What Does Moonlight’s WGA Win Mean for La La Land and Manchester by the Sea in the Oscars Original Screenplay Race?


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Moonlight, from Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, won the WGA Original Screenplay award last night, a coup of sorts since the film was moved over to Adapted by the Academy (where it’s Oscar-nominated) so most felt the WGA race was between La La Land and Manchester by the Sea. The last Best Picture winner to lose WGA was 2004’s Million Dollar Baby.

Arrival won for Adapted Screenplay. It goes up against Hidden Figures, Fences (both of which it beat here), Lion and Moonlight at the Oscars. Lion was ineligible for WGA and Moonlight is nominated in Original here.

The race for Oscars in the screenplay categories after last night didn’t get any easier; in fact, it got much harder. Right now we have five different films winning the major screenplay awards from the top guilds and industry groups.

Golden Globe: La La Land
BAFTA (Original): Manchester by the Sea
BAFTA (Adapted): Lion
WGA (Original): Moonlight
WGA (Adapted): Arrival

While the WGA win for Moonlight is a very good get, that Manchester by the Sea or La La Land missed here means that race is still very much up in the air. The WGA Awards, despite their strict eligibility that often omits Oscar contenders (and even winners), still have a better than average track record of predicting the Oscar winners. WGA eligibility is actually a pretty big issue though when comparing the WGA and Oscar races. Since 2000, when the WGA and Oscar have disagreed it’s more often that a WGA-ineligible film is what triumphs at the Oscars. Between the two screenplay categories, there have only been nine occurrences of WGA and Oscar not lining up and five of them were instances where the eventual Oscar winner was not eligible for the WGA. Only one was the reverse – when a WGA winner was not Oscar-nominated (see chart below).

Let’s look at the four races where the Best Picture winner lost a Screenplay award:

2000: Almost Famous wins BAFTA and BFCA, You Can Count on Me wins WGA, Gladiator didn’t win a big precursor; Almost Famous wins the Oscar
2002: Adaptation wins BAFTA and BFCA, The Hours wins WGA, About Schmidt wins GG, Chicago didn’t win a major precursor; The Pianist wins the Oscar without any precursor win
2004: Sideways wins BAFTA, WGA, GG, and BFCA; Million Dollar Baby didn’t win a major precursor, Sideways wins the Oscar
2011: The Artist wins BAFTA, Midnight in Paris wins WGA, GG, and BFCA; Midnight in Paris wins the Oscar

Right now, 2004 seems like a strong comparison to this year. Million Dollar Baby was the last December release to win Best Picture (La La Land is a December release). Manchester by the Sea is by far the biggest critics’ screenplay winner, plus BAFTA and BFCA (albeit tied with LLL). That makes it weaker than Sideways, for sure, having lost the Golden Globe and WGA, but the closest example possible.

READ: What the Gold Rush Gang thinks is winning the Adapted and Original Screenplay Oscars

Even with La La Land‘s 14 Oscar nominations, it feels like the Oscar is still for Manchester by the Sea‘s to lose. There would have to be a near complete sweep for LLL to win this. Musicals, even in their heyday at the Oscars, rarely earn a screenplay win. Even 1961’s West Side Story, with its 10 Academy Awards, couldn’t win Adapted Screenplay – its only loss of the night. You’d have to go to 1958’s Gigi (Adapted, won Best Picture and a total of 9 Oscars) and 1951’s An American in Paris (Original, won Best Picture and a total of 6 Oscars) to find the last musicals that have won a screenplay Oscar along with Best Picture. The last musical to win Best Picture, Chicago, lost both of its Adapted Screenplay races at WGA and the Oscars (to The Hours and The Pianist, respectively).

Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson is the founder/owner and Editor-in-Chief of AwardsWatch and has always loved all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards since he was in single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself in film school and the film forums of GoldDerby, and then migrated over to the former Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), before breaking off to create AwardsWatch in 2013. He is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, accredited by the Cannes Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and more, is a member of the International Cinephile Society (ICS), The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics (GALECA), Hollywood Critics Association (HCA) and the International Press Academy. Among his many achieved goals with AwardsWatch, he has given a platform to underrepresented writers and critics and supplied them with access to film festivals and the industry and calls the Bay Area his home where he lives with his husband and son.

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