A ‘Syriana’ surprise

AMPAS considers script an original

Oscar has provided his own intrigue to the plot-twisty “Syriana”: The screenplay has been classified as an original, rather than an adaptation — and for nearly three weeks, nobody seems to have noticed.

Even though the Writers Guild, BAFTA and the USC Scripter Awards had nominated the film as an adapted screenplay, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences disagreed.

When ballots were mailed to Oscar voters Dec. 29, approximately 400 writers branch members received two advisories, listing the year’s eligible films as either original or adaptations.

No one at WB was notified of the switch. And Stephen Gaghan, the writer-director, never received his ballot in the mail. This week, he sent his assistant to pick up a replacement ballot.

Only a few days remain before Oscar nomination ballots are due at PricewaterhouseCoopers offices this Saturday at 5 p.m. For the past several weeks, Warner Bros. has taken out ads touting the film for consideration as an adaptation, and no one pointed out to them until Wednesday that they were pushing it in the “wrong” category.

Pricewaterhouse will not switch the categories: If someone has voted for the film in the adapted category, the accountants will not switch it over to original.

Gaghan on Wednesday said, “I wrote a lot of original stuff that wasn’t in the book and I’m proud of that. And I’m proud that the Academy considers it original. But we optioned a book and I tried to honor Bob Baer. I used his life and I used his book, so I assumed — everyone assumed — it was an adaptation.”

“You don’t do work for awards; it’s the gift of being able to make a movie. But it’s a weird feeling. Nobody called me, nobody alerted me. I’m kind of heartbroken.”

On screen, the credits for the pic say “based on the book ‘See No Evil’ by Robert Baer.”

But an Academy committee felt that the script was different enough to qualify as an original. The writers branch exec committee meets before the end of the year to make such determinations.

In any given year, there are eight to 12 screenplays that change categories, but one Academy vet said the usual switch is from original to adaptation. Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless,” for example, was considered an original, but she admitted that she was inspired by Jane Austen’s “Emma” and the Acad switched it to the adapted race.

Sometimes scripters and studio execs are surprised at the morphing, but the biggest surprise is how long the “Syriana” switch seems to have lain silent.

An Acad spokesman said execs at the org are very confident that voters consult the advisory lists before they vote. “That’s why they’re created and we know they are used.”

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