Follow Our Tips for Writing an Award-Winning Original Screenplay…

How does a screenplay earn an Academy Award nomination? Is there a pattern to the subject or style of recent screenplay nominees? Are there elements they have in common? Perhaps most importantly, are there steps you can take to make your screenplay literally Oscar-worthy?

The Original Screenplay nominees that have made the cut over the last five years can offer some clues.

(Note: We’re only going to look at original scripts here, as getting attached to an adapted film project – one based on a novel, short story, magazine article, comic book, TV show, previous movie, etc. – is usually far more difficult than simply creating something out of whole cloth.)

Following are the five films that were nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category from 2019 to 2023, and their respective genres:

• EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE by Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert (Sci-Fi)
• THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN by Martin McDonagh (Period Comedy/Drama)
• THE FABELMANS by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner (Period Drama) *
• TÁR by Todd Field (Drama)
• TRIANGLE OF SADNESS by Ruben Ostlund (Black Comedy)

• BELFAST by Kenneth Branagh (Period Drama) *
• DON’T LOOK UP by Adam McKay (Comedy Sci-Fi)
• KING RICHARD by Zach Baylin (Biopic) *
• LICORCE PIZZA by Paul Thomas Anderson (Period Drama) *
• THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD by Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier (Romantic Comedy-Drama)

• PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN by Emerald Fennell (Drama)
• JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH by Will Berson & Shaka King (Crime Drama) *
• MINARI by Lee Isaac Chung (Period Drama) *
• SOUND OF METAL by Darius Marder & Abraham Marder (Drama)
• THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 by Aaron Sorkin (Period Drama) *

• PARASITE by Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Won (Black Comedy)
• KNIVES OUT by Rian Johnson (Mystery Thriller)
• MARRIAGE STORY by Noah Baumbach (Drama)
• 1917 by Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Carins (Period Drama) *
• ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD by Quentin Tarantino (Period Comedy/Drama) *

• GREEN BOOK by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly (Period Drama)
• THE FAVOURITE by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (Period Drama) *
• FIRST REFORMED by Paul Schrader (Drama)
• ROMA by Alfonso Cuaron (Period Drama) *
• VICE by Adam McKay (Biopic) *

* Based on historical figures or contains major biographical elements.

Upon reviewing this list, the first thing you’re likely to notice is what these scripts are not. They are not, with few exceptions, the kind of easy-to-market genre scripts – horror, thriller, action, rom-com, etc. – that first-time scribes are usually encouraged to write. There’s nary a “high-concept” script in the bunch. Those scripts that do contain clear genre elements – e.g. EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, DON’T LOOK UP, KNIVES OUT – transcend their genre roots by incorporating strong political or sociological themes and subplots. (They are, dare we say, “woke”?) They use familiar genre tropes to explore issues of race, class, gender, environmentalism, etc. The same is true of the few comedies on the list: TRIANGLE OF SADNESS, THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD, and PARASITE, films that proudly bear the label black comedy, as they all tend to favor darker satirical elements over simple outright laughs.

The lesson: If you’re going to be funny, be serious about it.

The next obvious pattern is that fourteen of the twenty-five nominated scripts – more than half – were period/historical films set in decades/centuries before the present day. Most take place in the decades between the end of World War II and the turn of the Millennium. In other words, they recreate periods well within the lifetimes of most Academy voters. This suggests that nostalgia can play a major role in attracting the Academy’s attention.

(Note that only one script, THE FAVOURITE, about palace intrigue in the court of Britain’s Queen Anne, is a traditional historical “costume drama.” The odd duck here is 1917 which, while set in the 20th century, occurs during a decade long before most Academy voters were born.)

The lesson: Write for Boomers. They make up a big portion of the screenwriting wing – and they like stories about their lost youth.

Along these same lines, note that twelve of the scripts – virtually half – are either clearly historical (e.g., THE FAVOURITE, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7), biopics (e.g. KING RICHARD, VICE) or contain strong – sometimes very strong – autobiographical elements (e.g., THE FABLEMANS, LICORCE PIZZA, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH, MINARI, ROMA). Scripts that at least purport to tell true stories tend to have the kind of gravitas that earns the Academy’s respect.

The lesson: Like the old adage advises: Write what you know. And if your own life isn’t dramatic enough to warrant feature film treatment, look for an overlooked historical event or figure that does.

As expected, virtually all the screenplays are what we call “character-driven,” in that they favor dialogue and emotion over action and spectacle. Only one project in the bunch, Apple TV+’s DON’T LOOK UP, was the kind of high concept, star-powered, CGI-driven spectacular we normally associate with big-budget studio blockbusters. Even the other two special effects-heavy projects, EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE and 1917, were heavily character-focused and used their visual effects to support the story rather than be the focus of it.

The lesson: Characters count.

The last insight we can glean from this list is that, with scant few exceptions, most of the nominated original screenplays were designed to be produced on a budget. For the last decade-plus, Academy Best Original Screenplay nominees tend to be those done as independent films produced for $30 million or less. Last year’s Original Screenplay winner, THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN, was produced for just $20 million. MINARI, 2021’s Best Original Screenplay winner, was produced for only $2 million. Even last year’s Best Picture winner, the twisty sci-fi comedy/drama EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, had a budget of only $25 million. Contrast this to the $65 million budget of the average studio film in 2023, and the $150 million to $300 million spent to produce the typical CGI-driven “summer blockbuster.”

The lesson: Less is more. Write small.

The 2024 Original Screenplay nominees, announced on January 23, all fit comfortably into this pattern. They are:

• ANATOMY OF A FALL by Justine Triet & Arthur Harari
• THE HOLDOVERS by David Hemingson
• MAESTRO by Bradley Cooper & Josh Singer
• MAY/DECEMBER by Samy Burch & Alex Mechanik
• PAST LIVES by Celine Song

All are small, character-driven stories with strong “indie film” cred. Most have strong nostalgia elements (THE HOLDOVERS, MAESTRO, MAY/DECEMBER) and/or have biographical or semi-biographical themes (MAESTRO, MAY/DECEMBER, PAST LIVES). And there isn’t an outright comedy in the bunch. (Like most Alexander Payne movies, THE HOLDOVERS has comedic moments, but it’s hardly a gut-buster.)

What does the year ahead hold? In terms of Oscar-bait, expect more of the same. With major studios now focusing almost exclusively on established IPs, the chances of us seeing original Oscar-worthy scripts for big star-driven films like GHOST (1990), RAIN MAN (1988), MOONSTRUCK (1987) or WITNESS (1985) appear to be long gone.

Perhaps the tide will turn. (Hey, there’s always streaming.) So keep writing! – Allen B. Ury

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