Categories were always in sync, until last year

“Did these films write themselves?”

In the eyes of Oscar voters, the answer to that question has almost always been no: A best-picture nominee could virtually count on a screenplay nomination — until recently.

With awards season already percolating, it’s high time to for a look at the screenplay races. And the changes in voting last year offer food for thought that will be troubling to some, but a source of hope to others.

From now until Thanksgiving weekend, seven key Oscar contenders hit theaters: “Skyfall” and “Lincoln” today, “Anna Karenina” and “Silver Linings Playbook” the following Friday and “Life of Pi,” “Hitchcock” and “Rust and Bone” on either side of Turkey Day. In addition, the long-awaited “Zero Dark Thirty” (from the “Hurt Locker” writer-director team of Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow) should begin screening to insiders during that time.

For any of these films, the chances of netting screenplay honors would typically be tied to their best picture possibilities. From 2004-08, when there were five best picture nominees each year, 24 of those 25 received either an adapted or original screenplay nomination. (The lone exception was 2004’s “Ray.”)

When the Oscars expanded best picture nominations to 10 (in time to honor the top films of 2009), the field of finalists grew more crowded, but the correlation hardly changed. Of the 20 films nominated for best picture those next two years, only three struck out in screenplay: 2009’s “Avatar” and “The Blind Side” and 2010’s “Black Swan.” In other words, during an eight-year period, only four nominated pictures didn’t receive noms for screenplay.

Then in 2011, the Oscars matched that total in a single year.

The screenplays of best picture nominees “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “The Help,” “The Tree of Life” and “War Horse” did not, apparently, impress the Acad. In contrast, “Bridesmaids,” “The Ides of March,” “Margin Call,” “A Separation” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” all received original or adapted screenplay bids, while failing to secure best picture noms.

(“Extremely Loud” and “War Horse” were shut out of the director and lead acting noms as well, becoming the first picture nominees since 2002’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” that were bereft of lead acting, writing or screenplay noms. Talk about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts …)

Though potentially an anomaly rather than the start of a trend, last winter’s screenplay/picture split offers new Oscar hope to writers of films that might not seem to have the heft for the grand prize. The screenplay categories might actually be a legitimate alternate avenue.

It doesn’t hurt that the field for picture nominations seems so wide open at this point of the 2012-13 awards season that the Academy’s writer branch might reasonably see things differently than the larger group filling out ballots for top film. Imminent releases such as “Life of Pi,” “Hitchock,” “Rust and Bone” and “Skyfall” could fall on one side of the fence or the other.

Looking at earlier releases, “The Master,” which offers potential acting noms for Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams and much admiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s striking direction, might not have as many fans for Anderson’s screenplay. If not, that leaves room for something in a lower key, such as Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage” or Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere.”

Much could depend on whether the picture nominees end up tilting heavily toward either films of original screenplays or films of adapted screenplays, but it’s too soon to say whether that will happen. Here’s a sampling of each:

Adapted: “Anna Karenina,” “Argo,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Bernie,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Cloud Atlas,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Hitchcock,” “The Hobbit,” “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln,” “Les Miserables,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Quartet,” “Rust and Bone,” “The Sessions,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Skyfall.”

Original: “A Late Quartet,” “Amour,” “Arbitrage,” “Compliance,” “Django Unchained,” “Flight,” “The Impossible,” “Looper,” “The Master,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Promised Land,” “This Is 40,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Zero Dark Thirty.”

For those who are particular fans of the written word, it’s hard to imagine that a film could be worthy of best picture consideration without being worthy of screenplay honors. But last year, the Academy showed that it’s not only possible, it could even be prevalent.

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