Oscar’s hidden writing categories: Studio vs. Indie

Eye on the Oscars 2013: The Writer

Three years ago, to much fanfare, the Academy expanded the best picture category from five noms to a possible 10. Few seemed to notice that the Academy has been nominating 10 films in screenwriting for most of its 85 years, with separate awards for original and adapted script. Lines have blurred between the two styles of screenwriting:

Take the divide between studio work and independent film.

This year the screenwriting noms are split evenly between studio (“Argo,” “Flight,” “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty”) and indie (“Amour,” “Django Unchained,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Moonrise Kingdom”) scripts.

While obvious tensions still exist between studio and independent fare at Oscar time, especially with the box office windfall a major award can reap, after years of battling each other at the awards trough, the distinctions have become blurred.

Since the advent of Sundance and the rise of the independent movement in the 1990s, indie upstarts led first by Miramax and then by the Weinstein Co., both under the ubiquitous Harvey Weinstein, have gobbled up more and more of Oscar’s glory.

The tension between indie and studio was probably never more pronounced than in 1998 when Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love” beat out Steven Spielberg’s prohibitive Oscar front-runner “Saving Private Ryan” for both original screenplay and picture honors.

Weinstein and Spielberg face off again this year with David O. Russell’s script for “Silver Linings Playbook” pitted against Tony Kushner’s “Lincoln” for adapted screenplay, yet the lines are less pronounced than they were a decade and a half ago. While both films sit comfortably within their studio and independent origins, what exactly that means anymore is harder to quantify.

As the award-winning playwright of “Angels in America,” Kushner might seem a natural for the indie world but “Lincoln” is definitely in the mold of a classic Hollywood drama, the kind of film that used to be the studios’ bread and butter but is increasingly rare in a tentpole-obsessed business.

Russell, on the other hand, one of the most successful of the indie darlings, has taken a staple of studio fare, the romantic comedy, and mixed it with the rhythms of the screwball tradition of the ’30s and ’40s to make “Silver Linings Playbook,” a crowd-pleasing mash-up with major star wattage.

Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s script for “Moonrise Kingdom” still combines Anderson’s idiosyncratic, almost childlike worldview but that too boasts a cast that any studio blockbuster would be envious of. And Quentin Tarantino, arguably the most influential of the ’90s indie auteurs, has become a brand unto himself. Still wildly independent, his films, including “Django Unchained,” have become so broadly popular they are rivaling the budgets and grosses of blockbuster studio fare.

On the other side of the equation, “Argo,” ostensibly a studio film (and indeed the kind of movie a Hitchcock or Wilder might make if they were working today) feels indie at its root. Writer Chris Terrio directed the non-studio “Heights” before scripting “Argo,” and George Clooney and Grant Heslov are two of the most fiercely independent producers working today.

Similarly Mark Boal’s “Zero Dark Thirty” has the scope and grandeur that has defined great studio Oscar scripts of the past, but his last collaboration with director Kathryn Bigelow, “The Hurt Locker,” was a bona-fide indie that stormed to Oscar gold three years ago.

Michael Haneke’s “Amour” with its European art cinema pedigree, and Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” with its DIY spirit are more typical indie selections. John Gatins’ “Flight” and David Magee’s “Life of Pi” are more typical studio pictures, combining cinematic spectacle with prestige star turns and literary bestseller clout.

The one constant of the screenwriting awards, with their combined 10 nominations and two statuettes, has been their freedom to be more adventurous, choosing fresh young voices as well as seasoned old pros. Perhaps best picture can learn a thing or two from its screenwriter siblings.

Studio Screenplay
Indie Screenplay
Screenplay by Chris Terrio
Written by Michael Haneke
Written by John Gatins
‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’
Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
‘Life of Pi’
Screenplay by David Magee
‘Django Unchained’
Written by Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay by Tony Kushner
‘Moonrise Kingdom’
Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
‘Zero Dark Thirty’
Written by Mark Boal
‘Silver Linings Playbook’
Screenplay by David O. Russell

Eye on the Oscars 2013: The Writer
Studio vs. Indie | Hyphenates vs. scripters | Big-Canvas vs. intimate tales