Why Best Original Screenplay Is the Most Interesting Category

It is no secret the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tends to favor a specific kind of movie. They prefer to honor films that focus on important topics, whether political or social, and are typically dramatic without being overly dour. Movies that score a lot of Oscar nominations in the major categories often feature a strong artistic vision without crossing a line into being too avant-garde or alienating. While the full slate of nominees can vary from genre to genre, the core of this mindset exists in nearly all of them. The Power of the Dog and West Side Story share almost nothing in common — be it setting, tone, or aesthetic — but both pictures still check all the Academy’s boxes. Each has an air of classiness to them that makes them seem important.

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Luckily, The Power of the Dog and West Side Story also happen to be terrific films, but that often does not matter when it comes to garnering attention from the Academy. Because their tastes are so easy to pigeonhole, Oscar prognostication has become a cottage industry and rarely does anyone find themselves shocked by a nomination. Sure, they may be surprised one film got in over another, but that other film was likely considered a possible nominee. One category, though, always presents some headaches for prognosticators. It’s the one category at the Academy Awards where what kind of film can be nominated is wide open. That category is Best Original Screenplay.

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Image via Sundance

While the category can have its fair share of standard Oscar fare, Best Original Screenplay consistently includes films of a variety of genres and tones that do not show up anywhere else on the full slate of nominations, or very few other places if they do. In this category, comedies, animated films, non-English language films, quirky indies, and formally inventive material can find a home. It is the one spot where movies that are actually daring and bold can rightfully be recognized.


Take this year as an example. One of the nominees for Best Original Screenplay is The Worst Person in the Worldwritten by the film’s director Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt. Outside of Best International Feature, this was the film’s only nomination. It makes complete sense as a nominee in this category. The Worst Person in the World features a unique 12-chapter structure (plus a prologue and epilogue) and perfectly finds the right mixture of dark comedy and emotional realism. But when it comes down to it, this is a coming of age film about a regular, every-day person that is not in the English language. There’s not much traditional prestige to be found in a film like that. Despite The Worst Person in the World taking home prizes from critics’ groups and festivals, most specifically for its lead actress Renate Reinsve (who won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival), the film otherwise came up short at Oscars. But it snagged a Best Original Screenplay nomination for its inventiveness on the page, even if the Academy ignored it elsewhere.


Since the year 2000, 10 films not in the English language have been nominated for Best Original Screenplay, with two of them winning (Talk to Her and parasite). Compare that with just seven films nominated for Best Picture in the same amount of time, which is a category that for over half that time has had eight or more nominees every year. Best Original Screenplay still just has the five nomination slots, yet almost every other year they find space for a film not in English. The ratio with animated films is also enormously stronger in Best Original Screenplay. Only three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture, yet seven have been for their screenplays. Those in the writers branch of the Academy just don’t seem to care as much about whether the characters on screen are live-action or animated, so much as they are delivering a compelling story. They could be speaking Japanese or be a talking rat. It doesn’t matter. As long as the story and characters are compelling and inventive, that counts as quality in their books.



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Image via Lionsgate

Then there are the comedies. We all know the Academy Awards have a horrific track record when it comes to recognizing comedies. They are never given the same respect as dramatic pictures, as the thought of making someone laugh is not as impactful as making someone cry. Or, you know, whatever justification the voters try to give. Regardless, comedy is seen as a rather trivial pursuit, but in Best Original Screenplay, they still get their due. Since 2000, nine comedies have been nominated for Best Original Screenplay while receiving zero other nominations. They range from the surprise blockbuster My Big Fat Greek Wedding to Ryan Johnson‘s beloved whodunnit Knives Out to the pitch black hitman comedy In Bruges to two films from wes anderson with The Royal Tennenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom. There’s a number of other comedies that managed to scratch out one other nomination, like bridesmaidsbut, for the most part, they remain universally unloved from the Academy.


The writers branch understands how difficult it is to write and execute great comedy. While the themes these films deal with may not be the most relevant to the world at large, their magnificence comes from the fact that every single person’s sense of humor is somewhat different and creating a film that manages to make so many kinds of people laugh is a miracle. Writing a scene in The Big Sick about a man showing his new girlfriend a movie for the first time to see what she thinks of it does not scream, “This is important!” What it does do is create an indelible human moment that you recognize and makes you chuckle. Generating that response is just as valuable as teaching you about income inequality, and there’s a strong chance that moment lives in your heart even more.

The rest of the Academy needs to take a hint from the writers branch who vote on the nominees for Best Original Screenplay. Though their nominees may not be perfect, they are so much more reliable when it comes to recognizing a wide variety of films that can’t find away to more broadly breakthrough during awards season. The Academy talks constantly about diversifying its membership in order to better represent the people who make films. What they also need to diversify are the actual films themselves. Challenging your own perceptions on what makes an exceptional motion picture is the only way to evolve. If you continue to recognize the same kinds of films over and over and over, the awards become a self-defeating cycle that fails to represent the vastness of the cinematic landscape, furthering the Academy’s descent into an entirely niche entity. This is not a call to nominate populist superhero films. This is a call to recognize the greatness in every corner of cinema, not just in the one you expect to find it. Let Best Original Screenplay be your gateway and expand from there.



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