Screenwriting 101: Three Common Features of 2017’s Awards Contenders

By October 18, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

Written by: Christopher Osterndorf

Fall is here, and in Hollywood, that means one thing: Oscar season.

Around this time every year, studios begin trotting out prestige pictures. Buzz is generated at festivals, and soon, campaigns will begin in earnest. Of course, a lot less attention is paid to the Best Screenplay race than to Best Picture or any of the acting awards. But there are trends which emerge every Oscar season that aspiring writers should pay attention to. The scripts that everyone will be talking about for the next few months will not only win prizes, but jumpstart careers, cement legacies, and predict what future awards seasons will look like too.

With that in mind, here are the trends this year which screenwriters should look out for as they begin to write their own awards bait (not to mention future Oscar speeches.)

Unconventional True Stories

Biopics are always a safe bet come Oscar season, so much so one could almost call this time of year biopic season as much as anything. Writing a good one can easily get you noticed. Just look at The Black List, the yearly roster of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays which is always chock-full of them. The outcome of your biopic landing on The Black List can even earn a relatively inexperienced writer an Academy Award. In a post-Social Network world, exact historical accuracy matters less, giving writers an opening to explore real figures spanning the gamut between contemporary and ancient in more unconventional ways.

To be sure, there are plenty of conventional biopics coming out this year as well. Marshall, The Greatest Showman, and Goodbye Christopher Robin will join a list that already includes Battle of the Sexes, Rebel in the Rye, The Lost City of Z, American Made, and many more. But the bigger trend this year seems to be less in biopics per se, and more about true stories which are smaller, quirkier, and less focused on single individuals.

A biopic is usually considered a portrait of one or two individuals over the course of their lives or during a specific period of time. But can you really call something like The Big Sick, almost a surefire nominee in the Best Original Screenplay category, a biopic? Sure, it does tell the story of how writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon met and fell in love, but it’s not like either of them were household names before the film. Nanjiani was a well-known enough from his stand-up and acting work, but his courtship with Gordon, as remarkable as it was, isn’t the iconic event that Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King’s tennis match depicted in Battle of the Sexes was. Instead, The Big Sick tells a tale that is more personal, more intimate.

The same could be said for writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which is partially based on her life growing up in California. While the film may be inspired by true events, Gerwig is the only person who could make a movie about said events.

Then there’s VEEP writer Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin. Iannucci, who previously nabbed a Best Adapted Screenplay nod for 2009’s In the Loop, is reported to have made yet another walk-and-talk political ensemble comedy, this one just happens to be about the administration surrounding a famous dictator. While the movie has larger historical context, it’s also probably a movie that only Iannucci could make.

In a strange way, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk falls into a similar category. It’s not the only film ever made about the Dunkirk evacuation. It’s not even the only film about Dunkirk to come out this year. But the way it plays with time, the way it employs tension, the scale of it feels singularly Nolan. Historical dramas like Dunkirk tend to overlap with biopics come Oscar time, and Dunkirk definitely won’t be the only one to come out this year. Steven Spielberg’s The Post would also fall into this category, but again, it’s Dunkirk’s intimacy that feels apiece with this year.

The wild card in this equation would be The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s depiction of Tommy Wiseau during the production of The Room. In many ways, the movie looks like a conventional biopic… until you consider who it’s about. Who else but Franco would tackle this kind of movie; a portrait of a modern cult figure made by a notoriously experimental movie star.

A Variety of Comedies

It’s no secret that the Oscars have some bias against comedies. In the Academy Awards almost 90 year history, less than 20 have ever won Best Picture (and that’s if you’re being generous with your definition of what qualifies as a “comedy.”) However, one area where the genre does tend to fair a little better is in the screenplay categories. Let’s not forget that Woody Allen is the most nominated writer in the history of the Academy, after all.

This year, the aforementioned Lady Bird, The Big Sick, and The Death of Stalin all look to pick up writing nominations. Battle of the Sexes, which is somewhere between an indie comedy and a traditional biopic, will look to garner a nomination for previous Oscar winner and three time nominee Simon Beaufoy (he won for 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire.) Another previous winner, Alexander Payne (2004’s Sideways and 2011’s The Descendants) could be a contender for his upcoming satire, Downsizing. Noah Baumbach, who previously got a nomination for The Squid and the Whale, may also be in the running for The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). Playwright turned director Martin McDonagh (who already has an Oscar for his short film, Six Shooter,) will be looking to pick up his second writing nomination for the black comedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, following his nod for In Bruges in 2009. And of course, one can never count out Woody Allen himself, although it’s unclear based on the trailer where December’s Wonder Wheel will fall on Allen’s unique comedy/drama spectrum.

Not all of these movies are what you would call laugh out loud funny, but they do showcase writers who are willing to take comedic risks in their screenplays. While the Academy too rarely honors the big, studio comedies we all know and love, they are more willing to nominate comedic scripts which are original and have a voice.

Political vs. Personal

The personal nature of films like The Big Sick and Lady Bird are fully on display for the whole world to see, but again, there’s also a personal touch to works like Dunkirk, The Death of Stalin, and The Disaster Artist. The question in the screenplay categories this year is whether the Academy will lean more towards these personal films, or choose to go political in a year where the country is constantly inundated with divisive news about our current President.

A film like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which tracks the unraveling of a small town in the wake of a young girl’s murder, may resonate with voters because of how it captures the rage and unrest so many are feeling at this moment. Battle of the Sexes shows an era that brought about the genesis of our current gender equality struggles. The Post is about a female newspaper publisher who helped to bring down a corrupt political administration in a battle that pitted journalists against politicians (if that doesn’t sound timely then maybe, you know, pick up a newspaper for yourself.) One of the year’s biggest Oscar contenders, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor,) is a broad piece of commentary on love triumphing over hate in a world run by conservative bureaucrats.

Then there’s Get Out, Jordan Peele’s likely nominee in the Best Original category. The film is a cogent piece of criticism on America’s current racial politics, however, it also introduces a third avenue here. Get Out is another movie which feels extremely personal, despite its heavy social commentary. The same could be true for The Death of Stalin, which, despite being a classic Iannucci joint, could also be seen as allegory, in the way it spoofs the incompetency of a  dictatorial political presence. In a way, Dunkirk is political too, in that it is anti-political. Voters may resonate with the message of unity for the common good in a time where we don’t seem to agree on anything (the Gary Oldman-led Winston Churchill biopic, The Darkest Hour, could also become a favorite for this reason.)

Keeping a screenplay personal, figuring out how it relates to you, is a smart move. If you’re making commentary on something you neither know nor care about, you’re probably writing about the wrong thing. Movies which walk the line between the political and the personal tend to resonate with audiences because they can tell the writer is passionate about what they’re discussing. It’ll be interesting to see this year whether those stories resonate with the Academy too.


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