Small films are creating a big stir in the original screenplay category

Indie films aren’t always the underdogs at the Academy Awards.

Inspect the list of winners for original screenplay over the past decade (from Pedro Almodovar to Julian Fellowes, Quentin Tarantino to Christopher McQuarrie, Jane Campion to Neil Jordan) and you won’t see a single studio regular among them.

Even the three studio victors, Alan Ball’s “American Beauty,” Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” and Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s “Shakespeare in Love,” feel, well, small, relative to the usual star-power of Oscar.

In the past two years, Hollywood made an especially poor showing in the category: Only two studio films — “Gangs of New York” in 2003 and “The Royal Tenenbaums” in 2002 — competed against “Memento,” “Y tu mama tambien,” and “Monster’s Ball.” Have the independents cornered the market on original material, while the studios focus more on adaptations from previous — and more proven — sources?

“It’s a question of economics,” says UTA agent David Kramer, who reps “Big Fish” screenwriter John August. “Most independents don’t have the ability or inclination to get into the popular book world. They’re in the auteur business, so maybe those screenplays are more pure and that’s why they’re winning awards.”

The studios, on the other hand, tend to focus more on adapted material for the obvious reason: The built-in awareness of a bestseller, Hollywood classic or comicbook is a key marketing tool.

“And if you’re going to spend $100 million,” continues Kramer, “you’d like to have as many insurance policies as you can get. Why do think Sony has worked so long and hard to put ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ together?”

For original scripts, however, the less familiar and more risky nature of their stories often precludes Hollywood involvement.

“It was important for me to work with a low budget to make the film any way I wanted,” says Sofia Coppola, writer-director of “Lost in Translation.” “The story has no plot and it’s still hard for me to describe. It was very hard to pitch.”

But this more intuitive character-driven approach is the charm of “Lost in Translation,” claims Jim Sheridan, writer-director of “In America.” “It’s very personal, and my story is much the same,” he says.

Written in collaboration with his two daughters, Sheridan’s “In America” failed to fit into the Hollywood system. “I dragged it to all the studios and had meetings where they said, ‘The family is not fighting enough and there’s not enough conflict.’ But when you have a story that’s like life, it’s hard to find those problems,” he explains. “The changes that occur inside you are invisible.”

Peter Hedges, nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of “About a Boy,” also tried to get his directorial debut “Pieces of April” set up at a major studio (MGM) but the deal eventually fell apart.

“What the money people wanted in the script would have been the very thing that would make it ultimately forgettable,” he says. “On bigger-budget films, there is greater pressure to make sure everything is explained. And ultimately, I think that makes for lesser screenwriting.”

However, high-caliber original scripts can emerge from within the studio system. They’re just dependent on top actors and directors to preserve their integrity. Indeed, 2004 could be the year the studios finally return to the category with some force. Contenders include “The Last Samurai,” written by producer-director Ed Zwick, with John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz; Andrew Stanton’s script for the animated box office hit “Finding Nemo”; and “Something’s Gotta Give,” produced, directed, and written by Nancy Meyers.

Meyers, who was nominated in the original category for “Private Benjamin” in 1981, acknowledges that her previous success in the industry — including hit films “What Women Want” and “Father of the Bride” — helped her get “Something Gotta Give” greenlit at Sony. “I’ve been making movies — and particularly this type of movie — for 23 years,” she says. “So I have enough of a track record that it encourages the studio to be open to my next idea.”

While Zwick concedes an A-list actor, say Tom Cruise, can give an original project momentum, he’s quick to point out this is the case for both adapted and original material.

“I like to think an original script succeeds or fails on its own merits,” he says. “And the studio has to find the confidence in each project.”

James Schamus, the Oscar-nominated scribe (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and co-president of Universal’s specialty arm Focus Features, agrees that both original and adapted projects face many of the same hurdles in getting made. However, at the more indie-minded Focus, Schamus credits, in part, their three awards contenders in the original script category (“Lost in Translation,” “21 Grams” and “Sylvia”) to an unwritten law at the company: “Nobody can talk about acts, structure, inciting incidents, and nobody is reading how-to-write-a-screenplay books,” he says. “When you’re making movies that have a signature, the screenplay has to allow for the specificity of the film’s vision.”

Many screenwriters complain that specificity is lost within the long development process of the studio system, which they say often cripples a story’s uniqueness.

Larry Cohen, writer of studio-purchased original scripts “Phone Booth” and the upcoming “Cellular,” says: “Now it’s worse than ever. There are so many development people at every studio and even if they have nothing to say, they’re going to invent something to make their jobs seem important.”

Catherine Hardwicke reports that her much-praised script for “Thirteen” came out like a “thunderbolt” in six days. “And the fact that it stayed messy in its own vitality, instead of getting diluted with zillions of notes, kept it interesting,” she says. “Whatever was good in that script was there because it stayed independent.”

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