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I often see on facebook, as well as other media, screenwriters asking, how do I write a great screenplay? Or I see gurus offering advice on how to write a great screenplay or, falling short of that, how to write an Oscar nominated screenplay. Well, I am here to tell you the truth.
I’m sorry to have to break it to you, but you just can’t. No matter what people tell you, you can’t and they can’t. I mean, yeah, they say they can, but, hell, I could say the words as well, but that doesn’t mean I can help you do it.
There are reasons for this of course. A screenplay gets a nomination for an Oscar for all sorts of reasons, with the quality of the screenplay being only one, and sometimes the least important one, of how this process happens. One of the myths (though I don’t believe enough people actually believe this, but you never know) is that screenplays, like the other fields, just naturally get voted for simply because they are the best, they are the cream of the crop, and cream rises to the top.
And I have the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge in my back pocket.
And for proof, I give you Love Story, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, …And Justice for All, and last year’s Greenbook (the most edgy film about race relations of 1972).
Screenplays, like all the Oscar and other award group movies, tend to get nominations if: you have a producer and distributor willing to spend a small (ha, small, right) fortune on an Oscar campaign; they open it at the right time of the year (getting a movie nominated in the non-technical fields is almost impossible if it opens earlier than September, and even more difficult if it opens earlier than that); and there is enough buzz, critical and otherwise (film fests can help here) before and as the film opens.
There are exceptions to the early opening rule. Get Out was a huge one, opening in February of its year. It also is a horror film, which is a genre difficult to get noticed at awards time no matter when it opens. But here, the Oscar campaign commenced almost simultaneously with its release and it never let up. It was also popular enough with the audience and the critics to give the campaign that much more energy to get the awards buzz going throughout the year.
This year, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood opened in July. But that is a movie by Tarantino. And the Oscar campaign really began long before the movie even opened.
Movies of high quality do get through. Last year, First Reformed, written by Paul Schrader, got an Oscar nomination for original screenplay. But Schrader is considered one of the finest screenwriters working in Hollywood and the movie got much critical acclaim, which helped with the Oscar campaign, so that the screenplay did manage to sneak in. (Ethan Hawke, however, did not manage to get into the Best Actor field.)
So how do you write an Oscar nominated screenplay? As I said, you can’t. You can write one and if all the various factors come together just right (and these are factors the writer has absolutely no control over), then you might, but only might, get one. But you can’t write that. You can only write the screenplay.
Writing a great screenplay is actually probably easier, but that’s because greatness in art is something that isn’t dependent on how much money a movie makes, how many awards it receives, how it is received at the time, or factors like that. The only determining factor in whether a screenplay is great is time, with the irony that the author may very well be dead long before the film is ensconced in the pantheon of greatness.
Since greatness in a screenplay isn’t dependent on those factors, what factors is it dependent on? The intrinsic quality of the script helps. Bad screenplays almost never are considered great no matter how much time has passed.
But the most important ingredients that will help in this area is the author writing their vision, writing something that really means something to them, that is original and unique. And if the author succeeds in writing a good screenplay with those qualities (because you can actually write your vision and do everything else I mentioned and still fall short-), it may one day achieve greatness.
However, at the same time, such screenplays can be much harder to get greenlit in the United States.
About the only thing a guru can really do to help here is to guide you in making your script the best it can possibly be. They might be able to give some insight into marketability and such, but generally speaking, when it comes to that, to paraphrase the old saw, nobody in Hollywood knows anything (if they did, they wouldn’t be making any flop movies).
But nobody can write a great screenplay or write an Oscar nominated screenplay. And no one can teach you how to do it. That’s just not the way the system, or life, works.