Every year, the WGA selects five nominees for “Best Original Screenplay.” These are the nominees from the last five years.
|American Hustle||Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell||Yes||No*||Singer was a BU dropout who worked as a night janitor, then sold the International in 2009.|
|Blue Jasmine||Woody Allen||Yes||No||Allen was writing in TV shortly after it was invented.|
|Her||Spike Jonze||Yes||No||Spike Jonze started as an acclaimed video/commercial director. Before that, he was still cooler than us.|
|Dallas Buyers Club||Craig Borten||No||Yes|
|Nebraska||Bob Nelson||No||Yes*||A writer on Seattle sketch TV show Almost Live, Nelson moved to LA in desperation in 2002, and spent 10 years trying to get Nebraska made.|
|Flight||John Gatins||No||No||A veteran actor with many established writing credits, Gatins was a consumate insider. Flight was a passion project, but it came from within the system.|
|Looper||Rian Johnson||Yes||No||Rian broke in with his directorial debut Brick.|
|The Master||Paul Thomas Anderson||Yes||No|
|Moonrise Kingdom||Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola||Yes||No||Roman Coppola overcame the hardship of being the son of Francis Ford Coppola.|
|Zero Dark Thirty||Mark Boal||No||No||Developed by director Katherine Bigelow|
|50/50||Will Reiser||No||No||Reiser, a producer, wrote the script on the advice of his friend Seth Rogen.|
|Bridesmaids||Annie Mumolo, Kristen Wiig||No||No||Mumolo, a Groundling, developed the script with Wiig, a star.|
|Midnight in Paris||Woody Allen||No||No|
|Win Win||Tom McCarthy||Yes||No||Longtime actor, directorial debut was The Station Agent (2003)|
|Young Adult||Diablo Cody||No||No||A successful blogger, Cody was recruited to be a writer by manager Mason Novick|
|Black Swan||Andres Heinz||No||Yes||Written by Heinz in 2002, spent ten years in hell before Portman/Aronofsky found it.|
|Inception||Christopher Nolan||Yes||No||Nolan broke in with directorial debut Following. Even after directing Batman, it was an uphill struggle to get this made.|
|The Fighter||Paul Tamasi, Eric Johnson||No||No||Tamasi and Johnson created Air Bud first. The script later got polished by Scott Silver of Mod Squad fame.|
|The Kids are Alright||Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg||Yes||No|
|Please Give||Nicole Holofcener||Yes||No|
|(500) Days of Summer||Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber||No||No||Neustadter and Weber met in 1999 working for Tribeca Prods. (Weber was Neustadter’s development intern),|
|Avatar||James Cameron||Yes||No||Even after making Titanic, Cameron had a hard time getting this off the ground.|
|The Hangover||Jon Lucas, Scott Moore||No||No|
|The Hurt Locker||Mark Boal||No||No||Boal was a very successful journalist. The Hurt Locker began as an article he wrote for Playboy magazine.|
|A Serious Man||Joel Coen, Ethan Cohen||Yes||No|
2014 really showcases three inspirational stories for writers: Singer, Border and Nelson all broke in on underdog, Cinderella story scripts that had been in development hell for years. Some might take that as a good sign for other writers trying to break in, a cynic might say that it’s a good sign for other writers who’ve had scripts in development hell for years. Time will tell.
Over 50% of these scripts came from writer-directors. Writer-directors (or hyphenates) can get away with stories regular writers can’t. If you really want to tell personal stories through screenwriting, your best bet is to direct them yourselves, or find a director you’re completely sympatico with.
Almost all of these scripts spent years in development hell. What that means for the beginning writer is that you’re not just competing with scripts written this year, you’re competing with scripts that were written 15 years ago as well. Craig Borten spent 20 years pushing Dallas Buyers Club.
A lot of these guys broke in during the 90’s indie scene. While that’s to be expected (it takes years to get good), the indie market has shrunk and these guys are still in that space. Hence, there are fewer opportunities for the future Woody Allens, Nicole Holofcners and Kevin Smiths to develop in that space. I’m really tired of amateur writers writing based on case studies from the 90’s, it’s a completely different business universe now. Also note, we’re going to be competing with the 90’s guys forever. While they won’t have the longevity of Woody Allen, thank god, their existence and the shrinking market makes it that much harder for a 2010’s writer to break in.
I’ll leave you with some screenwriting advice from Andres Heinz (Black Swan): Follow your heart, do something you believe in, but also be aware of the market. It’s a very difficult climate right now to make a living as a writer. Nobody is taking any chances. You need to know who your audience is because that’s the first thing producers are going to look at.