Why Barbie Is Not an Original Screenplay: The Flawed Oscars Strategy of WB
As the awards season draws near, Warner Bros. Pictures is promoting its blockbuster Barbie movie as a strong contender for the Oscars 2024, but the studio is aiming for the wrong category.
The film’s star Margot Robbie and director Greta Gerwig are both familiar with the Academy Awards. Gerwig has received three nominations — two for her work on Lady Bird as a writer and director, and one for writing the 2019 version of Little Women. Her co-writer Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story) is also an Oscar nominee. Therefore, it is understandable that Warner Bros. wants to launch an Oscars campaign for Gerwig and Baumbach, but the studio is still pursuing the wrong category.
The Academy Awards have two categories for writing: Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay. The latter is for films that are based on other sources of storytelling, such as books, plays, comics, games, or other media.
However, the Best Adapted Screenplay category also includes scripts that are derived from any existing intellectual property (IP) in general. Therefore, even though Barbie is a well-known IP owned by Mattel, Warner Bros. is campaigning for the film to receive a Best Original Screenplay nomination.
Barbie: An Original or Adapted Screenplay?
Barbie clearly belongs to the Best Adapted Screenplay category. Gerwig and Baumbach used Mattel’s existing property and, following Warner Bros.’ request, transformed the character and her world into a full-length movie.
Of course, Barbie took an unexpected turn: the main doll faces an existential crisis and ends up in the human world, among other things. The co-writers’ approach is original, and it is not the conventional one, but that does not make it eligible for the Best Original Screenplay category.
Warner Bros. aims to extend the record-breaking success of Barbie, its $1.4 billion box office hit, with multiple Oscar nominations. The studio wants to increase the chances of Gerwig and Baumbach winning an award, and has rightly noticed that the Best Adapted Screenplay category is very competitive.
Barbie has to compete with major rivals like Killers of the Flower Moon, Poor Things, and Oppenheimer. The Best Original Screenplay category seems to offer more opportunities for Barbie, though Past Lives is a strong challenger.
A controversial view about the Barbie movie is that it does not qualify for Warner Bros.’ chosen Oscars category. According to the general criteria for the two screenplay categories, it is difficult to justify how Barbie can be nominated for a Best Original Screenplay award.
However, it may depend on the interpretation of the words. The Barbie movie (and script) states that it is “based on Barbie by Mattel.” The film is not adapting a pre-existing book to the screen; it is using the toy-maker’s doll as its main character. But is such an ambiguity enough to support Warner Bros.’ Oscars campaign?
Regarding this issue, Variety notes that 2014’s The Lego Movie, which features animated versions of real-life variations of the popular bricks, campaigned for Best Original Screenplay. In fact, The Lego Movie includes other IP that Lego itself licenses, from Batman to Gandalf. These pre-existing characters certainly complicate the matter.
While The Lego Movie is not an exact parallel to Barbie, it is probably the closest example. Moreover, the Best Original Screenplay category often includes biopics (Milk, Straight Outta Compton, etc.). While historical figures are not IP, it is hard to argue that screenplays about them are completely original.
Will Barbie win an Oscar for screenplay?
Barbie seems to have a strong chance of winning awards for costuming and production design at the 2024 Oscars. It is less clear if the blockbuster will be successful in the main categories.
The Oscar voters may not give Best Picture to Barbie, even if it gets nominated like Top Gun: Maverick. Gerwig was a Best Director nominee for Lady Bird, but she was notably excluded from the all-male field when she campaigned with Little Women.
Considering that Oscars mistake — and the fact that Gerwig always delivers — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) voting body may want to acknowledge the writer/director in some way. It seems that films that are popular but not top-prize winners often receive writing awards. However, there is also a possibility that voters will not choose Barbie for Best Original Screenplay if they think it is in the wrong category.
Despite its smart campaign strategy, Warner Bros. may end up jeopardizing its own movie’s chances of winning any writing Oscars.
About Barbie (2023)
Barbie is an upcoming film directed by Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach. It is based on the eponymous fashion doll line by Mattel, and serves as the franchise’s first live-action film adaptation after several computer-animated direct-to-video and streaming television films.
The film stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken respectively. Barbie released in the United States and United Kingdom on July 21, 2023, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.