A strange creature, the Hollywood award in strike season.
The show is going on, sort of: Audiences, critics and voters are still watching the award-worthy work even as the award-worthy creators refuse to make more of it. The for-your-consideration campaigns and journalistic access-grubbing lurch forward awkwardly even as ceremonies get pushed back. The screenwriters and actors remain proud of the work they’ve done, unproud of how they’ve been compensated to do it recently, and in the running to win all the same.
This year, while contemplating navigating the bramble of union strike rules about what’s promotable during Hollywood’s dual writer-actor stoppages, the longtime Humanitas Prizes for screenwriters encountered an additional complication. The hotel it has recently used for the ceremony, the Beverly Hilton, has been targeted for strike by the hospitality workers of Unite Here Local 11.
The Humanitas nonprofit, which is run by and for writers, and which annually “honors and empowers film and television writers whose work explores the human condition in a nuanced, meaningful way,” was not about to risk crossing a picket line. But how was the organization going to give out the organization’s $10,000-per-award cash prizes to striking winners who probably could use the money?
The labor-friendly answer: Skip the usual hotel ceremony, give out the award money anyway and let the newspaper announce the winners.
“We’re here to champion and empower writers, but specifically writers working on stories that aren’t necessarily courted by the marketplace,” said Humanitas executive director Michelle Franke. This year, with writers out of work and marching on the studios, “It’s less important to us this year what presentation of those awards look like.”
Pointedly, the organization is giving its annual Voice for Change award, created “to celebrate those who take risks and stand up for ideals that benefit society,” to the Writers Guild of America, which recently passed the 100-day mark on the picket lines.
“There’s a certain fearful symmetry there that an organization that honors the dignity of humanity, the importance of human rights, the importance of creative storytelling, is honoring us at a time when our storytelling and creativity is being threatened by artificial intelligence,” said Writers Guild of America East President Michael Winship.
“This is really an honor, because I think the guild really deserves it,” said Writers Guild of America West President Meredith Stiehm. “There’s a lot of courage in these people, people in staff and in leadership. That’s how you get change.”
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The Humanitas Prizes are not one of Hollywood’s headliner awards — they aren’t televised — but they’re respected in the screenwriting community and have been retooling to meet the needs of the modern era while staying true to the organization’s unique humanist roots.
Lest the Latin branding send the wrong signal, today’s Humanitas is avowedly secular and has no connection to the Catholic Church. But the awards were founded in 1974 by the most peculiar sort of hyphenate: a 6-foot-7 priest-producer named Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser of the church’s Paulist Fathers society.
Kieser, who died in 2000, believed “we become fulfilled persons through a long and arduous process of humanization” and thought TV could teach us all how to love. Kieser also enjoyed show business, had famous friends and was no stranger to the power breakfast. While swimming in the Pacific Ocean one day, he came up with the idea for a screenwriting prize “to elevate the moral tone of the creations” (scripts) “of the most significant component” (screenwriters) “of the most significant industry” (Hollywood) “in the United States,” Kieser wrote in his autobiography, “Hollywood Priest.”
The decision to nudge writers in particular to produce more thoughtful work wasn’t an accident, according to Kieser. In the beginning was the Word, after all.
With a seed donation of $10,000 from the Lilly Foundation, Kieser incorporated Humanitas in L.A. County “to increase public awareness of the insights of the Judaic-Christian vision” in the media, ditching an early idea to name the awards after Mahatma Gandhi. (Kieser himself initially thought the name Humanitas sounded too Catholic for the broader vision he was pursuing.) Kieser became known as a bit of an interfaith arm-twister when it came to pestering Hollywood talent to participate. “There’s a story that goes around that the thing that makes [the Humanitas Prizes succeed] is the Irish and Jewish capacity for guilt and my Teutonic insensitivity to inflict it,” Kieser said later.
In Humanitas’ earlier years, Kieser’s influence gave the organization a unique flair in the broader Hollywood landscape. “Awards, they’re really invented by the Spanx industry, because there’s no way to fit into any outfit you actually want to be photographed in,” said Amy Sherman-Palladino, showrunner of Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
Sherman-Palladino’s first encounter with Humanitas, when she was nominated for a prize for writing on the 1990s sitcom “Roseanne,” was different. “They had a panel or some sort of gathering after the awards to talk to a group of young writers, aspiring writers or something,” said Sherman-Palladino. “It was us, a folding table, a priest, in a not huge room. It is interesting to see what it developed into, because it’s a little fancy.”
At more recent awards banquets, nominees might still have seen “one or two nuns walking around” who have been part of Humanitas for a long time, said current board president Jenny Bicks, showrunner of Fox’s “Welcome to Flatch.” But in the decades since Kieser’s death, the organization has “evolved,” Bicks said: “We never see it as a religious organization. We know it was founded by Father Bud, but we don’t approach any of these scenarios by looking at what happened in the Bible. We’re just celebrating stories. By the way, the Bible had some great stories.”
What makes a script Humanitas-worthy can seem a little vague, though a Humanitas awards guide on “The Art of Screenwriting” offers criteria including technical structure like plotting and dialogue as well as themes on the “human condition,” defined as “all of the characteristics and key events that compose the essentials of human existence, including birth, growth, emotion, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.”
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Guillermo del Toro and Patrick McHale won this year’s Humanitas prize for family feature film for writing “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” a reworking of the classic folk tale about a toy that comes to life. “It’s amazing, especially this sort of award, where it feels like it has more meaning,” said McHale. The pair’s unique take focuses less on Pinocchio’s journey to become a real boy than Geppetto’s journey to become a father.
“This and ‘Frankenstein’ have been sort of pillars for me since I was a kid, you know? I think they are very similar stories, at least two sides of a coin, and they both deal with children that are left astray to find out the meaning of the world and what it is to be human, through their own devices,” said Del Toro, who was educated in Jesuit schools. “Having been raised as a Catholic, both stories have immense resonance with fundamental questions — what is it that makes us human, what is the condition that makes life precious — and the imagery in both movies and both stories is really pregnant with Catholic undertones and meanings.”
Other Humanitas winners tell less socially traditional stories.
Craig Mazin won the drama teleplay prize for the “Long, Long Time” episode of HBO’s “The Last of Us,” about two gay men who fall in love during a pandemic that kills most of the planet’s population. “This episode was one that very much came from a personal place,” Mazin said. “Sometimes people will ask me, ‘Exactly how is that? You’re not a gay man.’ My response is: ‘Correct, but I am a middle-aged person who is in a committed relationship, and has been for a long, long time.’ ... Writing, by definition, is an exercise in writing about people who are not yourself.”
Sherman-Palladino won the Humanitas Prize this year for comedy teleplay for the series finale of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which completes the story of comedian Miriam “Midge” Maisel’s lifelong friendship with talent manager Susie Myerson — a different sort of love story. “Show business can be lonely and can be wonderful, but at the end of the day, in a sense they both ended up alone, but both ended up with each other, the most important person in their life,” Sherman-Palladino said. “It wasn’t a husband or a girlfriend or a wife. It was a friendship, a bond between these two women, a not-that-hidden heartbeat of the whole show.”
Ondi Timoner won the documentary prize for “Last Flight Home,” about her terminally ill father‘s decision in 2021 to exercise California’s End of Life Option Act to die by lethal medication, which comes with a 15-day waiting period. She had started filming her father’s final days as a way to fight against her fear that she would forget him; while shooting, she realized the film should be a documentary.
Timoner is working on her next project about a hospice for people who are homeless called the Inn Between. “I got one grant for ‘The Inn Between,’ and we’re pretty much out of money. I’m going out of pocket right now,” Timoner said, adding that she’s also been invited to speak to schools and legislatures around the world about aid-in-dying legislation. “This [award] money will go directly to what we’re doing right now.”
Humanitas’ projects go beyond awards. This fall, with support from the Muriel Pollia Foundation, Humanitas is going to introduce a TV writing workshop for high school students called the Writers Room.
The organization also has delivered more than 1,200 grocery cards to Writers Guild of America members around the U.S. to help tide them through the strike.
“We’re trying on a bunch of levels to be there for writers, not just for handing out an award once a year, but all of our other programs,” Bicks said. “We can’t employ writers, but we can certainly reward them and educate them and keep them fed.”
“We are simply celebrating writing, and during the writers’ strike, that’s something I don’t want to forget about it,” said David Shore, creator of “House,” showrunner of ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and a Humanitas board member who also sits on the Writers Guild’s negotiating committee. “The whole point of the strike is that writing is paramount.”
In lieu of a hotel ceremony, Humanitas is set to hold an awards party Nov. 2 at the Avalon in Hollywood.
The nominees and winners of this year’s other Humanitas Prizes can be seen here.