9 Screenwriting Lessons from This Year’s Oscar-Nominated Movies

Every year, just a handful of films make it to the top and win that golden statue. But all nominated films are worthwhile; all have something to teach screenwriters aspiring to the Academy Awards. 

Without further ado… the envelope, please… here are lessons from some of this year’s Oscar-nominated movies. 

Read: 91st Oscar Nominations Announced!

Fair warning: there may be some minor spoilers ahead. 

BLACK PANTHERview the script here.

7 total nominations, including Best Picture

Marvel has been trying for years for a Best Picture nom, and it finally came with Black Panther. The historic nomination is something all superhero screenwriters should make note of, because there’s a reason it happened for this movie. Black Panther isn’t your typical superhero movie. There are extended fight sequences, crazy technology and weapons, and a guy with superpowers, but the movie itself has a message. That’s not necessarily a given with superhero flicks. They’re fun, sure, but not all of them have themes that really hit home. Black Panther does. 

COLD WAR

3 total nominations, including Best Director

Pawel Pawlikowski’s epic story of love and longing set against the backdrop of the Cold War epitomizes one important lesson: historical dramas are always interesting. Pair a few compelling characters with a time period that contrasts with their personalities or their goals, and the end result is dramatic tension. While Zula and Wiktor may not have had an easy path in any time period, the fact that they met in Poland during the aftermath of WWII doesn’t help things — in fact, the historical tension is the constant throughout the movie. That underlying tension inherent to the time period enhances the story, the plot, and the characters’ decisions, making the story all the more powerful. 

THE FAVOURITEdownload the script here.

10 total nominations, including Best Picture 

Screw old-fashioned dialogue! Who needs it anyway? Not Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, who wrote a darkly funny period piece The Favourite. While the characters in the movie do indeed use some antiquated language, they aren’t bogged down by undecipherable dialogue true to real 18th century England. Instead, the dialogue is snappy, easy to follow, and, dare I say, a bit modern — which only demonstrates that audiences are more than willing to look past some historical inaccuracies if that creative choice makes the overall experience better.

GREEN BOOKdownload the script here.

5 total nominations, including Best Picture 

What is “genre”, anyway? These days, it’s difficult to peg a movie as any one particular genre. Stealing from Whitman: they contain multitudes. Green Book does this especially well this year, towing the nearly indecipherable line between drama and comedy with grace and dignity. The two main characters are multifaceted and real, which is why the screenplay works so well as a dramedy. In order to hit the highs of comedy and the lows of drama in a screenplay, it all has to be grounded in character. Otherwise, the plot (and its highs and lows) won’t land with audiences. 

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALKdownload the script here.

3 total nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay

While Beale Street didn’t get as many nominations as Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film, Moonlight, it nevertheless announces – yet again – the presence of an incredible storyteller in Hollywood. Jenkins’ latest work is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel that is chock-full of beautiful dialogue, mesmerizing sequences, and poignant scenes. It’s proof that when screenwriters really love the source material, it will show in the final product. 

MARY POPPINS RETURNSdownload the script here.

3 total nominations, including Best Original Score

With the right material, even the passage of more than half a century between the first movie and its sequel won’t deter audiences. If anything, it’ll make them want it more. Mary Poppins Returns was a hit for many reasons (the music, the cameos, Lin-Manuel Miranda… I could go on), the most important being that the sequel wasn’t dreamt up just to make more money. Yes, Mary Poppins returns, but the story about the magical nanny reappearing to help the now-adult Banks children makes complete sense, and the themes almost make more of an impact than those in the first film. 

ROMAdownload the script here.

10 total nominations, including Best Picture 

Alfonso Cuarón’s sweeping drama excels because of one characteristic: simplicity. Yes, Cuarón tapped into his own life story for inspiration, but that’s not unusual — plenty of filmmakers look to their own lives when creating movie magic. What sets Roma apart is the way Cuarón approaches a story about life. He lingers on small moments, hangs out in the everyday routines of a family and their beloved housekeeper, and doesn’t try to turn little moments into melodramatic scenes. Instead, Cuarón treats each moment in the film as important as the next. In doing so, he creates a subtly powerful movie that mimics the way people experience things in real life.

A STAR IS BORNdownload the script here.

8 total nominations, including Best Picture

Bradley Cooper’s remake of the age-old Hollywood movie A Star Is Born proves one very important thing: classic stories never stop resonating with audiences. The 2019 version of A Star Is Born features all-new music, hip 21st-century locations, and some other modernizations, but at its core, it is the same story as in the 1937, 1954, and 1976 films of the same name. And it still works. There’s something so incredibly moving about this story that has warranted three remakes in less than 100 years, and rightfully so. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with returning to classic stories, story structures, and techniques if they hold up in the present day.

VICE download the script here.

8 total nominations, including Best Picture

Though he had an extremely successful career before 2015, since the release of The Big Short Adam McKay has become known for his ability to throw form and structure out the window. It works for him, especially given his tendency to choose complex subject matter. Vice is no exception. Over the course of a 106-page screenplay, McKay breaks the fourth wall, uses board game pieces to explain Washington D.C.’s biggest players, has his main characters break out into Shakespearean dialogue, psyches out the audience by rolling credits halfway through, and kills the narrator. It’s a reminder to screenwriters everywhere that it’s never too late for a little innovation. 

FINAL TAKEAWAYS

  1. Superhero movies can’t just be about fight sequences and superpowers. There must be larger, universal themes in the story itself for it to reach that next level. 
  2. Historical dramas will never not be interesting. 
  3. Your period piece can work without period dialogue. 
  4. Ground your dramedies with strong, multifaceted characters.
  5. If you’re adapting, love your source material to pieces. 
  6. Don’t write a sequel just to write a sequel. Make sure the story you’re telling is worthwhile… even if it takes 50+ years to find the right one. 
  7. Keep it simple. Don’t brush over the small moments. 
  8. Going back to classic stories, structures, and techniques never hurt anyone (especially Bradley Cooper).  
  9. Never stop experimenting with form and structure.

Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.


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