What Are the Criteria for Best Screenplay at the Oscars?

SoCreate
4 min readDec 7, 2021

Many screenwriters dream of the day that their script will be considered for best screenplay at the Academy Awards, but what exactly goes into winning the Best Screenplay statuette? Let’s break down the criteria for Best Screenplay at the Oscars.

First things first, some history and some facts!

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The Academy Awards is presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), more popularly known as the Oscars. It held its first ceremony honoring artistic and technical merit in film in 1929. Many regard the Oscars as the most prestigious award in American film. Members of the Academy select the nominees and winners. Nearly 10,000 voting members represent 17 branches of the Academy. The branches include directors, actors, cinematographers, writers, producers, makeup, hairstylists, and more.

The Academy’s membership is sponsorship-based. Candidates must be sponsored by two Academy members from the branch the candidate wishes to join. Academy Award nominees are automatically considered for membership. Candidates for membership are then reviewed and selected by the Academy’s Board of Governors once a year.

How to Get Academy Membership

For the screenwriting branch, an individual must have any or some combination of the following:

  • At least two theatrical film credits
  • Have been nominated for an Academy Writing Award
  • Have a writing credit on a film nominated for the Academy Best Picture Award, Best International Feature Film Award, or Best Animated Feature Film Award
  • Have achieved some unique distinction as a screenwriter

There are currently two screenwriting categories honored by the Academy, Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay. The two categories are separate because Best Adapted Screenplay honors adaptions of preexisting material, and Best Original Screenplay honors a screenplay not based upon previously published material but an original idea. The category for Best Original Screenplay was created in 1940 as a separate category from Best Story. In 1957 the Oscars combined the two categories.

Best Screenplay Oscar Facts:

  • In 2017, Jordan Peele became the first and only African American writer to win Best Original Screenplay for his film “Get Out.”
  • In 2020, Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won became the first Asian writers to win in either of the Screenplay awards for “Parasite.”
  • Woody Allen has the most nominations in the Best Original Screenplay category with 16 nominations and three wins.
  • Ben Affleck is the youngest person to win Best Original Screenplay at age 25 for “Good Will Hunting.”

So now that you have some history and background, I can delve into how Best Original Screenplay is chosen.

You know those branches I told you about? Well, each branch nominates selections for its own category. Actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, and, you got it, writers nominate writers.

A screenwriting credit must be present in the film’s legal billing to be eligible in either screenwriting category. Production companies with a writing credit aren’t eligible for consideration; only people are.

A list of all eligible screenplays in both categories is made available to all members of the Writing Branch. Then, they receive nomination ballots. Writers branch members vote in the order of their preference for five screenplays in each of the two categories. After the nominee votes are tallied, the five selections with the most votes secure the nominations. For the final vote, members from all branches vote, and the screenplay with the most votes wins.

Now, I wish I could provide you with a specific bulleted list of the types of things members are considering when they’re voting, but as far as I’ve researched, there are no specific guidelines given to the voting members of the Writers branch. The Oscars’ processes aren’t always the most transparent. Likely, I think voting comes down to each member’s preference. When a member votes on Best Original Screenplay, they’re simply considering which movie’s story they liked best and thought was the most moving, innovative, novel, needed, or interesting.

I hope you found this an interesting read on the Oscars! Hopefully, this sheds some light on how the Oscar nomination and voting process goes and what that looks like concerning the Writers branch. It will be fun to run the nominees and the resulting winner through this lens when the Oscars come around next year. Happy writing!

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