Stat Awards Monday #2 – UNBROKEN & BIRDMAN’s mammoth writing teams

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Welcome to Stat Awards Monday (or, S.A.M., for short). In this new awards season weekly column for Awards Circuit, I—Sam—will be guiding an investigation of interesting stats currently brewing in the Oscar race. Last week, in the inaugural S.A.M., I scrutinized the unlikelihood that Best Actor will be populated with ZERO former nominees.

This week, we focus on the writing categories, both Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay. In Hollywood, a screenplay usually has one credited writer…sometimes, it has two (a team or an original writer and a re-writer). In even rarer circumstances, a trio of writers will receive credit. But it is rather extraordinary in prestige films for FOUR writers to receive credit.

This year, both Birdman and Unbroken have FOUR credited screenwriters. Birdman was written by its director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo. Unbroken was written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson. In some circles, these scripts are the frontrunners for Best Original and Best Adapted Screenplays, respectively. Ergo…

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STAT #1: The last time a WINNER of a Best Screenplay category had FOUR writers was 1959’s Pillow Talk, which won Best Original Screenplay—shared by Clarence Greene, Maurice Richlin, Russell Rouse, and Stanley Shapiro. That was 55 years ago. 

Interpreting the Stat: So what?* “Big deal,” you say, “the Oscars award either the best screenplay in the category or the best campaigned one. It doesn’t matter how many people wrote it!” Good point…and it might be well taken. I doubt a voter is sitting on her coach thinking to herself “I liked that screenplay, but I’m not going to vote for it because it had four writers.” But nevertheless, a pattern is present. Maybe a screenplay that has been poured over by so many creative eyes just, in the minds of the AMPAS, isn’t as good as scripts with fewer writers. I don’t know.

*P.S., you can follow along with AMPAS’ Adapted winners here and Original winners here.

The sheer fact that a **FOURplay hasn’t won since 1959 gives me a massive pause. And when Pillow Talk won, it beat zero Best Picture nominees: The 400 Blows, North by Northwest, Operation Petticoat (also represented by a quartet of scribes), and Wild Strawberries. Essentially, it feels like they had no other option. But why hasn’t a FOURplay won since Dwight D. Eisenhower was President? As you’ll see in the next Stat, it’s not for lack of nominations.

** FOURplay: (n.) “for – play”. A screenplay, adapted or original, which has four or more credited screenwriters. Example: Toy Story’s FOURplay was written by seven people.

But let’s dig further. Screenplays with four or more writers are nominated with relative frequency, historically. Usually about once every two years (usually foreign screenplays). However, perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves here; who’s to say these Unbroken and Birdman FOURplays will even get nominated…

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STAT #2: Since 1980, only ELEVEN screenplays*** have been nominated with four or more credited writers.

*** Splash (Original; 1984), My Life as a Dog (Adapted; 1987), Toy Story (Original; 1995; SEVEN writers), Il Postino (Adapted; 1995; 5 writers), Shrek (Adapted; 2001; 5 writers), Before Sunset (Adapted; 2004), Borat (Adapted; 2005; 5 writers), Children of Men (Adapted; 2005; 5 writers), In the Loop (Adapted; 2009), Toy Story 3 (Adapted; 2010), and The Fighter (Original; 2010).

Interpreting the Stat: I know that’s a lengthy stat, but stick with me here. That’s 11 scripts in 33 years. Only 11 scripts in 33 years means a FOURplay gets nominated about once every three years. However, that also means that FOURplays represent ONLY 11 of the nominated screenplays in the last 33 years.

Let me break that down even more. Since 1980, 330 screenplays have received nominations (10 each year, 5 in adapted and 5 in original). That means a whopping 319 of the nominated screenplays since 1980 have had 3 or fewer credited writers. That 319 versus 11. That means, of the 330 nominated screenplays since 1980, only 3.3% of the nominated screenplays have had four or more writers.

So…just looking at the stats, it’s a challenge ALONE for Birdman and Unbroken to even get a nomination. Certainly at this early stage in the game, Birdman looks more locked than Unbroken in screenplay, despite the fact that only 3 original FOURplays have been nominated since 1980, compared to 8 adapted FOURplays.

STAT #3: In the ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE OSCARS, only THREE screenplays with FOUR writers have won Best Screenplay.

Interpreting the Stat: In 1959, Pillow Talk became and remains THE ONLY FOURplay to win Best Original Screenplay (see Stat #1).   In 1938, Pygmalion won Best Adapted Screenplay (winners: George Bernard Shaw, Ian Dalrymple, Cecil Lewis, and W.P. Lipscomb). In 1942, Mrs. Miniver won Best Adapted Screenplay (winners: George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West, and Arthur Wimperis).

That’s it. Only Three.

Okay, so? I think it’s telling that this has only happened thrice. Furthermore, I don’t know which stat is worse for which film. For Birdman, only one original screenplay has won with four writers in the 86 years of the Oscars. For Unbroken, while two adapted screenplays with four writers have won Best Adapted Screenplay…it hasn’t happened since 1942 (that’s 72 years…or 10 hours on the water planet from Interstellar).

So basically, not only do Birdman and Unbroken have an uphill climb to even get nominations, but their respective paths to victory is seemingly impossibly narrow. While I always acknowledge the fact that anomalies and unlikelihoods can and do occur, they’re often difficult and foolish to actively predict. Check out Clayton’s Best Original Screenplay predictions (spoiler: he’s got Birdman’s FOURplay) and Best Adapted Screenplay predictions (spoiler: he’s got The Imitation Game). Staff predictions can be found on the Staff’s Predictions page (spoiler: I have Boyhood and The Imitation Game, unintentionally staying in line with my stats).

Thoughts on SAM #2? Let me know! This is a new Column and I want it to be the best it can be! What other stats would you like me to talk about?