Oscar Favorites Elbowed Aside for Rookie Writers in 2016 Race

Oscars 2016 Writing Nominees: Rookies Edge
Courtesy of Universal

The Oscars’ current problems are a lot like baseball’s, back in the day. The game is too white, too macho and a little too overloaded with grizzled veterans for many fans’ comfort.

But encouraging signs can be spotted over in the writers’ division, where nine of this year’s 10 screenplay contenders were penned, in whole or in part, by first-time nominees.

Only Nick Hornby of “Brooklyn”; Ethan and Joel Coen of “Bridge of Spies”; Tom McCarthy of “Spotlight”; and Pete Docter of “Inside Out” have previously been named Oscar all-stars. Their writing partners and others, a remarkable 15 in all, are being called up to the Big Show for the first time. And that includes four women, the largest such number since 2007.

Maybe no one broke the color bar this year, but when it comes to new voices being heard, it’s truly the Year of the Rookie.

The rookies themselves can’t quite figure it out. “I didn’t even know there were so many of us,” admits Josh Cooley of Docter’s “Inside Out” team.

“I don’t actually have a theory,” adds his colleague Meg LeFauve, “other than being excited that so many unique new voices are coming in.”

Andrea Berloff, one of the four scribes nominated for “Straight Outta Compton,” says, “I’m just totally guessing here, but anecdotally, a lot of the more accomplished guys are starting to do a lot of television writing, because they think they can exercise more of their own creativity there.”

Yet a significant number of those accomplished screenwriting vets were pretty darned active in features this year. To make it onto the current roster, the 15 nominees had to muscle aside “The Hateful Eight,” Quentin Tarantino’s follow-up to his awarded “Pulp Fiction” and “Django Unchained.” Also sidelined were past winners Woody Allen and Charlie Kaufman, as well as previously nominated Paul Weitz and David O. Russell.

And lest we forget, Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin’s “Steve Jobs” script walked off with WGA top honors a mere four days before the Academy nominations sent him, and it, to the showers.

Small wonder the rookies’ delight is tempered by a modicum of wide-eyed surprise, and maybe relief too. “That someone can break in, it’s definitely encouraging. Well, it’s encouraging to me!,” Cooley says laughing.

To be sure, these rookies didn’t emerge, as the baseball myth goes, raw and untested out of the Iowa cornfields. Emma Donoghue (“Room”) and Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) are eminent, established novelists. The Coens’ “Bridge of Spies” partner, Matt Charman, has a thriving career writing for the stage, as does Phyllis Nagy, who, before “Carol,” garnered Emmy nominations for writing and directing HBO’s “Mrs. Harris.”

Among the nominees can be counted a documentary producer; a former theater actress; a one-time radio programming director; script supervisors, television scripters and journalists.

Josh Singer, McCarthy’s “Spotlight” partner, worked out of college at McKinsey & Co. consultants, which he says taught him three things: “One, I didn’t want to work in business; two, I wanted to do something socially relevant … and last, oddly, I learned how to structure a story. A consulting firm — and people will probably laugh when they hear this — is very good at structuring stories, because that’s what they do all day long.”

In short, scratch a rookie and you’ll find an experienced storyteller, albeit an inexperienced participant in awards season craziness.

Novice nominees call upon pros for advice on handling the press and the pressure, all quite new to them. Berloff chose a consultant to work with her on clothes issues. “She looked at my closet the first time and said, ‘Do you have any of what I would call, grownup pants?’ That’s how far away from this world I currently live.”

Pixar veterans of Oscar campaigns told Cooley, “Take it all in and really enjoy it, because it’s kind of like a wedding day, where there’s all this buildup to it, and then it happens, and then it’s over, and you’re like ‘Wow, I feel like I missed it all.’”

And Singer treasures the words of “Out of Sight” nominee Scott Frank on the occasion of a mutual admiration lunch.

“He told me, ‘Try to remove yourself. Be a bemused onlooker. Whatever happens next will only be good.’”

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