WGA rules stall front-runners in race for award season glory

“Bubble Boy” scribes Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio were on the list of contenders for Writers Guild of America Awards. So were Tom Green and Derek Harvie of “Freddie Got Fingered.” Oh, and David Spade and Fred Wolfe were on the list of qualifiers for their screenplay for “Joe Dirt.”

Not surprisingly, none made the list of finalists: .

What might have raised a few eyebrows, though, was that neither Todd Field and Rob Festinger, who wrote “In the Bedroom,” nor Christopher Nolan, who wrote “Memento,” were on the qualifying list. Despite being award season favorites, and each recipients of notable early round wins for their screenplays, their kudos glory was no match for WGA rules.

Also absent from the guild’s list of qualifiers were Nanni Moretti for “The Son’s Room” and Danis Tanovic for “No Man’s Land.”

In order to qualify for a Writers Guild kudo, the production company has to be a signatory to the guild’s contract. Although WGA doesn’t trumpet it, the union will allow productions to sign on retroactively, something filmmakers occasionally do once their little picture becomes a big hit.

However, the productions must then retroactively provide guild benefits, which consist essentially of guaranteed minimum payments, contribution to health and pension programs, credit arbitration and, perhaps most important of all for writers, residual payments. As it happens, the companies that produced “Memento” and “In the Bedroom” did not sign WGA agreements.

So that was that for the writers’ eligibility.

It’s a bump in the road to Oscar for the two films, both of which are pinning strong hopes on their screenplays to score notices (“Bedroom” for adapted screenplay, “Memento” for original). As the preliminary events have ticked off and each film has taken its share of glory (“Bedroom” nabbed National Board of Review and Golden Satellite honors; “Memento’s” prizes include the American Film Institute Awards and the Los Angeles, Toronto, Las Vegas and broadcast critics orgs), both were touted as strong contenders for the WGA honors, too.

Perhaps because the Oscars have in the past honored screenplays that were similarly ineligible for WGA honors, the respective distributors seem to be sanguine about the situation. True, no one from Good Machine and Greenestreet Films, which produced “Bedroom,” or Miramax, which released it, would comment. However, publicists from Miramax did call some journalists on Feb. 5 to discourage them from implying the company was surprised or disappointed by not being eligible, saying they knew all along the film didn’t meet WGA requirements.

Aaron Ryder, an executive producer on “Memento” and an exec at Newmarket Film Group, which released the film, was looking beyond the WGA to the bigger prizes down the road. “Each of these organizations has specific guidelines they go by, including the Academy. They each have their own rules, and it’s not for me to say if they’re right or wrong. I don’t think this hurts our (Oscar) chances. I think we have a very good chance for Oscars; we’re a serious, serious contender.”

He may not be bothered by the guild’s policy, but at least one member objected. “I got the list of qualifying films and went to vote for ‘In the Bedroom,’ ‘Memento’ and (MGM’s foreign-language Golden Globe winner) ‘No Man’s Land,’ because I thought they were great. I was amazed they weren’t included,” the writer says.

“It’s always a concern to us when there are wonderful films that don’t qualify,” Writers Guild of America West president Victoria Riskin says, sounding wounded at having to omit respected films and resolved that the guild is fulfilling its true mandate. “It stirs up discussion internally with members about what to do. Generally, though, the majority feels every effort should be made to have these production companies be signatories. That way, writers get the benefits.”

Then, undoubtedly but obliquely referring to the titles in question, Riskin adds, “Residuals are very meaningful for successful films, because they’re played over and over. We would love to see these companies become signatories, even retroactively.”

Budget considerations

Of course, satisfying award requirements were probably not top priority for either “Bedroom” or “Memento” when they were in pre-production. “Bedroom” was Screen Actors Guild member Field’s first major writing or directing job. Nolan only had credits on small films with negligible U.S. distribution.

It was only after “In the Bedroom” created a stir at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival that award talk was started. “Memento” had an even longer road, generating strong reviews but little buzz out of the ’00 Deauville and Toronto fests, and Sundance in 2001, but only gaining traction when it was released in the spring.

Ryder implies that financial considerations in the production of the low-budget “Memento” may have played a role in the decision not to have the production sign on as a WGA-sanctioned project. “You’re just trying to get the films going,” he says. “A certain amount of money is given to get the films made …” his voice trails off before completing the thought.

According to the Writers Guild, at the time the films were made the minimum payment for writers for a low-budget film was $64,915 for the sale of the screenplay, with an additional $23,611 for rewrites.

Riskin’s ambivalence underscores one of the major dilemmas the various guilds face in playing the awards game: upholding their day-to-day duties as a collective bargaining organization 364 days a year, and hosting a glitzy, high-profile and often predictive awards ceremony the other day.

“It’s not that being a signatory is more important than our awards,” Riskin says, “it’s just the bigger principle.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, each of the major guilds, as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, has its own rules for what qualifies for its awards. If the WGA opts most strongly for principle over celebration, the Directors Guild of America and the American Society of Cinematographers tilt more toward putting on the most inclusive show. SAG seems to fall in between.

“We’re celebrating outstanding directorial achievement for the year, period,” says DGA spokesman Andy Levy. “We don’t want to discriminate.”

That’s why Nolan received a DGA nom for “Memento,” although he wasn’t a member of the Directors Guild at the time (he has since joined). “Moulin Rouge” helmer Baz Luhrmann is not a DGA member either, although as a producer on the film, he likely made sure he got all the minimums and guarantees a DGA-sanctioned production would provide. And while nominee Peter Jackson is a DGA member, his film “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” was shot in New Zealand, and so was not a signatory to the DGA contract.

“I’m sure Jackson was compensated well above DGA minimums,” Levy says, chuckling. “I’m sure he had creative input.”

Historical precedent

The filmmakers behind “Memento” and “Bedroom” may be heartened to learn that theirs are not the first acclaimed screenplays to be disqualified from the WGA Awards yet go on to bigger glory. In 1995, the guild ruled “Pulp Fiction” ineligible because the production was not a signatory. That wound was no doubt healed when scripter (and director) Quentin Tarantino, who wrote the original story with Roger Avary, took home the Oscar.

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