'Lee Daniels' The Butler' takes less crowded original screenplay path under 'inspired by' classification

Posted by · 5:34 pm · September 11th, 2013

You may have heard about Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” which told the story of Eugene Allen, an African American butler who served 30 years of presidents in the White House, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. His story, and that article, became the inspiration for the film “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and in some ways, it could be argued as an adapted screenplay.

However, surely sensing that there was leeway, and no doubt taking note of how typically competitive the Best Adapted Screenplay race is this year, The Weinstein Company has kept the rhetoric on “inspired by.” Ergo, the distributor will be angling for Best Original Screenplay consideration on the awards circuit. I called the WGA’s credits department this afternoon, and indeed, the guild classifies the script original as well.

Given the liberties taken with Allen’s story, this isn’t really a surprise. We’ve been running on an adapted assumption around here but there we are. But I’m nevertheless reminded of a somewhat similar situation back in 2005 regarding the screenplay for Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana.” I remember it well because I broke the story.

In a nutshell, the screenplay for that film was campaigned as adapted from Robert Baer’s book “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism,” and the guild nominated it as such. It was also nominated for a USC Scripter Award, recognizing adapted screenplays and the subject matter that spawned them. George Clooney went on to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for portraying a Baer-like figure.

The circumstance was unique because the Academy made its decision to classify the screenplay as original in December, yet no one really knew this was the case until ballots went out with reminder sheets featuring “Syriana” in the that category. In the end, the script was in fact nominated for Best Original Screenplay, making it one of few scripts to have ever been nominated in one category by the WGA and another by the Academy.

Will the Academy also consider “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” an original? Well, yeah, probably. It’s a stretch to argue that it’s an adaptation, even if you can buy a deluxe edition of Allen’s story with the film’s key art on the cover. But it’s always worth taking note of these nuances. After all, Stephen Gaghan wasn’t even made aware of the Academy’s decision on his script until a week before the Oscar nominations were announced in January of 2006.

I imagine there will be attention paid to “The Butler” in any case. The film will already be undergoing arbitration to decipher which of the five individuals credited with “produced by” will be eligible if it is nominated for PGA or Best Picture Oscar honors, particularly given that this is a film with a whopping 41 producer credits (associate, executive, co-, etc.) in total.

For now, though, chalk it up as an original screenplay, and one facing a much easier road to a nomination for writer Danny Strong as a result.

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