Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the Twilight Zone. As long as almost anyone can recall, the Adapted Screenplay category has been more far more competitive than the original script slot. In general, more Academy friendly films tend to have been adapted from novels, non-fiction books, plays, articles, or from other material, with the competition for original fare proving thinner. As a result, the Original Screenplay category has quietly been one of our favorites, allowing foreign-language films, tiny indies or genre fare to pick up nominations where they'd otherwise have difficulty.
But here in 2013, we're suddenly through the looking glass, because for once, the screenplay Oscar races are weighted the other way. It's not that the Adapted category is thin—there'll be a fairly tough fight to the five nominations—it's that there are more viable Original screenplays than in any year we can remember since the 1970s. So for all the naysaying about Hollywood, we have a little proof that the days of the original picture aren't yet done.
So how does each category shape up? Adapted Screenplay does have the more obvious front-runner: John Ridley—who penned "Undercover Brother," lest we forget—was behind the screenplay of "12 Years A Slave," and seems like a good bet here, and it's an impressive adaptation job by anyone's standard. It's the only solid lock here in the category at this point, and the likely winner.
Otherwise, with the departure of "Monuments Men" from the race, we're left with five serious contenders for the other four slots (and a few other dark horses, though none look especially promising). While the film was tepidly reviewed, "August: Osage County" isn't all that different from the Pulitzer and Tony-lauded play that it's based on, so one can probably assume that Tracy Letts will pick up a nomination and could beat Ridley if it goes his way. Then again, Billy Ray is a well-liked industry veteran who's never been nominated before, and while some will murmur about its relation to reality, he'll be in the mix for "Captain Phillips."
With "The Wolf Of Wall Street" now firmly back in the race, "Boardwalk Empire" scribe Terence Winter is a strong possibility (William Monahan won for Scorsese's "The Departed" back in 2007) unless the film doesn't work, but he certainly gets the benefit of the doubt. Which leaves two serious contenders for the last slot: "Philomena" and "Before Midnight." The former has the Best Screenplay prize for Venice under its belt, and Weinstein might behind it, the latter has the precedent of a nomination for "Before Sunset" nine years ago, while Sony Pictures Classics have a good track record at getting smaller films nominated for their scripts. Our gut says "Philomena" at this point, but it's likely to go down to the wire.
Most of the other possibilities are quite a way behind the rest of the pack. "Blue Is The Warmest Colour" is viable, but we can't really see the film getting traction with the Academy, while "Labor Day" and "Mandela" have weak reviews to fight against. Pixar has a good track record in screenplay nominations, but it's hard to see "Monsters University" making headway here, while regardless of whether "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" cracks into the Best Picture race, the script by Steve Conrad seems like a longer shot. We'll see at AFI if "Lone Survivor" is Oscar material, but it'll have to be exceptional to break in here, given that it's not really the kind of film that's prized for its script. Lastly while we liked "Short Term 12," its screenwriting-manual script is its weakest link, even if the film was likely to make more of an impression with the Academy, which it probably won't.