Warning: Don’t Try This at Home! (Writing an Oscar-Nominated Screenplay, That Is)

So it’s that time of year when screenwriting blogs are circulating the “best” screenplays of the year — the ones that will be nominated for Best Screenplay Oscars, or ones that were almost nominated.

I always have very mixed feelings about this, about whether these screenplays are good example for aspiring writers to read.

It’s not that these aren’t good, or even great, screenplays — many truly are (although I’d argue some of them are overrated, that critics often fall for quirkiness and gimmickry, and that it’s terribly unfair how ignored and/or under-represented comedy and genre film projects always are).

That said, very few, if any, of these screenplays were written as spec scripts (without some kind of development deal in place). And if they had been, at least by unknown and unestablished writers, they never would have been picked up by producers.

cdn.indiewire.comTrust me, every single producer in Hollywood would have turned down the screenplay to The Grand Budapest Hotel if it hadn’t been written by Wes Anderson. (I’m sure many would have turned it down even when it was written by him!)

The same is probably true for almost all the critical favorites: American Sniper, Nightcrawler, Still Alice, Foxcatcher, A Most Violent Year, Whiplash, Into the Woods, Boyhood, and Birdman.

As spec screenplays, Gone Girl, Selma, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything might have found takers as “labor of love” projects — but they all would have been very, very long shots for actual production.

Hollywood is a weird, weird animal: the very movies that insiders celebrate every year as “the best” they can do are the exact screenplays they seem least willing to actually want to read or make.

Does your screenplay have a voice-over? Forget it! Haven’t you heard that voice-overs are a plot-cheat?

Is your project in a genre that isn’t “hot” right now? Next!

Is it a period piece? Does it have an unsympathetic main character? Is there no role for a middle-aged man? Oh, and haven’t you heard that political movies don’t ever work?!

All these Oscar-contending movies broke “the rules” in big, big ways. Which is exactly what good screenwriters need to do. But it’s exactly what Hollywood, or at least the entire screenwriting establishment, is constantly telling you not to do.

Is that a contradiction? Maybe not. It takes a master screenwriter to break the rules well — and it goes without saying that most aspiring screenwriters are not masters.

A big part of being a successful screenwriter is slowly earning the right to do things differently.

But every year I am amused to see movies openly celebrated for doing things that I’ve been emphatically told all year long never to do.


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