Previewing the WGA Award nominees

Posted by · 6:15 pm · January 2nd, 2013

The Producers’ Guild of America caught us unawares this afternoon by announcing their nominees a day ahead of schedule, and while we’re currently expecting the Writers’ Guild to reveal their picks on Friday, it seems safest to preview them two days in advance. Guild award season is upon us (the Art Directors’ Guild also offers its own list tomorrow), so we’re trying not to be caught out.

As any practised awards-watcher knows, while the Guilds are generally the most reliable of all precursors when it comes to anticipating Oscars fortunes, the WGA are a notable exception — not least because, every year, much of the heavyweight competition in the screenplay categories is disqualified.

Screenplays not written by Guild members, among other qualifying conditions, aren’t eligible for the WGA, which invariably leads to a significant discrepancies between the Guild nominees in the adapted and original screenplay races, and the Academy’s eventual picks. With such different pools to choose from, it’s no surprise that In the last 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. 

That may lead some to write off the WGA Awards as an irrelevant, needlessly exclusive backpatting affair, but of course, any professional guild has the right to recognize and reward whomever they wish. The upside, for those of us in the market for some awards-circuit variety, is that the depleted field can force the Guild voters into some decidedly offbeat choices. Remember when “I Love You, Philip Morris” made the adapted field two years ago — the same year Nicole Holofcener popped up in the original slate for “Please Give?” Neither would likely have shown up had the Guild been working prom the same field of contenders as the Academy.

This year is no different. As Kris reported last month, the long list of titles ineligible for WGA consideration includes “Django Unchained,” “Amour,” “Middle of Nowhere,” “The Impossible,” “Take This Waltz” and “Seven Psychopaths” in the original category; in the adapted race,  “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Les Miserables,” “Anna Karenina” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”are among those out of the running.

You can breathe easy, however: “Parental Guidance,” “The Watch,” “Taken 2” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” are all on the list of 112 titles eligible for the WGA: 68 in original and just 44 in adapted.

When it comes to predicting the nominees, this narrowed field makes some easy calls even easier: there is no doubt, for example, that “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Moonrise Kingdom” are cemented nominees for the Best Original Screenplay WGA and Oscar; the same goes for “Argo,” “Lincoln” and “Silver Linings Playbook” in adapted. (I’d stop short of listing “Life of Pi” as an equally sure thing, given the film’s softer buzz and some critical reservations about its structure, but chances are Guild voters will respect the attempt.) Those films would constitute a standard level of Academy-Guild overlap in their categories, but surprises could lie further down?

In the original field, three-time WGA nominee Paul Thomas Anderson seems a solid bet for “The Master,” but an omission — after the Actors’ and Producers’ Guilds cold-shouldered the chilly, inscrutable film — wouldn’t surprise me. A safer nominee, strange as this may have sounded at the start of the season, may be Rian Johnson for “Looper.” The high-concept sci-fi hit has received a healthy number of critics’ citations for its screenplay in the last month, and the WGA is friendlier than the Academy towards genre fare: “Avatar” and “Star Trek” both landed WGA nods in 2009, for example.

The Guild also has significantly more time for comedy, both of an independent and mainstream hue — recent nominees that ultimately didn’t make the Academy’s cut include “The Hangover,” “(500) Days of Summer” and “50/50.” (Last year’s WGA original screenplay roster, for that matter, was wholly comic.) That could bode well for a range of comedies across the commercial spectrum, from “Damsels in Distress” to “Magic Mike” and even to “Ted.”

My instinct, however, tells me this year’s list will skew more dramatic, with quiet indie “Arbitrage” claiming an up-for-grabs fifth spot that good as easily go to John Gatins’s heavily promoted script for well-liked studio hit “Flight.” If they’re in a particularly playful mood, they could even recognize Joss Whedon’s successful year with a nod for his co-writing of clever-clever horror exercise “The Cabin in the Woods.”

It’s perhaps likelier that Whedon could find recognition in the adapted race for his box-office behemoth “The Avengers,” but there’s far less room for maneuver in that category — and if the PGA didn’t feel inclined to nominate the year’s top grosser, it’s a stretch to imagine the writers doing so. The same probably goes for the summer’s other superhero smash “The Dark Knight Rises,” even if the WGA nominated its predecessor.  

No, if one action-heavy franchise hit makes the cut, I’m putting my chips on “Skyfall.” The critically acclaimed James Bond adventure received a hefty boost today with a PGA nomination, and the film seems poised to score well with the below-the-line Guilds, so it’s not hard to imagine the writers: the film’s screenplay may not be its most dazzling attribute, but it’s sturdy work, co-written by one of the industry’s hardest-working go-to guys, John Logan. (If that comes to pass, don’t get too excited about its Oscar chances: remember that “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” scooped multiple Guild nominations, only to miss the Academy’s Best Picture lineup.)

Failing that, look for indie favorites “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (which has picked up a number of unexpected citations along the way) or “Bernie” to show up, or for “This is 40” to return Judd Apatow to their good graces. That the comedy scribe, also nominated in the TV race as a member of the “Girls” writing team, was nominated for both “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” without the Academy taking much notice is as good an example as any of the different, though not uninteresting, world these awards inhabit.

My best guesses:

Best Original Screenplay
Nicholas Jarecki, “Arbitrage”
Rian Johnson, “Looper”
Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Master”
Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, “Moonrise Kingdom”
Mark Boal, “Zero Dark Thirty”

Look out for: “The Cabin in the Woods,” “Damsels in Distress,”  “Flight,”  “Magic Mike,””Ruby Sparks,” “Ted”

Best Adapted Screenplay
Chris Terrio, “Argo”
David Magee, “Life of Pi”
Tony Kushner, “Lincoln”
David O. Russell, “Silver Linings Playbook”
Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, “Skyfall”

Look out for: “The Avengers,” “Bernie,” “On the Road,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “The Sessions,” “This is 40”

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