Pete Hammond

In accepting the Best Original Screenplay award for Inception at Saturday night’s Writers Guild Awards, winner Christopher Nolan addressed the elephant in the room by noting that not all the best screenplays were eligible for the prize. The Writers Guild, as they do every year, disqualified scripts not made under Guild agreements and this year that list included four screenplays that are nominated for Oscars including The King’s Speech, Toy Story 3, Another Year, and Winter’s Bone. Nolan noted that 9 years ago, even though he was a WGA member, he was told his script (later Oscar nominated) Memento would not be eligible for a WGA award. Nolan alluded to those “screenplays not considered but I am not going to name them for fear of boosting their chances at other shows”. He said that, hopefully, next year all scripts will be eligible “without qualification”.

I talked to WGA President John Wells at the pre-show reception about this thorny issue and he said that The Weinstein Company did in fact want to try and make King’s Speech eligible retroactively but that the producers of the film balked at the costs. (Wells’ recent film The Company Men was distributed by TWC.) He said the practice of disqualifying screenplays that don’t meet Guild production standards is one that comes up time and again at WGA Board meetings but the guild feels it’s a good way of convincing some productions to sign on to the Basic Agreement. I think they ought to reconsider and not penalize members by locking them out of the awards competition. [FYI, Nikki disagrees with me strenuously!]

Nolan’s Inception was kind of a surprise winner as it was considered to be locked in a tight race for the award with The Kids Are All Right and The Fighter. It clearly benefitted from the absence of The King’s Speech, the movie that has swept all the other major guild contests. This is now Nolan’s first major Guild win.

Aaron Sorkin’s  Adapted Screenplay win for The Social Network was no surprise and gave the Sony Pictures contingent present, including studio boss Amy Pascal, something to cheer about for a change after being on the losing end at other Guild shows the previous two weekends. Sorkin accepted by offering a shout-out to his director: “I wrote a good screenplay, but David Fincher made a great movie.” Short of a stunning upset, Sorkin is expected to sail to victory at the Oscars as well. But the fate of his film is another question in light of The King’s Speech surging momentum.

Another other movie award also went to a Sony product: Best Documentary screenplay was won by Sony Pictures Classics’  Inside Job with its writer/director Charles Ferguson saluting SPC by saying, “They gave me final cut and they really meant it. There were very few people who went uninsulted in this film.”

The show itself was a fast moving affair with highlights including presentation of the prestigious Laurel Award for Screen going to Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) who also mentioned Fincher by noting he was having “fun” working with him on Sony’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Pascal presented him with the award (with help from a videotaped Steven Spielberg) to a standing ovation. Amy noted that Scott Rudin was to have joined her but he was recovering from a bout with pneumonia.

Another standing ovation went to Murphy Brown creator Diane English who won the Laurel Award for Television.  She ended her sharp remarks by targeting a network: “CBS, if Sarah Palin runs for President, I am begging you to bring my show back. Six episodes is all I need.”

Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet hosted the West Coast show, exec produced by Spike Jones, Jr (again), while The Daily Show With Jon Stewart correspondent Kristen Schaal hosted back east. See the WGAE’s opening musical number here. The show got off to a rousing start with a specialty number entitled, “Write it Gay”. (One of their bits in which they called out various writers in the crowd for doing bad things ended with the line, “See you tomorrow Nikki Finke!”)

Modern technology found its way into the show, held at the Grand Ballroom of Hollywood’s Renaissance Hotel,with Paul Selvin Award winners Jez and John-Henry Butterworth accepting their special Fair Game honor via Skype and a winning writer in the Videogame category reading his prepared speech off his Blackberry. And for the first time the ceremony was streamed live online exclusively for WGA members who were given a special access code to watch at home.

TV award winners included Modern Family for Series and 30 Rock for Episodic, The Pacific for longform adaptation, and The Special Relationship for original. Mad Men picked up another two WGA honors with Best Episodic script for Erin Levy’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” and again repeating as Best Series Drama (accepted by creator/exec producer Matt Weiner who said he was surprised). It beat out HBO’s  Boardwalk Empire which did manage to win the night’s first award for New Series and was accepted on behalf on the writing team by Margaret Nagle who noted all the show’s writers had been in the business collectively for 139 years and were proud to be a part of the Guild. Boardwalk Empire is on a roll lately, also winning awards at SAG, DGA, and the Golden Globes, making it a good Emmy bet in its first season.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.