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WGA Nominations: Oscar and the Eligibility Factor (Analysis)

Writers Guild of America’s just-announced nominees have reason for optimism in terms of the upcoming Academy Awards, but they come with a load of footnotes and caveats.

The WGA has a pretty solid track record at predicting Oscar winners, though as far as nominations, there are more discrepancies, due to the guild’s eligibility rules.

Original screenplay candidates are David O. Russell and Eric Singer for “American Hustle”; perennial fave Woody Allen with his 21st nom, “Blue Jasmine”; Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, “Dallas Buyers Club”; Spike Jonze, “Her”; and Bob Nelson, “Nebraska.”

Adapted screenplay: Tracy Letts, “August: Osage County”; Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, “Before Midnight”; Billy Ray, “Captain Phillips”; Peter Berg, “Lone Survivor”; and  Terence Winter, “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Many of these contenders will be mentioned again when Oscar noms are announced Jan. 16. But there will undoubtedly be some changes, due to Writers Guild restrictions. Under guild rules, the only eligible scripts are ones produced under WGA jurisdiction or under a collective bargaining agreement in Canada, Ireland, New Zealand or the U.K. This year, the WGA declared more than a dozen high-profile scripts ineligible (Variety, Dec. 3).

Among the writers whose scripts were omitted from WGA consideration, but are eligible for Academy nominations were two high-profile ones: John Ridley, “12 Years a Slave” and Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, “Philomena.” Also ineligible were Ryan Coogler, “Fruitvale Station”; William Nicholson, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”; Peter Morgan, “Rush”; Destin Cretton, “Short Term 12″; and two foreign-language entries, Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix for “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and Asghar Farhadi, “The Past.”

The eligible original screenplays that were overlooked: for “Gravity” Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron (who’ve had an uphill climb reminding voters that yes, everything in the movie was carefully scripted); Nicole Holofcener for “Enough Said”; Joel and Ethan Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis”; Danny Strong, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”; Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, “Saving Mr. Banks”; and, in adapted, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”; Jason Reitman, “Labor Day”; and Steve Conrad, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

Guild execs are adamant that their eligibility rules will remain in place, saying there are many reasons to keep them.

But as a sidelight, the rules ARE a factor in Oscar predictions. With last year’s nominations, the guild averaged a 70% match rate with Oscar, foreshadowing four of the five adapted contenders: “Argo,” “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” WGA’s “Perks of Being a Wallflower” was upstaged in Oscar’s race by the WGA-ineligible “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

In the original category, it was three out of the five: “Flight,” “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” But WGA contenders “Looper” and “The Master” missed out on Oscar, which instead honored “Amour” and “Django Unchained,” both ineligible for WGA.

For the films of 2011, the match rate was only 50%. Just two of the five WGA original screenplay contenders eventually got Oscar noms; in the adapted race, it was three out of five. In many cases, the Oscar entries had been declared ineligible in the WGA races.

The eligibility question also figures in the outcome. Last year, Mark Boal won the WGA original screenplay prize for “Zero Dark Thirty,” but Quentin Tarantino took the Oscar for “Django Unchained,” which had been ineligible for WGA. (Chris Terrio won both for adapting “Argo.”) In the past 19 winners, WGA and Oscar matched 12 times in the original-screenplay race, 14 times in adapted.

On Friday, the Writers Guild also unveiled its five contenders for documentary screenplay. For documakers, the WGA’s continued recognition is itself a triumph, acknowledging that documentaries are in fact written and not just “assembled.” The guild’s lineup also underlines how diverse a year this is for docus, since the roster has very little overlap with the nominees from IDA, the Indie Spirits and the Producers Guild of America.

The docu script nominees are Jeremy Scahill and David Riker, “Dirty Wars”; Sara Lukinson and Michael Stevens, “Herblock – The Black & The White”; Janet Tobias and Paul Laikin, “No Place on Earth”; Sarah Polley, “Stories We Tell”; and Alex Gibney, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.”

Results were based on voting by the WGA’s 12,000 members. The awards show will be held Feb. 1 with simultaneous ceremonies in Los Angeles and New York.

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