HOW DO I WRITE A GREAT SCREENPLAY, OR BARRING THAT, AN ACADEMY AWARD WINNING SCREENPLAY? SPOILER: YOU CAN’T.


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Ever wonder what a reader for a contest or agency thinks when he reads your screenplay?  Check out the second edition of my screenwriting book, More Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader published on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07GD1XP9Y

Finally, I have published two collections of short stories, The Starving Artists and other stories, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07FS91CKJ and The Five Corporations and the One True Church and other stories, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07KY5Z3CF

 

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.

 

You can’t.

 

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.

 

 

The 2019 Howies


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First a word from our sponsor:

Check out my Script Consultation Services at http://ow.ly/HPxKE. I offer several

types of service. Testimonials can be found at the blog entry.

Ever wonder what a reader for a contest or agency thinks when he reads your screenplay?  Check out the second edition of my screenwriting book, More Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader published on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07GD1XP9Y

Finally, I have published two collections of short stories, The Starving Artists and other stories, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07FS91CKJ and The Five Corporations and the One True Church and other stories, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07KY5Z3CF

It is the time again to list the best films of the year and give out my awards for The Howies. Please keep your thank you speeches to a reasonable length or the orchestra will play you off.

 

2019 was an odd year for films. For the first half, even up to September, it was on of the worst years in movies in ages. There seemed little to nothing to like and I despaired of even wanting to create a year end list.

 

Then something happened. We reached what it is now called in the industry the Oscar season or the Awards season, when the movies that are released are the ones the distributors and production companies believe have the best chance of doing well at the various award ceremonies creeping up on us-especially the Oscars.

 

Now that in and of itself is no guarantee of quality in film. The Oscars (and other awards that are outside the many critical societies), are generally not the best movies of the year, but the best in middle-brow entertainment with some edginess sneaking in. I don’t look at the Oscars to find out the great films of the year, but to tell me something about Hollywood and the films that are getting made. I mean, c’mon, Greenbook, the edgiest movie on race relations of 1972, won last year and that should tell you everything you need to know.

 

But somehow this year the best of the year also seems to correspond with the movies that are the strongest contenders for awards. This is a rare event, rarer than all the planets lining up together I would almost venture. Is something in the air or is it just serendipity? I suspect the latter. But happy I am with awards seasons this year.

 

This doesn’t mean I liked every one of these films. You will find a noticeable absence of The Irishman (poor Scorcese and De Niro-Scorcese thought he had his second Oscar guaranteed and De Niro thought he definitely had another nomination to notch onto his belt-but as of this writing-things can change-both look to be sorely disappointed). But generally speaking, this time around the end of year awards’ films are also of generally high quality. Praise the lord and pass the ammunition.

 

I have written this in another blog post, but I will repeat. 2019 may be one of the most important years in the new millennium when it comes to American films. Not only has Netflix revolutionized the making and distributing of movies (even more so than last year with Roma), their slate of films equaled that of many or most studios and independent production companies.

 

But also, the new generation of filmmakers have definitely staked their ground. They have arrived and have had major movies that have been received well critically; made a lot of money; are up for awards; or some combination of the above. From Under the Silver Lake, to the Lighthouse, to Midsommer, to The Last Black Man in San Francisco, to Queen and Slim, to You Were Never Really Here, to Uncut Gems, to the Farewell, to Little Women: they’re here, they’re your peer, get used to it.

 

As a final note, I have missed many films this year for various reasons. Sometimes financial, but more often, as in these last six weeks, due to some sort of cold or flu I simply can’t get rid of. So I have failed to see what I understand are some strong films. Also, since AFI now costs money to attend, I did not see a number of films I would normally have seen there.

 

So now on to my list of the best of the best. Seeing as it’s my awards show, I don’t have to limit myself to a certain set of number of entries in each category. I only do the major top categories, plus a couple of special ones. So on to the 2019 Howies:

 

Best Picture: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

The remainder in alphabetical order:

1917

Jojo Rabbit

Joker

Little Women

Marriage Story

Pain and Glory

Parasite

Transit

Uncut Gems

 

Best Director: Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

The remainder in alphabetical order:

Bong Joon-ho – Parasite

Greta Gerwig – Little Women

Todd Philips – Joker

Sam Mendez – 1917

Benny and Josh Safdie – Uncut Gems

Taiki Waititi – Jojo Rabbit

 

Best Actress: Renee Zellweger – Judy

The remainder in alphabetical order:

Awkwafina – The Farewell

Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story/Jojo Rabbit

Saoirse Ronan – Little Women

Charlize Theron – Bombshell

Zhao Tao – Ash is the Purest White

 

Best Actor – Joaquin Phoenix – Joker

The remainder in alphabetical order: (an extraordinary year for male performances)

Antonio Banderas – Pain and Glory

Roman Griffin Davis – Jojo Rabbit

Leonardo DiCaprio – Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Adam Driver – Marriage Story/The Report

Eddie Murphy – Dolemite is My Name

Jonathan Pryce – The Two Popes

Adam Sandler – Uncut Gems

 

Best Supporting Actress: Margot Robbie – Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

The remainder in alphabetical order:

Kathy Bates – Richard Jewell

Annette Benning – The Report

Da-Vine Joy Randolph – Dolemite is My Name

Shuzhen Zhao – The Farewell

 

Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

The remainder in alphabetical order:

John Lithgow – Bombshell

Al Pacino – The Irishman

Song Kang-ho – Parasite

Taika Waititi – Jojo Rabbit

 

Best Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

The remainder in alphabetical order:

Pedro Almodovar – Pain and Glory

Noah Baumbach – Marriage Story

Boon Joon-ho, Jin Won-han – Parasite

Ronald Brownstein, Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie – Uncut Gems

Greta Gerwig – Little Women

Todd Phillips, Scott Silver – Joker

Taika Waititi – Jojo Rabbit

 

Best Ensemble: Jojo Rabbit, Little Women, Marriage Story, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Parasite

 

Special Awards:

Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood – Costumes, Production Design

1917 – Cinematography

Little Women – Costumes, Production Design

Jojo Rabbit – Costumes, Production Design

Joker – Production Design

 

Screenwriting and Little Women


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First a word from our sponsor:

Check out my Script Consultation Services at http://ow.ly/HPxKE. I offer several types of service. Testimonials can be found at the blog entry.

Ever wonder what a reader for a contest or agency thinks when he reads your screenplay?  Check out the second edition of my screenwriting book, More Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader published on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07GD1XP9Y

Finally, I have published two collections of short stories, The Starving Artists and other stories, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07FS91CKJ and The Five Corporations and the One True Church and other stories, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07KY5Z3CF

If you want to see what a difference a screenwriter and a director can make to a movie, it might behoove you to see all four versions of Little Women, 1933, 1949, 1994 and 2019.

 

The ranking quality of the films are generally thus: the 2019 version is the best, then 1994, closely, closely followed by 1933, with 1949 a distant fourth. And I think there are reasons for this, which lie in the areas of both directing and screenwriting. In the end, what makes the 2019 version the best is that it is the best directed combined with the best screenplay. The 1994 and 1933 versions are almost as well directed, but the screenplays are not nearly as strong. And the 1949 suffers from just not being that good in either category (it’s all right, but that’s about it).

 

One place to see the difference in the direction is to look at the first party scenes at the Laurence’s. In the 1949 version, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, this scene is incredibly limp and boring. It really sags. And it’s a reflection of the movie as a whole. It never really comes alive.

 

However, look at the same scenes in the 1994 version, directed by Gillian Armstrong, and the 1933 version, directed by George Cukor (who always had a knack for this sort of storytelling), and one can instantly see the difference. These scenes are far more alive and exciting.

 

At the same time, we then get to the party scene in Greta Gerwig’s version of 2019 (she both wrote and directed), and this scene soars. In fact, the earlier dance scene after the theater is the place where this version really takes off. But in the party at the Laurence’s, it is so exciting and riveting, it is a signal of the quality that is to come.

 

At the same time, I still maintain that in the end, what ultimately makes Gerwig’s version the best is the superb screenplay (without it, I suggest the film, though still enjoyable and well received, might not be regarded as the best of the top three-probably just as good). It is far richer with more vibrant and more deeply developed characters. Where characters like Aunt May and Mr. Laurence are sorely lacking in early versions, Gerwig has made characters like these pop out and stand on their own by giving them more time and development. She even introduces a new character, the crusty curmudgeon of a publisher that Jo has to battle to become the artist she wants to become, who also has a vibrancy about him.

 

Alas, or it may be inevitable, she is not able to do more with Mr. March than in any earlier version. He has no real character and doesn’t seem to have any real purpose in the story except to show up in time to preside over the marriage of his daughter (he’s a minister). After that, he seems to disappear. And not only that, he is never missed.

 

Gerwig has also taken the feminism of the 1994 version and gone much further with it. It is very modern in its psychology of women’s role in society and what they have to do to become their own persons and achieve each their goals.

 

And she has given it a non-linear structure which, for me, further deepens the emotions of the film (some didn’t like this aspect of the film, but for me it is one of the ingredients that raise it above the other incarnations).

 

The earlier versions have screenplays by Robin Swicord (1994); Andrew Solt, Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman (1949); and Sara Y. Mason and Victor Heerman (1933)-I don’t know if Mason and Heerman actually worked on the 1949 version, or just get credit because much of their original screenplay was used. But of the group, Swicord is the next strongest, followed by Mason and Heerman (1933), and a the one in 1949 (the weakest, possibly because the directing is the weakest).

 

So for me, the real triumph of this new version of the Alcott classic is the superior and remarkable screenplay. And writers should perhaps take note of just how important they can actually be, if allowed, to projects like this.

The Best Films of the New Millennium (2000-2019)


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First a word from our sponsor:

Check out my Script Consultation Services at http://ow.ly/HPxKE. I offer several types of service. Testimonials can be found at the blog entry.

Ever wonder what a reader for a contest or agency thinks when he reads your screenplay?  Check out the second edition of my screenwriting book, More Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader published on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07GD1XP9Y

Finally, I have published two collections of short stories, The Starving Artists and other stories, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07FS91CKJ and The Five Corporations and the One True Church and other stories, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07KY5Z3CF

I have seen several postings regarding the best films of the first two decades of the new millennium.  This seemed like such a daunting task that I wasn’t sure I wanted to even try it. But I finally decided to join the fray. I have listed the best movies of each year from 2000 to 2019.

 

2000

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Code Unknown

 

2001

Mulholland Drive

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

 

2002

Talk to Her

The Son

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

 

2003

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Kill Bill, Vol. 1

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring

 

2004

Bad Education

Downfall

Primer

 

2005

Cache

Mysterious Skin

Memories of Murder

 

2006

United 93

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Pan’s Labyrinth

 

2007

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

Once

Zodiac

Secret Sunshine

 

2008

Reprise

The Chaser

The Good, the Bad and the Weird

 

2009 (a particularly strong year)

Tokyo Sonata

Summer Hours

In the Loop

Inglorious Basterds

A Prophet

City of Life and Death

 

2010

Mother

The Killer Inside Me

White Material

 

2011

Pina

Of Gods and Men

A Separation

 

2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Amour

Holy Motors

 

2013

Reality

Stranger by the Lake

Upstream Color

The Great Beauty

 

2014

Under the Skin

Wild Tales

Ida

Nightcrawler

 

2015

Son of Saul

The Lobster

Carol

 

2016

The Handmaiden

Manchester by the Sea

 

2017

BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Graduation

The Killing of a Sacred Dear

The Square

 

2018

The Death of Stalin

Burning

First Reformed

The Favourite

 

2019 (I have not seen 1917)

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Joker

Jojo Rabbit

Parasite

 

 

 

Your present that could lead to your future


 

rant and rave second

First a word from our sponsor:

Check out my Script Consultation Services at http://ow.ly/HPxKE. I offer several

types of service. Testimonials can be found at the blog entry.

Ever wonder what a reader for a contest or agency thinks when he reads your screenplay?  Check out the second edition of my screenwriting book, More Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader published on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07GD1XP9Y

Finally, I have published two collections of short stories, The Starving Artists and other stories, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07FS91CKJ and The Five Corporations and the One True Church and other stories, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07KY5Z3CF

I predict that the year 2019 may end up being one of the most important years in film in the 21st century, at least in the US. There are two primary reasons for this, one perhaps more important for screenwriters than the other.

The first is not just that Netflix has completely changed the way movies are made and distributed (they had really done that before), but that this year they really had the content to cement their hold on the film world in this area. I didn’t like all the films they made and distributed (I’m not a big The Irishman fan), but overall, their production of such films as The Marriage Story, The Two Popes, Paddleton, The King, Dolemite Is My Name, The Laundromat, I Lost My Body, and the previously referenced The Irishman equaled or exceeded those of the Studios and major independents in quality.

So this year might end up being what they would call a game changer in production and distribution of films (especially if production companies start buying movie theaters again).

However, there is an even more important develop of pertinence to screenwriters. This year marked the year of the emergence of the new generation of filmmakers. In some ways it felt before this that there might not even be a new generation at all. But this year saw an amazing number of films by 21st century filmmakers (some beginning in the last ten years) that gained a lot of attention, made a great deal of money, garnered strong critical acclaim and are awards contenders-or some combination of the above.

All in one year.

Some of these films include: Under the Silver Lake, The Farewell, Little Women, Uncut Gems, You Were Never Really Here, The Lighthouse, Queen and Slim, Just Mercy, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Clemency, Booksmart, Paddleton, Us and many others. These are the filmmakers who for the most part only recently started making films, and even more recently, making features.

We now have the new guard who is going toe to toe and quietly overcoming the previous generation of Baumbach and Tarantino and the even more previous generation of Martin Scorcese.

But what does this have to do with new screenwriters? Easy: if you want to get ahead in the business and make films, study how these filmmakers did it. They are your contemporaries. The way they make films now should be the way you should be making films. They way they got ahead in the business should be the way you are getting ahead in the business.

This is your present that could lead to your future. Learn and take advantage of it.