They concern the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences two screenwriting prizes, which have not been given to a woman in 12 years – a 22-statuette streak that is the longest drought among the top-tier awards. This year, there’s a strong chance to break the streak via Greta Gerwig, a frontrunner in the adapted screenplay category for her film “Little Women."
“I think if she wins, it has great meaning,” said Pat Mitchell, the activist and former PBS president who co-chairs the D.C.-based Women’s Media Center.“And if she loses? Well, that has great meaning, too.”
Screenwriting prizes offer a unique portal to modern Hollywood. Though well regarded, they don’t come with the same hurdles as the directing world, in which there are fewer jobs, often doled out frugally by male executives. And with 10 nominees and two winners each year, selected from a deep pool of movies by men and women, adapted and original screenplay are among the few categories where the field would seem closer to level — a rare respite amid a host of diversity challenges.
Yet despite numerous recent social movements, the realm has not seen a female winner since Diablo Cody triumphed for her zeitgeist-defining “Juno” in 2008. That streak is longer even than that of the long-underrepresented director category, which saw a female winner in 2010. (An all-male director field this year has provoked an outcry.)
In fact, it is a long spell even within the writing categories themselves — one has to go back to 1979 to find a comparable stretch. (That year, Nancy Dowd won for “Coming Home,” finally breaking a 23-year drought.)
As the Harvey Weinstein trial intensifies and gender casts a shadow over the Democratic presidential contest, Sunday’s prize has become a fraught symbol of whether the film industry is as willing to embrace diversity as it claims — or whether it’s actually regressing.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about why, in a moment of supposed enlightenment, people in the academy are gravitating away from films written by women,” said Guy Lodge, a U.K.-based critic and pundit whose Twitter thread on the topic this week spurred intense debate. “And what I believe is that screenwriting categories give away an unconscious bias. What they say is that in a moment of great awareness of patriarchal dominance, this is that system’s quiet attempt to resist: ’You can be nominated. But you can’t win.'”
Gerwig hopes to change that. The filmmaker, 36, has received many plaudits for her time-fractured take on the Louisa May Alcott classic. She had been considered a strong favorite by Oscar polling sites — until “Jojo Rabbit” writer-director Taika Waititi won the precursor Writers Guild Award last weekend.
Gerwig, via a publicist, declined to comment.
Another woman, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is nominated for original screenplay for “1917,” a male-dominated war picture she wrote with director Sam Mendes, but the script is not a favorite to win.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Well before the equal-rights movement, screenplay categories shone a light on what was possible — female screenwriters had eight wins by 1955. A burst of wins for women between 2003 and 2007 — three out of 10 prizes — hinted at an equitable 21st century too. Then the dry spell began — 22 prizes given, 22 taken home by men.
According to a report this week by the Women’s Media Center, the number of female academy nominees outside acting categories has gone up recently, from 18 percent in 2006 to 30 percent this year.
Yet the number of screenwriting nominations for women has actually gone down over this period. Women held 25 percent of all writing nominations in the film-release years of 2006 and 2007. But the figure has slipped to 20 percent in the past two years, according to a Post review of nominations. This has happened despite efforts by the academy to diversify, including in writer categories.
Equally indicative of the backslide, activists say, is that women were once regularly nominated for all-female work. Of the 11 nominations that female screenwriters received between 2000 and 2011, eight were for scripts written exclusively by women.
But the honors since have mostly been shared with men. Of the nine women nominated for screenwriting Oscars since 2016, seven of them had male co-writers. The other two nominations went to Gerwig.
“The message from the academy is clear: you need a man to help you or your script isn’t worthwhile,” said Naomi McDougall Jones, a screenwriter and activist who this month has published the book “The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood,” about misogyny in the entertainment power structure.
Experts say this is an industry as well as an awards issue; women continue to have a hard time getting hired or having their screenplays bought. According to the most recent UCLA Diversity Report, the share of female screenwriters on all theatrical movies slipped from a lowly 14.1 percent in 2011 to an even lower 12.6 percent in 2017.
In contrast, female directors, also highly under-represented, were at 12.6 percent in 2017. But that figure has at least tripled, from an especially dismal 4.1 percent in 2011.
Still, many activists say the academy cannot simply blame the industry for the lack of wins. The past 12 years, they note, have been rife with well-regarded female-penned films — “Hidden Figures,” Room,” Carol,” “Winter’s Bone,” “Lady Bird,” District 9,” “Gone Girl,” “The Big Sick” “Inside Out” and “The Favourite,” to name just a few.
The 2020 crop was particularly strong, they note. “This year’s oversight at the Oscars was especially egregious because of a bounty of great films from women — ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,’ ‘Queen & Slim,' ‘Portrait of a Lady On Fire,’ 'Honey Boy,’ ‘Booksmart,’” McDougall said. All but two were written by women.
Advocates say it is not simply about losing out on prizes. A lack of awards recognition, they say, is part of a troubling treadmill in which women aren’t given enough prestigious screenwriting jobs, then aren’t awarded prizes, then in turn can’t get prestigious jobs.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Teresa Boyer, an expert in social equity and gender economics and founding director of the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova University. “Not seeing women [on the podium] leads to them not getting opportunities, which leads to not seeing women [on the podium] again."
That is especially true in screenwriting, where jobs can depend on seals of approval by directors and producers— a seal often given only to someone with awards.
The high stakes may go beyond those currently in Hollywood.
“I think when Diablo Cody won 12 years ago she did so as a bit of a rebel, an outcast, someone who didn’t look like what some people think Hollywood screenwriters look like,” Lodge said. “And that sent a message to a lot young women they could be screenwriters too.” He said he believed Gerwig could serve the same role this year.
Still, some caution against overstating the importance of a victory.
“I think we’ve seen this before,” said Villanova’s Boyer. “We have a reckoning and then one person wins and everyone says, ‘well, we’re done now.’ And before you know it 12 years go by."