'Avatar,' 'Hangover' among original screenplay nods

B.O. blockbusters received serious support from WGA writers, with “Avatar,” “The Hangover” and “Star Trek” all scoring nominations Monday, in two races that were heavily dominated by newcomers to the guild awards.

“Avatar” and “Hangover” joined “500 Days of Summer,” “The Hurt Locker” and “A Serious Man” in the original screenplay category. “Star Trek” faces competition in adapted category from “Crazy Heart,” “Julie & Julia,” “Precious” and “Up in the Air.”

While specialty pics have dominated the awards scene in past years, the nominations for 2009, announced Monday morning, gave only half of the 10 slots to smaller pics (“Julie & Julia” and “Up in the Air” were the only other films of the 10 to have topped $50 million in domestic grosses).

The nominations covered 15 writers, since five of the bids went to writing teams.

The Writers Guild of America will name the winners on Feb. 20 in ceremonies in Los Angeles and New York, based on voting by its 12,000 members.

James Cameron scored his second WGA nomination for “Avatar,” 12 years after copping a nod for “Titanic.”

The only other WGA awards vets in that category were Joel Coen & Ethan Coen for “A Serious Man.” The duo won the guild trophy for “No Country for Old Men” two years ago and for “Fargo” in 1997.

The other three slots were taken by newcomers to the guild awards: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber for “500 Days of Summer,” Jon Lucas & Scott Moore for “The Hangover” and Mark Boal, for “The Hurt Locker.” Boal, who was working in his office when he received word, said, “One of the benefits of selling a script like this is that you can be gainfully employed, working on other scripts.”

WGA first-time contenders clearly held sway in the adapted category: Scott Cooper, “Crazy Heart”; Nora Ephron, “Julie & Julia”; Geoffrey Fletcher, “Precious”; Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, “Star Trek”; and Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner for “Up in the Air.” The previous contenders were Ephron, for the 1993 “Sleepless in Seattle,” and Reitman, for “Thank You for Smoking.”

“We’re friends who started writing together 20 years ago, so to be honored by our peers for a story about friendship is an amazing gift,” Orci and Kurtzman said. “We’re wildly grateful to all the closet WGA Trekkies for their sci-fi love.”

Neustadter and Weber said, “We’re still pinching ourselves that we’re in the guild, so it’s a huge thing for us to be recognized by its members for our work.”

Cooper, who was in Minneapolis to promote “Crazy Heart,” said that the script’s themes of loss, regret and redemption likely created the traction among WGA voters but told Daily Variety that the credit should go to stars Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal. “The actors made it so seamless that it made the writing better than it actually is,” he added.

Cameron and Reitman both also landed DGA noms last week. “I’m so proud to be amongst these storytellers — the people who put pen to paper,” Reitman said.

Documentary nods went to Richard Trank for “Against the Tide,” Michael Moore for “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Mark Monroe for “The Cove,” Chris Rock & Jeff Stilson, Lance Crouther and Chuck Sklar for “Good Hair”, Robert Stone for “Earth Days,” and Bill Guttentag & Dan Sturman for “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”

Moore won the WGA’s original screenplay award in 2002 for “Bowling for Columbine.”

Only 83 screenplays — 47 in the original category, 36 in adapted — were deemed eligible by the guild this year as the WGA changed its submissions process. That’s less than half the number in recent years.

The eligible scripts also must have been written under jurisdiction of the WGA or one of five affiliate guilds. Among the screenplays ineligible for WGA awards are “District 9,” “An Education,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “In the Loop,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “The Road,” “A Single Man” and “Up.”

The WGA awards have been a pretty reliable indicator for Oscar winners. Winners of the original screenplay trophies have matched in 10 of the last 15 years, including last year when Dustin Lance Black won for “Milk”; the adapted screenplay awards have matched in 11 of the last 15 years, including Simon Beaufoy taking both for “Slumdog Millionaire” last year.

There are 382 members in the writers branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, or about 6% of the voting membership of 5,777. Oscar noms will be announced Feb. 2.

Among the contenders that were eligible but didn’t make the final cut at the WGA in the adapted category: “The Blind Side,” “Brothers,” “Coraline,” “Invictus,” “The Last Station,” “The Lovely Bones,” “Nine” and “The Soloist.” Contenders in the original category that didn’t make the nominated list included “Adventureland,” “Away We Go,” “Bright Star,” “The Messenger” and “Two Lovers.”

List of nominees:

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

“(500) Days of Summer,” Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber; Fox Searchlight

“Avatar,” Written by James Cameron; 20th Century Fox

“The Hangover,” Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore; Warner Bros.

“The Hurt Locker,” Written by Mark Boal; Summit Entertainment

“A Serious Man,” Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen; Focus Features

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

“Crazy Heart,” Screenplay by Scott Cooper; Based on the novel by Thomas Cobb; Fox Searchlight

“Julie & Julia,” Screenplay by Nora Ephron; Based on the books Julie & Julia by Julie Powell and My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme; Sony Pictures

“Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire,” Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher; Based on the novel Push by Sapphire; Lionsgate

“Star Trek,” Written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman; Based upon Star Trek, Created by Gene Roddenberry; Paramount Pictures

“Up in the Air,” Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner; Based upon the novel by Walter Kirn; Paramount Pictures

DOCUMENTARY SCREENPLAY

“Against the Tide,” Screenplay by Richard Trank; Moriah Films

“Capitalism: A Love Story,” Written by Michael Moore; Overture Films

“The Cove,” Written by Mark Monroe; Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions

“Earth Days,” Written by Robert Stone; Zeitgeist Films

“Good Hair,” Written by Chris Rock & Jeff Stilson and Lance Crouther and Chuck Sklar; Roadside Attractions

“Soundtrack for a Revolution,” Written by Bill Guttentag & Dan Sturman; Freedom Song Productions and Louverture Films

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more