‘1917’: Why a screenplay nomination could be key to success at the Oscars

1917” was just nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Writers Guild Awards. Could an Oscar nomination be next? Even though the film’s Golden Globe wins for Best Film Drama and Best Director (Sam Mendes) over the weekend were a boon, its recognition from the lower-profile WGA is actually a lot more crucial to its Oscar hopes.

It used to be that an Oscar nomination for Best Director was the most crucial to winning Best Picture, but that’s not really the case anymore. There are now between 5 and 10 nominees for Best Picture, and winners in that category are decided by a ranked preferential ballot. But Best Director still has only five nominees and is decided by a plurality vote. Also, the motion picture academy has been expanding its membership to include more ethnically and geographically diverse film professions, which has given us Best Director lineups the lean towards art-house contenders like last year’s winner Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”) and surprise nominee Pawel Pawlikowski (“Cold War”).

So we’ve seen more splits between the two categories than ever before, and there were even two Best Picture winners in the last decade that weren’t even nominated for Best Director: “Argo” (2012) and “Green Book” (2018). That used to be unthinkable. However, while Best Director and Best Picture continue to drift apart, the writing categories have proven a lot more consequential.

In close races in recent years, writing nominations were a key difference. 2013’s battle was between the historical resonance of “12 Years a Slave” and the technical wizardry of “Gravity.” “Gravity” had the most nominations (10) and it ended up with the most wins (7), including Best Director (Cuaron), but it wasn’t nominated for writing; meanwhile, “12 Years” won Best Adapted Screenplay, and it ended up winning Best Picture too.

The 2016 race seemed pretty wide open, but “The Revenant” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” had the most nominations (12 and 10, respectively). Neither of them were nominated for their scripts, though. So even though “Mad Max” won the most awards (6) and “Revenant” won Best Director (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu), it was Best Original Screenplay champ “Spotlight” that took Best Picture.

No film since “Titanic” (1997) has won Best Picture at the Oscars without a writing nomination. Before that, it had been since “The Sound of Music” (1965). So if you want to win Best Picture, you’d better have a writing bid.

The problem for “1917” is that it’s a fairly straightforward story about two soldiers racing against time, light on dialogue, and it’s so driven by its visual style and one-shot conceit that its script by Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns doesn’t get as much attention. In fact, even though it ranks among our top five Best Picture contenders in our odds as of this writing, it trails in seventh place for Best Original Screenplay. But if it’s the real deal for Best Picture, it’ll probably be nominated for writing.

However, the WGA nominations don’t necessarily mean the film will get a corresponding Oscar nomination. That’s because the guild has strict rules, and a couple of films that are very strong contenders at the Oscars weren’t eligible there, like Quentin Tarantino‘s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and Pedro Almodovar‘s “Pain and Glory” — both Tarantino and Almodovar are past Oscar winners for writing, so if they both make the cut at the Oscars, someone on the WGA list will miss out. It’s just a matter of who.

Also in the running at the WGA Awards are “Marriage Story,” “Parasite” and “Knives Out,” all of which are among our top five predicted nominees at the Oscars. Rounding out the race is “Booksmart,” the acclaimed indie comedy that ranks ninth in our current Oscar odds for writing. So “1917” might be on the bubble. Which way it goes could tell us which way it’ll go in the Best Picture race.

Be sure to make your Oscar nominee predictions today so that Hollywood insiders can see how their films and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions as often as you like until just before nominees are announced on January 13. And join in the fun debate over the 2020 Academy Awards taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our film forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.

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