A mini history of indie scripts

A look at the rise of independent film in the original screenplay category.

50 YEARS AGO: In 1953, “The Little Fugitive,” a tiny independent picture about a boy on Coney Island made by a Gotham-based filmmaking team, earned an original story nomination, competing with the likes of eventual winner “Roman Holiday.” All but forgotten, pic did have a bit of a pedigree going into the Oscars: a Silver Lion prize from the Venice film fest.

MAVERICKS: Mel Brooks’ first feature, 1968’s “The Producers,” an Avco Embassy release, became the first U.S. indie to win a writing Oscar. Tellingly, among its fellow original screenplay nominees was “Faces,” from John Cassavetes, one of the vanguards on the American independent filmmaking scene.

BORDER CROSSING: “El Norte,” a 1984 Spanish-language immigration drama produced in conjunction with PBS, set in Guatemala and Mexico and directed by California filmmaker Gregory Nava, found itself tucked between “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Splash” in the original screenplay category. Scribes Nava and Anna Thomas’ Writers Guild bid helped vault the pic, distributed by then-hot Island Alive, into the race. It lost to pic nominee “Places in the Heart” (Robert Benton).

HELLO, HARVEY: A young but surging Miramax Films powered Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 Sundance sizzler “sex, lies and videotape” to the studio’s first original screenplay nom. Though the pic lost to Touchstone’s “Dead Poets Society,” it nonetheless was further proof that there were some new kids on the Acad playground.

METRO LINE: New Line Cinema, soon after breaking into the blockbuster club with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” quietly scored its first Oscar nom in the original screenplay category with Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” (1990).

BETTING ODDS: Over the past 10 years, almost two-thirds of the original screenplay nominations have been indie or specialty division pics.

AUTEUR ONSLAUGHT: Miramax quickly established its dominance in the category in the early 1990s with three consecutive original screenplay wins, earning Oscars for a trio of writer-directors from 1992-94: Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game,” Jane Campion’s “The Piano” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”

LAST STAND: MGM’s “Thelma & Louise” (1991) was the last pic from one of the seven major studios to win the original screenplay category. Upstart major DreamWorks broke the indie streak with a pair of films that easily could have passed for niche pics: 1999’s “American Beauty” (written by Alan Ball) and 2000’s “Almost Famous” (Cameron Crowe).

HOT MARKET: Newmarket Films earned its first Academy Award nomination in the original screenplay category for Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” (2001). It lost to USA Films, which took the prize for Julian Fellowes’ script for Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park.”

THE BIG SWEEP: Last year, specialty distribs shut out the big boys for a second time (as they did in 1994), with Oscar newbie IFC Films earning two noms (for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Y tu mama tambien”), Focus Features (“Far From Heaven”) and Miramax (“Gangs of New York”) with one apiece and Sony Pictures Classics’ Pedro Almodovar pic “Talk to Her” taking the Oscar, the first writing award for a Spanish-language pic and SPC’s first original screenplay trophy.

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