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CRAFT: Eyes On The Prize - How To Write Your Way To An Oscar®

Bob Verini goes beyond screenwriting tips and tackles another aspect of the screenwriter’s “American Dream,” analyzing writing-award statistics to give you some hints that one day you, too, may be blessed by Oscar.

Bob Verini goes beyond screenwriting tips and tackles another aspect of the screenwriter’s “American Dream,” analyzing writing-award statistics to give you some hints that one day you, too, may be blessed by Oscar.

Bob Verini is the Los Angeles-based theater critic for Daily Variety, for whom he also contributes features on film, theater and television. Since 2000 he has been a senior writer for Script. Twitter: @BobVerini

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Originally published in Script magazine March/April 2003

 Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise, written by Callie Khouri

Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise, written by Callie Khouri

Come on. Admit it. You want him. You want that guy. He’s golden and he gleams, especially when he’s hanging around your house and the sun streams through the window and bounces off him, just so. Having him around validates you in your own eyes and in others’. Let’s face it: He’s your trophy companion. A little guy named... Oscar.

Oh, sure, screenwriting brings you undreamt-of money, creative satisfaction, recognition and excitement. And money. But come on, admit it. Winning that award means so much. And I dare say that for not a few members of the profession, winning means just about everything.

Or maybe not. Maybe the trophy itself doesn’t make much of a difference to you. Maybe it’s just the nomination that you covet—the respect and recognition of your peers, and all that; the membership in a prestigious club. Maybe it’s the idea of having your obituary begin “Academy Award®-nominated screenwriter So and So died today” that gives you a feeling of accomplishment.

Well, either way, there’s no doubt that entrance to either society—the Nominees’ Club and the even smaller Winners’ Wing—is limited and tough to crack. There are only two winners and eight additional nominees each and every year, and every year there seem to be surprises among the list as hopes are dashed and “sure” things fall through. Oscar’s mysteries remain, to most eyes, impenetrable.

Never fear! As so often before, Script comes to the rescue. In other articles we’ll tell you, as always, what you need to know to get that screenplay written and sold. Here we’re going to tackle another aspect of the screenwriter’s “American Dream” and give you some hints that one day you, too, may be blessed by Oscar.

For the purpose of this inquiry, we’re going to concentrate on the last 45 years. That’s partly because 1957 was the first year in which the Writing Awards “stabilized” at two, one for an adapted work and one for an original, with five nominees for each. Prior to that year, Oscar’s rules seemed to change just about annually as the Academy would bestow any number of statuettes from one to three in a dizzying variety of categories as well as variations in the number of nominees. But since the format hasn’t changed since 1957, it’s proper to consider that year as the beginning of the Writing Oscar’s “modern era.”

Besides, it so happens that your dogged correspondent has actually seen every one of the 450 Writing nominees since 1957. (Not in preparation for this piece, I hasten to add.) Trust me, “collecting” Oscar nominees can be a wearying hobby. Why, in those years alone, nominations have gone to such unlikely contenders as Lover Come Back, Airport, Crocodile Dundee and (most memorably and scandalously) Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, whose “screenplay” was Shakespeare’s complete and uncut text with scene locations inserted.

 Jaye Davidson and Stephen Rea in The Crying Game, written by Neil Jordan

Jaye Davidson and Stephen Rea in The Crying Game, written by Neil Jordan

Anyhow, here are some of the trends and insights that can be discerned in a close study of the screenplays that Oscar has liked. Take notes, you hopefuls. For starters, you’re virtually a lock for a screenplay nomination if you:

1. Write a Best Picture nominee.

It’s true. If you’ve got your name on a picture that’s nominated as one of the five best of the year, the odds are pretty good that your name is on the Best Writing list as well. The proof? Of the 225 Best Picture nominees between 1957 (when The Bridge on the River Kwai won) and 2001 (A Beautiful Mind), an incredible 188, 83.5 percent, were also nominated for best screenplay. To look at it from another angle, of the 450 writing nominations, almost 42 percent went to Best Picture nominees. Not bad.

The writer of a Best Picture is a likely winner, as well. In 30 of the 45 years we’re considering here, both winners of Best Screenplay can be found among the five Best Picture nominees. Especially noteworthy was an incredible streak from 1973 through 1994, 22 years in which both Writing winners were among the top five pictures in all but three years.

Script EXTRA: Writers on Writing - The Writing of 'Crash'

In a similar vein, 30 of the 45 Best Pictures also took home a Writing trophy, and it’s interesting to look closely at those that lost. Included among the 15 Best Pictures whose scripts didn’t win are three musicals, three epics, two controversial Vietnam dramas and a crowd-pleasing boxing film—just in case you want a quick list of genres that are less than amenable to Oscar’s favor.

By the way, can you recall the two Best Pictures during this era that weren’t even nominated for writing at all? Both were (and are) mocked for their writing, yet both were (and remain) among the alltime top grossers. I’ll give you the answer at article’s end.

2. If you want to get a nomination, it’s not a bad idea to direct your own script. But if you want to win the award, don’t.

Of all the nominated screenplays in our period under consideration, no fewer than 197, or a whopping 43.8 percent, were either written or co-written by their directors. This tendency is even more pronounced in recent years when, from 1975 through 2001, almost exactly half of the nominated screenplays carried the authorship of their directors. There was even one year, 1996, in which directors were named in eight out of 10 writing nominations, including going five for five in Best Original Screenplay; and directors won both awards (for Sling Blade and Fargo).

On the other hand, out of 90 Writing winners, only 23 awards were earned or shared by writer/directors: seven (beginning with Billy Wilder and The Apartment) through 1974, and 16 thereafter. And even when the nomination’s roster has been replete with writer/directors, the Academy has a tendency to reward the plain old journeyman screenwriter. There have been 17 occasions since 1957 in which a writing category included four out of five writer/directors, and 10 of those times the award was given to the “odd man out.” Most recently, in 1999, directors were represented among an amazing eight out of the 10 nominated scripts; but all eight came up short as the awards went to the proud screenwriters of The Cider House Rules and American Beauty. (The very same feat was pulled off in 1989 when the only screenplay nominees not written by their directors, Dead Poets Society and Driving Miss Daisy, were the winners.)

Speaking of “journeyman” and “odd man out,” it’s a depressing fact that if you want a solid shot at Oscar, you should:

3. Be male.

Oscar has never been friendly to female screenwriters, but things were sure better in the award’s early days. Of the 73 winners prior to 1957, eight, or 11 percent, went to women: five as part of male/female teams and three to women alone. (Two of those three went to Frances Marion, the brilliantly talented pioneer rewarded for 1930’s The Big House and 1931’s The Champ.) Except for the war era, it was a rare Oscar year that didn’t see two women, and often more, among the writing nominees.

But since 1957? You’ve dropped a long way back, baby, as the winning percentage has fallen to 7.8 percent. Forty three Oscars were given out to men before a woman (Nancy Dowd) won as part of a mixed-gender team for 1979’s Coming Home, the first such win since 1955. In one bumper year, 1991, five of the 10 nominees were written or co-written by women; and one of them won: Callie Khouri for Thelma and Louise. But the stark truth is that out of 90 winning screenplays since ’57, only seven have been written by women, two of them in collaboration with men.

While we’re at it, it’s only right to acknowledge the other solo winners besides Khouri: The Piano’s Jane Campion, Sense and Sensibility’s Emma Thompson, and Howards End’s Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose earlier 1986 win for A Room With a View was the first to go to a solo woman writer in 40—yes, you heard right—40 years. (It’s small consolation that the above-named are certainly among the very best of all winning scripts during this time period.)

Script EXTRA: Jane Campion Talks Top of the Lake, The Piano, Writing and Moviemaking

The nomination’s scene for women since ’57 is even worse. Of the 360 nonwinning writing nominees, only 43 went to films written (14) or co-written (29) by women, a piteous 11.9 percent. A memo to women looking for a writing partner: In all of Oscar’s 74 years, only two all-female writing teams have ever been nominated. They are Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen for Silkwood, and Fannie Flagg and Carol Sobieski for Fried Green Tomatoes. As you might have expected, neither won. So the odds are long, but there’s history yet to be made here.

4. If your script is an adaptation, give some thought to the nature of your source material.

Half of Oscar’s attention, as we’ve noted, goes to adapted screenplays. So 225 films and 45 winners need to be analyzed and distinctions made. Here’s where some subjectivity necessarily enters the calculations. Take the fine, award-winning American writer Larry McMurtry, three of whose novels have been adapted into Oscar-nominated scripts. If we separate sheep-and-goats-style Serious Fiction and Popular Fiction, in which list would you place Hud or The Last Picture Show? How about Terms of Endearment? As Oscar winner Yul Brynner once noted, is a puzzlement.

It gets tougher. Should One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest be categorized as a Serious work or a Pop work or a Classic? And in any case, by rights it should also be double-counted under Adapted Stage Plays since the winning screenplay owed a lot to Dale Wasserman’s 1963 Broadway version. I expect that the classification of these and many other works of fiction that ultimately became Oscar’s favorite screenplays could prompt some spirited arguments among the literati.

 Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, written by Akiva Goldsman

Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, written by Akiva Goldsman

Granted that some of my categorization decisions might be controversial, I’ll nonetheless plug on since the trends are instructive. Most Oscar watchers assume that scripts based upon classic literature tend to earn recognition, but since 1957 only 22 films have been nominated from what I would reckon as “classic” sources. On the other hand, eight of those scripts won, from Gigi in 1958 to Sense and Sensibility in 1995. So, go figure. Maybe that version of Samson Agonistes that you’re trying to get Brad Pitt to read has a shot.

In the period under consideration, 121 other works of fiction, almost 54 percent of the total, were adapted into Oscar-nominated scripts; and, as it happens, my breakdown between Serious Fiction versus Popular Fiction works out relatively evenly in terms of nominations (59 versus 62) and awards (10 versus 11). So, whether your source material is in hardback at Brentano’s® or in a paperback rack at the airport, fiction seems a good bet as Oscar bait.

Non-fiction is, and this comes as something of a surprise, not nearly as fertile. Only 31 of the 225 films, including six of the 45 winners, can fairly be said to have been based upon real-life stories. There’s actually a better winning percentage in adapting TV plays to film: Only five such adaptations have been nominated, but two have won (Judgment at Nuremberg and Traffic). Four nominations have gone to scripts that were based directly on earlier movies, and one comic book adaptation has been honored, Ghost World.

In sum, you have a variety of options in order to get honored for Best Adapted Screenplay, with fiction being the best bet, and adapting a play to the screen being perhaps the worst. Since 1957, 42 screen versions of stage plays (an impressive fraction of the total, nearly 10 percent) have been up for Oscars, with nine wins among them. But there hasn’t been a winner since 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons, and the last two nominees came six years ago with The Crucible and (you guessed it) Hamlet. This falling off no doubt reflects the paucity of stage plays coming to the screen in general; nevertheless, and despite this year’s surething nominee Chicago, taking a play to the screen is an unlikely road to an Oscar. (Incidentally, you have a much better shot if you adapt your own play yourself: Eight of those nine winning screenwriters had penned the theater originals.)

5. If your script is an original, give it a clever twist and clever dialogue.

If you were to ask each of, say, a score of screenwriters to come up with a list of the best scripts of the past 10 years, it’s a virtual certainty that David Webb Peoples’ Unforgiven would be on most lists and quite often among the very top slots. The moment the 1992 Clint Eastwood Western was released, critics were all over themselves in praise of the writing; and its eminence has only increased over time. The screenplay has been anthologized; you can even read it with pleasure. Of course, the movie went on to be named the best of the year. But did Peoples win the Oscar for this instant classic of screen writing?

He surely didn’t. And it was a dead certainty that he wouldn’t win the moment Jaye Davidson took off a dress and revealed the surprise twist of Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game. That twist, it can be argued, made the difference in the writing award. Audiences (and Academy voters are audiences first and foremost) were fooled, big time; when they realized they were fooled, there was a roar of recognition, and, by golly, they were going to honor Neil Jordan for achieving that surprise even at the price of denying an Oscar to David Webb Peoples.

Script EXTRA: David Webb Peoples Discusses Screenwriting Process

The fact is that the one of the salient features that stands out among Best Original Screenplay nominees is that the Academy has a propensity for honoring “trickery”— and I’m using the word in the best sense to refer to a distinctive twist or a challenging of expectations that delights and stays with audiences. Ghost and Places in the Heart and The Sting won, and Memento, The Sixth Sense and Being John Malkovich were nominated; those are just a few of the many nominated films that sent spectators out marveling at the script surprises, often the final ones. Indeed, a surprise twist made the difference in another key contest during our period under investigation. Just as Neil Jordan denied an Oscar to Best Picture winner Unforgiven, so Christopher McQuarrie’s The Usual Suspects, with its dazzling final revelations about Keyzer Sose, denied the award to 1995’s Best Picture Braveheart.

Yet there’s an even more common thread among Best Original Screenplay nominees, and especially the winners, than a clever premise or gimmick. 1955’s “Whaddaya you wanna do tonight, Marty?” falls outside our period of inquiry, but it’s a prime example of something you see again and again among Oscar’s original screenplays; and that’s the memorable line or catchphrase. Sometimes it’s a single line that catches on (“Time for Wapner;” “Snap out of it!;” “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”—I don’t have to identify those Oscar winners for you, do I?), though more often than not the winning script is fairly bursting with bon mots (Annie Hall), snappy sayings (Good Will Hunting), hip lingo (Pulp Fiction) or inspirational words of wisdom (Chariots of Fire). It’s almost an ironclad rule: You want to win Best Original Screenplay? You better have dialogue that sings and zings, dialogue that people will remember.

Of course, there’s one big exception to the “memorable dialogue” rule, and that, once again, is The Crying Game. A quick phone survey of 11 film buffs yielded eight who could instantly cite at least one line from Unforgiven (the clear winner was Gene Hackman’s astonished finale, “You can’t kill me. I’m building a house!”). Meanwhile, none of them could name a single line from The Crying Game. Yet when asked why they thought it had beaten David Webb Peoples’ script, the answer was virtually unanimous: The twist, that’s why. When all is said and done, it wasn’t an Academy member that did the decade’s best screenplay out of its award in 1992. It was Jaye Davidson’s member.

So, now you know how to do it. Now you’re ready to go out and write that script that’s sure to get that nomination and receive that award.

On second thought, maybe you’d better not follow any of these rules. Just write the best you can because when push comes to shove, really the only thing that most of the nominees, and virtually all of the winners, have in common is that no matter what their source or topic or genre, they’re darned good. Many defy formulas and expectations; most are deft and interesting. Take it from someone who’s seen them all. There are a lot of blots and absurdities and sins connected with the history of Academy Awards; but when it comes to writing, Oscar’s list of notable screenplays truly deserves the name “Honor Roll.”

(And for those who haven’t guessed, it’s The Sound of Music and Titanic that won Best Picture without earning a writing nomination. They did pretty well anyway, didn’t they?)

More articles by Bob Verini

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