Academy & WGA At Odds Over 'Whiplash' Screenplay; Will It Hurt Oscar Chances?

EXCLUSIVE: Damien Chazelle’s Sundance-winning Whiplash, an admittedly largely autobiographical screenplay he wrote, has been mysteriously classified as an adapted script by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — which did not inform Chazelle or the film’s distributor of its decision before ballots went out December 29th. In fact, Sony Pictures Classics only discovered this fact only Monday and was quite puzzled.

pete_hammond_300x100Chazelle, who considers his script original, is not an Academy member and therefore is unable to vote, also was completely unaware. Complicating matters, the WGA had vetted it and declared it an original screenplay for their competition (nominees will be announced Wednesday), leading to the unprecedented situation of the guild calling it original and the Academy disagreeing.

It’s already causing all sorts of confusion for the Academy’s writers branch. John Gatins, Oscar-nominatedWhiplash-8139.cr2 screenwriter of Flight, put out an SOS via email to me Monday evening after reading my screenplay handicap on Deadline and remembering to vote. “I just tried to vote for Whiplash for a Screenplay Oscar nom and I couldn’t find it as a selection on my ‘help list’—I searched and searched—I finally switched to the ADAPTED CATEGORY and I found it there. The Academy has made a HUGE mistake!!! They are gonna have to ask the writers’  branch members to re-vote….and it makes this whole voting process off kilter. HELP!!!…Unless Whiplash  is NOT an original–am I crazy? Haven’t I read 100 articles about Damien wherein he tells the story of his life being the inspiration for the flick?”

GWhiplash Sundance Awardatins told me later he even thinks Whiplash could win the Original Screenplay Oscar. Except for one problem: The Academy won’t let it play in that sandbox.

Here is what happened: In order to try and get this wildly original and inventive script about an aspiring drummer and his maniacal teacher financed, the producers came upon a plan to shoot an 18-minute scene early in the script. It worked. They got financing to make the film, and the “short” turned out so well they entered it in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Shorts competition where it won a prize. The next year the actual full feature film came back to Sundance and took the Grand Prize in the dramatic feature competition.

The Academy, according to its rules, considers a “short” to qualify under their guidelines of  “Screenplays Whiplashbased on previously produced or published material.” That rule also includes plays, films, TV series, songs, poems, sequels, prequels, remakes, radio broadcasts, graphic novels, comics novels, nonfiction books and stories as well as numerous categories of unpublished material. But even though it won at Sundance as a short, in the Whiplash instance it was simply a portion of the script filmed in order to get financing. Sorry, Academy Writers Branch Executive Committee, but that seems a real stretch of a definition for an “adapted screenplay.”

In fact this same situation occurred for Sony Classics with Courtney Hunt’s 2008 Frozen River, which also started life as a sFrozen Riverhort in order to get financing before transforming into the full feature she envisioned and for which she did receive an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. I’m not sure why that could be an orignal and not Whiplash which found itself in the same situation.

In 1996, Billy Bob Thornton won an Oscar for his screenplay of Sling Blade, which was placed in the adapted category because he first made it as a short film. That designation cost Anthony Mingella’s truly adapted screenplay of The English Patient the Oscar, despite his film winning nine others including Best Picture.

Filming parts of a script to show money people how it might look as a motion picture seems to be a clever new way of getting financing, but in this case it completely changed the Oscar dynamic for Whiplash, which is still reeling from the decision. And it could affectOscars 2 the race in different ways. If Whiplash is nominated for Adapted Screenplay on this technicality, which other deserving truly adapted script might lose out? And if Whiplash misses a nomination simply because enough voters who were sure it was original, like Gatins, don’t bother to check all the way down to the ‘W’s’ under Adapted Screenplays, won’t that be a shame for this little movie that could, shot in 19 days. It may be time for the Academy writers to further tweak their rules to reflect the realities of getting movies made today. Historically, the Adapted Screenplay category was created to honor writers who brought plays and books to the screen. It has gotten a lot more complex in recent years. But the question should be asked: What exactly are we adapting here?

“We submitted it as an original screenplay to the Writers Guild and the Academy because that made total ssony-pictures-classics-logoense to us,” Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker told me tonight as he returned from the New York Film Critics banquet. “Remember when we had Frozen River it was a similar situation. Whiplash has been accepted as an original by the WGA. Now the Academy have made this designation that it is in the adapted category and they are not obligated to tell either the writer or the company that has the film of the designation. So it’s a surprise to us. I wish I had more information. And they don’t really give you a reason. I wish the Academy could give an explanation.”

FWGAWestblueandwhitelogoor their part, sources with knowledge of the situation at the Academy say there is simply no way, with nearly 300 scripts submitted each year, that they can contact each writer and company individually. And they maintain they have the right to make these designations based on their printed rules. And unlike the arrangement the Academy has with the Producers Guild, which vets each eligible producer, they do not have the same agreement with the WGA , which steadfastly refuses to qualify scripts not made under the WGA’s contract.

Clearly though, Whiplash is an Original Screenplay and it would seem oddly off kilter if it does end up Oscar-nominated as an adaptation. When I moderated the Talking Pictures Q&A with its much awarded co-star J.K. Simmons at the Palm Springs Film Festival on Saturday, he confirmed just how it came about.

feature2 “Damien had written it as a feature,” he said. “When Jason Reitman and Helen Estabrook and others tried to get it produced he was shocked that nobody wanted to give him millions of dollars to make a movie about a drummer, so really as sort of a proof  of concept to generate funding to make it as a feature, he distilled the first scene in the studio band where Andrew comes in and a chair is thrown and all that stuff happens. That was the short film that went to Sundance two years ago and won awards and got the interest going and the funding to make the feature. So it was originally a feature, then a short, then a feature again.”

Estabrook, one of the newly PGA-nominated producers of Whiplash, told me today she was also taken by surprise by this decision. “I’m so proud of the story of the making of this movie. We did a kind of exciting thing in that we had this great script, a full feature script which we all loved, and we thought, ‘How are we going to get this made in this climate where it’s hard to make these tiny little things?’,” she said. “So what we did was to do this scene to show what a great director Damien was in order to get the feature made. It was because how powerful we felt the screenplay was that we then did the short from that. I guess the disappointment for me is that it has become some idea that our movie  was just some adaptation of a short into the feature, which is not true. We just wanted to show financiers what a genius Damien could be as a director.”

  1. Gatins is a nut if he thinks that Whiplash would have won over Birdman or Boyhood. That being said, Whiplash has a MUCH better chance in ADAPTED (where it belongs) but yes, there might have to be a re-vote if people wrote it down for the paper ballot.

  2. Hollywood touts itself as a place where we break the rules in order to make art happen. Unfortunately, time and again, we see people holding steadfast to rules that have no need to be interpreted in such staunch terms. To think that an original screenplay falls into the adapted category simply because of some technicality is a travesty. If anything, the SHORT was adapted from the feature, and the FEATURE was wholly original. I know the people involved in making this movie. I know the producers. I know the writer/director. This was a labor of love, and their tactic of making a short film to generate interest was nothing short of brilliant. This film easily has the potential to win the award for best original screenplay (not to mention other), and to think that it might not because of this ridiculous oversight is very disheartening.

    1. Then they shoulda used the short for the investment tool they are all pretending it was only meant to be. The minute they put that short into festivals and let it breathe a public life of it’s own as a produced piece of material, then everything that came after it is based on “previously produced or published” material. It’s a pretty simple concept really. And if they are claiming they had no idea this would be an issue then they are really disingenuous or really ignorant. Either way it’s just a bunch of pointless whining at this stage.

    2. How is this a brilliant if “original” tactic? This is the sole purpose of film schools, and has been going on for decades: making shorts to finance a feature-length version of it. Recent examples: Short Term 12, Pariah, Half Nelson, et al. (or anything out of Sundance for that matter) takes this tactic.

      1. I didn’t say it was an original tactic. I said it was a brilliant tactic. It is. And it has been every time it’s been used. It’s not, of course, the sole purpose of film schools, though.

    3. There isn’t any “oversight” involved, the Academy looked at the issue and made a decision. There also wasn’t really a “technicality” involved, the whole point of determining separate categories is one big technicality.

      I’m not sure the Academy touts itself as an organization that likes to break any rules, they’re quite proudly hidebound by tradition. It sounds like your personal relationships with those directly involved may be why you’re upset, but I’m not sure why — as others have pointed out, the script has a much better chance in the adapted category.

      1. You’re right. The Academy is not a group that loves to break the rules. They hold hard and fast to tradition. Which is why it’s infuriating when they treat one film with a particular situation one way, and then another film with the exact same situation a different way. It may have a better chance to win in the adapted category, but that’s not really the point. Remember when Sam Jackson, the lead actor in PULP FICTION, got nominated as supporting because the studio felt that a then-unknown black man wouldn’t have a chance to win opposite a bunch of famous white names? It’s insulting. And more than that, imagine the people who TRULY adapted something. That’s a skill that not many possess. If a short film was made, and then that short was lauded, and then the filmmaker said, “I think there’s more here” and then went through the grueling process of figuring out what that “more” was, then crafted a feature BASED on that short, great. I would agree that it’s in the right category. But having a whole product and then slicing off a piece to get people excited does not an adaptation make. And the Academy knows that, which is why in the past they haven’t made this mistake. Contrary to what you wrote, it is PURELY a technicality, which is why it should be rectified.

        1. We don’t know from the reporting here that FROZEN RIVER or SLING BLADE were in fact in the “exact same” situation as WHIPLASH. Were all three of these pure fundraising exercises? Were all three scene excerpts from a feature script, or were they tailored as stand-alone narratives? Did all three follow failed attempts to get finished scripts financed? Did all three screen in prestigious festivals? I honestly don’t know, I certainly don’t remember any short version of FROZEN RIVER winning prizes at a festival like Sundance. Point being this article is mostly argumentative, and doesn’t really give us enough information to determine if all of these examples are exact correlatives of each other. I will say the purported “intent” of a filmmaker should NOT be a factor. These things are messy enough without asking voters to be mind-readers.

  3. WHIPLASH wouldn’t win Original over BOYHOOD or BIRDMAN or GRAND BUDAPEST. It’s got a hell of a chance in Adapted against GONE GIRL and IMITATION GAME. Quit whining. Great news for Damien!

  4. The screenplay for Whiplash is completely silly. A professional musician is not throwing his big gig at Carnegie Hall to teach a lesson to a student. It has the rah rah ending to cover up that nonsense but think about it for a minute and it all falls apart. Or think about the car crash… Or the terribly written female character…

    1. Thank you – I never got the hype when I saw it at Sundance and still don’t. The performances were strong but the script, if anything, was the weak link. And the message – that a string of ruined lives, suicides, and sadism is worth it for one fine drum solo – is just horrible (although the fact that this appeals in Hollywood is kind of predictable given the way the industry is structured).

      1. “a string of ruined lives, suicides, and sadism is worth it for one fine drum solo”

        The movie actually doesn’t make that case. The movie itself never establishes how the drum solo was received. You could easily argue that the movie is a critique of the Hollywood ending.

  5. It’s hard but it’s not wrong. A released short preceded the feature, much as with Neill Blomkamp’s DISTRICT 9. Explaining what was in people’s minds behind the scenes doesn’t change that.

  6. I have to agree with the decision. It’s one thing to make a scene and use it as a preview reel for investors, but it’s quite another to enter it in festivals as a short, win awards, and then try to say it was just a preview reel. Is it in the spirit of what the adapted category was meant to be, no, but rules are rules and a short entered in festivals is, without question, materials previously produced or published.

  7. I could see if they made the short for investors eyes only but they entered it in a film festival for all to see. In that move, it became a complete separate work. The new film is like “Sling Blade” and is adapted form the shorter piece.

  8. Didn’t they change actors between short and feature? It wasn’t just a scene from the feature — it was a self-contained short, no?

    I haven’t seen it but that was my understanding. If it was the same actor and literally just a segment of the film that was shot to show the potential of the script, well, that’s a different story.

  9. Categorizing 300 scripts is not that big a deal with a paid staff. The Academy staff inputs the scripts into categories — so, at the same time, email the distributors with the results. What does that take – a few hours of work?

  10. I don’t think Whiplash would beat Birdman nor Grand Budapest Hotel in the Original category (which are significantly more complex and nuanced scripts) and, as always, the Adapted category is a much more difficult race seeing as most caliber films are adaptations nowadays.

    However, the entire definition of “Adapted” has changed radically in my life time. If screenwriters can submit a script based on pre-existing characters and pre-existing events (ie, real life subjects) and have it be considered an Original screenplay, this entire argument is preposterous.

    Lastly, I agree with the commenter below and found Whiplash to be needlessly excessive, flat, and unbelievable. It’s one of the most, if not the most, overrated films of 2014.


  11. Some of your arguments don’t make any sense. They nominate Screenplays in this category, do they not? Who cares if a short film was made from a portion of the said screenplay? The screenplay predates the short. The screenplay was made first. The short adapted itself from it and not vice versa.

  12. #firstworldproblems

    But yes, the Academy got it correct. The short preceded the feature and was a stand-alone narrative work. Trying to divine and/or factor in the INTENT of the filmmakers in creating short-form or long-form works is not something the Academy or voters should start doing.

  13. First off, it’s not a ‘win’ for Whiplash if nobody knows where to vote for it–that could cost it a nomination. Second, the fact that there’s a clear, exact precedent with Frozen River getting an Original Screenplay nomination, *plus* the WGA’s Original Screenplay determination, strongly suggests Whiplash belongs in the Original category. The difficulty of the relative categories (and I agree, Grand Budapest and Boyhood are both brilliant scripts) is irrelevant. The feature script was written first, and the short was made after funding could not be acquired for the feature script, solely to fund the feature script. The Academy is wrong (just like it was when it initially ruled the score for The Dark Knight ineligible because Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard made sure their assistants got properly credited on lead sheets and score sheets) and should reverse its decision.

  14. The Academy is absolutely right on this. The Guild (as usual) is wrong. Part of this was entered at Sundance in 2012 as a short. It won some stuff. Cool! But now the writer et al is whining that it’s actually still an original. Bullshit! The full-length is based on the award-winning short. If they shot a scene as in investors’ reel then they shouldn’t have entered it in Sundance. It’s not complicated, the writer and studio are just whiners.

      1. But the short circulated 3 years ago and the feature was made after, and comes along now. Unless the screenplay was locked in 2011, the production draft will incorporate all the lessons learned in making and previewing the short.

  15. The only problem with this decision is they let Nia Vardalos compete as original for My Big Fat Greek Wedding even though everyone knew it had been a play before. Her reasoning was she wrote the screenplay first and then adapted it into the play (same situation essentially) and not the other way around. If AMPAS is not going to be consistent on these rulings its hard to take their decision makers seriously.

    also that same year Gangs of New York was suddenly “original” even though all throughout preproduction and production Scorsese kept talking about the book that inspired it.

    The Academy has real trouble with consistency.

  16. Oddly, the film “Memento” was nominated for an original screenplay Oscar even though it was based on a short story by Jonathan Nolan. (Presumably, this was because the film was released before the short story was published.)

  17. By this standard, all the big budget film scripts which are constantly doctored, re-written, and torn apart are “adapted” as well. This is absurd. The term “adaptation” should only be used when the script in question is demonstrably different in structure from the source material (book format/comic book format/play format, etc). If it’s a short film script which is entirely different in plot and structure from the finished film, the same rules should apply. Or maybe the Academy should just follow the lead of the WGA where they make a determination (the latter seems to be an easier guideline to follow).

  18. This seems to be a good case for eliminated the “Adapted versus Original” distinction entirely. Writing a good screenplay is exceedingly difficult whether you have source material or not. Some might even convincingly argue that properly adapting complex source material not originally meant to be filmed is more difficult than telling your own story.

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