The prize was established in 1974 by the late Rev. Ellwood "Bud" Kaiser "to encourage, stimulate and sustain writers in their humanizing task and to give them the recognition they deserve." Since then, the organization has handed out 200 prizes and distributed more than $2 million in prize money to movie and TV writers.
The list of winners includes Alan Alda ("M*A*S*H"), Steven Bochco ("Hill Street Blues"), Tim Robbins ("Dead Man Walking"), Aaron Sorkin ("Sports Night," "The West Wing") and Steve Zaillian ("Schindler's List").
This year's nominated writers will compete for $130,000 in prize money to be distributed when the 28th Humanitas Prizes are presented later this month.
That's a pittance, compared to the millions that studios and networks spend campaigning for Oscars and Emmys -- especially when you divide it eight ways, to reflect the number of Humanitas Prize categories. But the Rev. Frank Desiderio, who succeeded Kaiser as president of the Humanitas Prize, said writers who submit their work for the prize are not mainly in it for the money.
"I think the writers and the producers of the shows see a strong value in winning the prize for the prestige that comes with it," he said. "They can also go to the networks or studios that they're working for and say, 'Look, not only am I doing good work in the aesthetic sense but also the values of the work are being recognized.'"
Desiderio recalled a time when Tom Fontana -- a producer of the NBC drama "Homicide: Life on the Street" -- used the show's Humanitas Prize as leverage to convince the network to keep the show on the air despite poor ratings.
Even though the amount of prize money is relatively modest, Desiderio said it can mean a lot to a writer.
"The feature film and long-form writers, they get well paid," he said, "but some of the other writers -- independent feature writers and some children's program writers -- if they're just breaking in, the money really does make a difference. I've had writers tell me it helped pay the mortgage that year."
As much as any other consideration, the prize is a real-world version of the gold star that teachers hand out to prize students in elementary school -- with a similar effect of validating the effort and encouraging the recipient with positive reinforcement.
"Instead of the gold star we give them the award and a check," said Desiderio. "We want writers, especially young writers, to know that we're trying to sustain them in their work."
The judging is done mainly by a board of directors made up of writers and producers who were young once themselves.
"What we try and do is pick people who are well respected in the industry for being both successful writer-producers as well as being good, ethical people," said Desiderio.
The board includes such Hollywood success stories as Fontana, Zaillian, Gary David Goldberg ("Family Ties," "Spin City"), Arthur Hiller ("The Hospital," "Love Story") and David E. Kelley ("Boston Public," "The Practice"). It also includes Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick ("Family," "thirtysomething').
Desiderio said that when they're judging the writing each year, the board of directors tend to reward complexity more than simplistic approaches to dealing with the human condition.
"They realize that oftentimes in good writing, there's not going to be a black and white, good vs. evil, that there is going to be some ambiguity." he said, "But within the ambiguity, there is some sort of important moral struggle going on."
The screenwriters of "A Beautiful Mind," "I Am Sam" and "Iris" are the finalists for this year's Humanitas Prizes, which will be presented June 25 in Los Angeles.
In the TV categories, HBO took the most nominations with three. ABC, ABC Family, CBS and NBC had two each.