When evaluating Oscar contenders, I used to look at movies like “Middle of Nowhere” above and conclude, “Well, it’s too small to contend for best picture, but it’s a good screenplay candidate.”

Then I realized that this wasn’t really true. Much, much more often than not, best picture nominees also grabbed screenplay nominations, and vice versa. For the past decade, this was true whether the best picture field numbered five or 10.

Then last year, things changed dramatically, which leads to my latest print piece for Variety:

“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

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.

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. …

Click here for the rest of the article, which also offers a breakdown of adapted vs. original contenders.