, such as Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained), 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 -- as, for the record, am I.

Consequently, the nominees for the 65th annual WGA Awards, which were announced Friday morning, include some terrific screenplays but leave out many others.

Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Silver Linings Playbook were nominated for the best adapted screenplay WGA Award, but Anna Karenina, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Les Miserables were not eligible for consideration. And Flight, Looper, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom and Zero Dark Thirty were nominated for the best original screenplay nod, but Amour, Django Unchained, The Impossible, Middle of Nowhere, Rust and Bone and Seven Psychopaths were not eligible.

This year, I would bet that, in each of the two screenplay categories, the Academy's writers branch will end up bumping at least one WGA nominee in favor of a script that was ineligible to be WGA nominee -- perhaps replacing Perks with Beasts in adapted and both Flight and Looper with Amour and Django in original.

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The WGA certainly is under no obligation to honor scripts that weren't written by its members or under the terms of its Minimum Basic Agreement (or some similar collective bargaining agreement of another country). But if it wants its annual awards ceremony be as relevant and generate the same sort of media coverage as the other guilds' awards ceremonies -- as it apparently does, based on the fact that it contracts a public relations firm to widely circulate press releases identifying its nominees and winners -- then it might consider loosening its requirements.

Otherwise it might make sense for writers to establish some other organization that aims to identify the year's best scripts, regardless of their origins, prior to the announcement of Oscar nominations.