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'Spotlight' and 'The Big Short' take top honors at the 2016 Writers Guild Awards

One of the final bellwethers before the Academy Awards, the Writers Guild of America Awards honored Tom McCarthy's newsroom drama "Spotlight," which chronicles the Boston Globe's investigation into allegations of child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and Adam McKay's financial-crisis dramedy "The Big Short."

"Spotlight" -- which has been nominated for six Oscars, including best picture, and earned the ensemble honors at last month's Screen Actor Guild Awards -- picked up the award for original screenplay, beating out "Bridge of Spies," "Sicario," "Straight Outta Compton" and "Trainwreck." It is the front-runner for the same category at the Oscars.

Taking the stage at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, Josh Singer, who co-wrote the film with McCarthy, acknowledged both the victims at the heart of the scandal and the journalists whose reporting helped bring it to light, giving a special nod to former Globe columnist Eileen McNamara and abuse survivor Phil Saviano, both of whom were in the audience.

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"Phil's story was the one the Spotlight team found," Singer said. "He’d been trying to tell his story for a very long time. I think that story is finally now being told – and it needs to continue being told."

In the adapted screenplay category, "The Big Short" -- which has been nominated for five Oscars, including best picture, and was the big winner last month at the Producers Guild Awards – beat out "Carol," "The Martian," "Steve Jobs" and "Trumbo." It too is favored to win the Oscar.

Accepting the award alongside co-writer Charles Randolph, director McKay -- previously best known for broad comedies such as"Talladega Nights" and "Anchorman" -- nodded to the film's deadly serious underpinnings in the global economic meltdown of 2007 and 2008.

"Millions of people lost their homes," McKay said. "Millions of people lost their savings. That's really what this was about. In the end, we really just want people to take a look at how the banks have taken control of our government."

With the Academy Awards just two weeks away, Oscar watchers are looking for any indication of how voters may be leaning in what has been one of the most unpredictable years in memory. But the Writers Guild Awards are generally a rather spotty predictor of future Oscar wins, in part because guild rules render some potential contenders ineligible if the writer isn't a WGA member or the production is not a signatory with the guild. Several of this year's Oscar contenders in the screenplay categories -- including "Room," "Brooklyn," "Ex Machina" and "Inside Out" -- were not included on the WGA Awards ballots.

On the TV side, USA Network's "Mr. Robot" picked up the award for best new series, beating out "Better Call Saul," "Bloodline," "The Last Man on Earth" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."

AMC's “Mad Men” was awarded best drama series over "The Americans," "Better Call Saul," "Game of Thrones" and "Mr. Robot."

HBO's "Veep" took the award for comedy series over “Broad City," "Silicon Valley," "Transparent" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."

The #OscarsSoWhite controversy has loomed large over this awards season. Much remarked upon at earlier ceremonies such as the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Producers Guild Awards, the diversity issue arose a few times on the dais during the WGA Awards, both seriously and jokingly.

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"Our Guild should lead, not just mirror a broken system," Writers Guild of America West President Howard A. Rodman said in his remarks. "So let us pledge to imagine and realize a world where the studios value great screenwriting year-round, not just in the last two months of the calendar. Where the networks show us a world that looks like the world, not just on Thursday nights. Let's lean in on those studios and networks until inclusion is the norm, not the exception."

Presenting the award for documentary screenplay -- which went to Alex Gibney for the scientology film "Going Clear" -- comedic actor Keegan-Michael Key introduced a montage meant to honor all the past African American winners of the WGA's original and adapted screenplay awards.

The clip showed a single honoree -- Richard Pryor, who shared a WGA award for the screenplay for the 1974 comedy "Blazing Saddles" -- then cut immediately to the words "The End."

Key did a double-take and paused, as the audience laughed and applauded.

"Wow," he said. "The Oscars don't look so bad."

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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