Former winner: Blood Moon Trail
You’ve got one day left to send your loglines into April’s Logline Showdown. I want some stupendous loglines to choose from so don’t hesitate to submit. Here are the submission details…
What: Title, Genre, Logline
Rules: Your script must be written
When: Send submissions by April 20th, Thursday, by 10PM pacific time
Winner: Gets a review on the site
Seeing as we have a big logline weekend ahead of us, let’s talk about the ten biggest logline mistakes and how we can avoid them. In order to provide everyone with some context for what constitutes a good logline, here are the three winning loglines from this year so far.
Blood Moon Trail
In 1867 Nebraska, a Pinkerton agent banished to a desolate post for an act of cowardice finds a chance at redemption when he decides to track down a brutal serial killer terrorizing the Western frontier.
Call of Judy
When a lonely kid gets lost in a next-gen VR gaming experience, the only person who can rescue him is his mom, who’s never played a videogame in her life.
A prolific serial killer struggles to suppress her desire to kill during a weekend-long engagement party hosted by her new fiance’s wealthy, obnoxious family.
Now that you understand what we’re aiming for, let’s discuss the TEN biggest logline mistakes.
NOT GIVING US THE MAIN CHARACTER RIGHT OFF THE BAT
The first thing a potential reader wants to know is, who’s leading me through this story? We are human beings so the first thing we connect with are other human beings. Therefore, unless there’s no other option, you should start off by introducing us to your main character. We see that in all three of the above winners, with a minor exception in Blood Moon Trail, which takes three words before we get to the main character. There are exceptions to this but, for the vast majority of loglines, you want to introduce your main character right away.
This is one I run into with Rom-Coms, Action-Thrillers, and Horror loglines, as these genres are the most susceptible to cliches. But it can happen with any genre. It boils down to the writer only using generic characters, adjectives, and locations, leaving the logline absent of anything that stands out. If you want to know what this looks like, here’s Blood Moon Trail’s logline, but rewritten without specificity: “Back in the Old West, a cowardly cop searches the frontier for an evil killer.” Notice the absence of all the specific words that made the logline pop: 1867, Nebraska, Pinkerton agent, brutal serial killer, Western frontier.
This is more of a concept problem than a logline problem. To be clear, if you don’t have a good concept, it’s almost impossible to make your logline work. A hook just means a fresh and/or elevated component to your logline that feels bigger than the kinds of things that happen in everyday life. We don’t usually hear about cops chasing down serial killers in the Old West. That’s what makes Blood Moon Trail stand out. Call of Judy has a mom who’s never played video games have to save her son inside of a video game. To understand why that’s a hook, imagine the same idea but with a gamer friend trying to save our hero as opposed to the mom. All of a sudden it just becomes a flat boring idea. And then with Rosemary, we have a serial killer who’s trying *NOT* to kill. That’s a hook. A killer who’s doing the opposite of what’s expected of her.
The reason writers make this mistake is because they know their script so well that they’re unable to identify the things that might sound confusing inside a logline. Remember, some stuff needs the context of reading the whole script to understand. Whereas, if you included that stuff in the logline, it doesn’t organically fit with everything else you’ve told us. Here’s an example: “An aging ballet dancer with a keen interest in electronics is given the opportunity of a lifetime when she’s recruited by the prestigious Mariinsky Ballet Company.” What in the heck does having a keen interest in electronics have to do with this story?? Why would you include that in the logline? Maybe it *does* make sense in the context of the screenplay. But it doesn’t make sense in this abbreviated pitch of the story. Which is why you shouldn’t include it.
COMPETING ELEMENTS THAT DON’T ORGANICALLY CONNECT
I read a lot of loglines where the main elements don’t connect and, sometimes, even contrast with one another. Here’s an example: “A man with Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome, a rare condition wherein a person rapidly ages, learns that his father was a famous tomb raider and heads to Bolivia to seek out the treasure his dad died attempting to find.” What does the first half of the logline have to do with the second half? You’ve got two separate ideas here and you’re trying to cram them into the same movie. That RARELY works.
AN ENDING THAT SIMMERS OUT
This one always kills me. The writer will have this big catchy opening to his logline and pay zero attention to the logline’s climax, letting it die a slow quiet death. I’m talking about loglines like this: “A mountain climber who inadvertently disturbs a family of bloodthirsty sasquatches on Mount Kilimanjaro must rely on his smarts if he’s to escape the beasts and make it all the way down the mountain, a challenge that will test him both mentally and spiritually.” Notice how unevenly stacked this logline is. The first half is really exciting. The second half puts us to sleep. Always end the logline with a bang. All three of our winners did that.
THE OVERSTUFFED BURRITO LOGLINE
If you’ve ever been to Chipotle, you know what this one looks like. Those crazies try to cram everything into that burrito. Inexperienced writers do the same with their loglines. I understand their rationale. They want to make sure that all the relevant information is included so that reader knows absolutely EVERYTHING they’re going to get in the script. But that’s not how loglines work. Loglines only have space for the main character, the hook, and the central conflict. Generally speaking, try to stay under 30 words. 35 if you absolutely need those extra 5 words. Here’s what an overstuffed logline looks like: “A retired liberal political commentator must overcome her fear of the Bible Belt when she meets a conservative Alabama man online and moves in with him, but her fears are unfortunately realized when she must deal with his arrogant stepson, his weird paddle-ball obsessed neighbor, as well as overcome the church group who have declared her public enemy number 1 when she turns down their Sunday mass invitation.”
PROTAGONIST ADJECTIVE OVERLOAD
This is a small one but I see it a lot. It’s when writers go adjective crazy on their protagonist. They’ll include three, sometimes even four, adjectives to describe them. My advice when it comes to protagonist adjectives is to use one, two adjectives tops. And, keep in mind, a job title (accountant) or a label (serial killer) is an adjective. So instead of saying, “A young impressionable conflicted comedic actor,” you’d say, “A comedic actor.” I know it doesn’t tell the reader the whole story of who your protagonist is. But tough cookies. Loglines aren’t meant to tell the whole story. They’re the “poster” of your screenplay. They have to be succinct and to-the-point.
Here’s the definition for platitude: “A remark, statement, or phrase, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.” These are death for a logline yet writers use them all the time. And they make your logline both boring and empty. Funny enough, I asked ChatGPT to write me a platitude filled logline. This is what it came up with: “In a world where dreams are meant to be chased, and the only thing standing between success and failure is the courage to try, a plucky young underdog sets out on a journey of self-discovery and redemption.” “In a world.” “Where dreams are meant to be chased.” “The only thing standing between success and failure.” These are platitude phrases and mean nothing. Sometimes, you can use a single platitude to bridge relevant parts of your logline. But I would avoid them if you can. They somehow make everything sound like nothing.
“Clunky” boils down to using too many words and phrasing them incorrectly. It’s something that can be fixed by simplifying. Here’s the Rosemary logline, but written by a writer with clunky phrasing: “Trying to suppress her desire to kill, for which she is obsessive, a prolific and eccentric serial killer attempts to suppress her usual desire for bloodletting while experiencing a weekend-long engagement party that is being held for the richest of the rich.”
NOW GET THOSE LOGLINES IN BY 10PM PACIFIC TIME TONIGHT! (THURSDAY)
Need logline help? I’m here for you! Logline consults are just $25 for basic (analysis, rating, and logline rewrite) and $50 for deluxe (same as basic plus you get unlimited e-mails until we get the logline perfect). E-mail me at email@example.com with the subject line: LOGLINE CONSULT.
Is Hotel Cocaine the next Casablanca?
Genre: 1 Hour Drama
Premise: Pitched as “Casablanca in late 70s Miami,” Hotel Cocaine follows a hotel that acts as a neutral site where everyone on every side of the drug trade can co-exist… in theory at least.
About: Chris Brancato is a pretty big TV writer. He created Narcos, in addition to its Mexico spinoff. He wrote on Hannibal. He created Godfather of Harlem. But he’s got an uphill battle with this one. While the idea sounds cool, you may need a map from the 1970s to find it. That’s because it’ll stream on MGM+. I’m not sure I even know what that means, seeing as Amazon acquired MGM. I suppose we’ll find out when the show debuts. Or hear about it from the one person in our friend group who owns MGM+. The show will star Michael Chiklis.
Writer: Chris Brancato
Details: 56 pages
One of my favorite ever TV pilots was The Shield. I mean, can you beat that final scene? Michael Chiklis was huge after that show but the weird thing about Hollywood is that they only give you a couple of chances to capitalize on your buzz. And if you don’t pick the right projects, you become radioactive.
Chiklis followed the money and joined the one superhero franchise Hollywood can’t seem to figure out – Fantastic Four – and paid the price for it. His costume looked like something out of Sesame Street. And, all of a sudden, Chiklis wasn’t so hot anymore.
But Chiklis is getting another shot in the spotlight, in so much as MGM is able to afford the bulbs that power that spotlight. Will his new show be a banger?
It’s 1977 in Miami. Cocaine is becoming THE drug, to the point where people are building tiny submarines, basically coffins, that allow them to smuggle coke into Miami from South America.
We watch as one of these coffins pops up off the Miami coast and the two riders get out and wait for the boat that’s going to pick them up. Instead, a group of Haitian pirates show up and machine gun a bunch of holes into the smugglers.
Cut to The Mutiny Hotel, the Casablanca of Miami, where we hear our hotel manager, Cuban ex-pat, Roman Compte, explain the scene: “The year was 1977 and the cocaine wars of Miami stop at our entrance. We were Switzerland, neutral territory, where drug dealers sent drinks over to DEA agents and avoided killing each other because everyone was having too much fun.”
After dealing with a Hunter S. Thompson incident (yes, the author), Roman gets cornered by two DEA agents who explain that the aforementioned submarine massacre included one of their men working undercover. They want Roman to reconnect with his estranged brother, Nestor, who’s essentially this story’s version of Scarface. Nestor is the one who owned the sub.
The last person Roman wants to deal with is his bloodthirsty crazy brother. But after the DEA threatens to send him back to Cuba, where he’ll be shot dead for betraying Castro, he doesn’t have a choice.
Nestor is not happy to see his sibling but Nestor also realizes the advantages of having an inside man at the most desirable hotel in town. Once Roman is in with Nestor, the DEA wants him to tell them when and where Nestor is going to deal with the Haitians who killed his submarine crew. They want to get there first and arrest Nestor. But when Nestor sniffs out his brother’s betrayal, he changes the meet-up location, and everything falls apart for both the DEA and Roman.
This was a really good pilot.
It gave me some Taylor Sheridan vibes. Paramount’s probably pissed they didn’t snatch this up.
When it comes to TV shows, you’re trying to find scenarios that create a never-ending series of problems that need to be solved by your protagonist. This is why cop shows are so reliable. A cop always has another problem to solve. As soon as one murder is over, another one happens in the next neighborhood.
Same thing here. The series takes place in a hotel. Even at a normal hotel, you’ve got a new problem every 30 minutes. But imagine if you took a normal hotel and turned it into one of the most high profile hotels in the world where criminals, cops, DEA, celebrities, FBI, all hung out.
Now, you’re going to have a new problem every minute. And these problems are going to be much higher grade than the ones at your average hotel. For example, you’ll have your fair share of dead bodies in rooms. That’s why this is such a good idea for a show. Roman is always going to have a problem to solve.
Contrast this with The Mandalorian, a show that’s starting to fall apart narratively. They don’t have built in problems for that show. This forces the writers to artificially come up with problems every week. That never works as well as when the problems are organic to the concept.
That’s why you got that weird episode a couple of weeks ago where the Mandalorian and Lady Mandalorian go to some planet run by Jack Black and Lizzo to solve a robot uprising. Was there a problem that needed to be solved? Yes. But the audience didn’t know about this planet until two minutes so they don’t care. That’s what happens when your problems don’t organically extend from the concept.
What’s great about Hotel Cocaine is that the writer, Chris Brancato, didn’t stop there. He turbocharged his idea by placing Roman in a very precarious position. Roman is being controlled both by the DEA, who want an inside man into Nestor’s operation, and Nestor, who wants an inside man into the DEA’s operation. This forces Roman to walk the thinnest tightrope in Miami.
This is how you write, guys. It’s not hard when you think about it.
a. Come up with a concept that generates problems.
b. Place the story somewhere where those problems feel big, so the stakes are high.
c. Make things as difficult as possible on your protagonist.
That simple formula is what makes this pilot work.
I do have a beef, though. There’s a big scene late in the pilot where Nestor needs to know if he can trust Roman. So he calls him over then takes him into some back room. Sitting in the back room is a guy who’s tied up. Nestor says this guy deceived him. And Nestor will work with Roman if Roman kills him right here and now. He gives Roman the gun and Roman is tasked with a difficult decision. Kill or don’t kill?
I’ve seen this scene a million times before.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a compelling scenario. And it usually works. But if you’re not going to do anything new with it, don’t write it. Cause once you give the audience something they’ve seen a ton of times before, you lose a little piece of them. Cause they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve been to this house before. I’ve seen this room.’ You’ve lost a little bit of that magical storytelling hold you have on the reader (or viewer). And if you do that a few more times in your script, you lose the reader altogether.
I’ll tell you how to fix that scene in the What I Learned section. But that was the only real blip on the radar here. I suspect this is going to be a really good show. Assuming, of course, that Roman can solve the hotel’s biggest problem of all – how to relocate to a streamer that viewers have access to.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: All right, so let’s say you want to write a “Shoot this guy so I can trust you” scene. You’ve heard the Scriptshadow criticism ringing in your ear imploring you to find a unique way into the scene. Yet, no matter how hard you try, you can’t come up with a fresh angle. Here’s what you do, instead: Make the person he has to kill someone we’ve set up earlier in the script as a character he has a connection with. That way, your protagonist isn’t just shooting anyone. It’s personal. They know, and are maybe even close, to this person. That scenario works 99.9% of the time, even though we’ve seen it before. There’s something about seeing our protagonist tasked with killing someone they know that’s riveting and overrides any ‘cliche’ criticisms.
They took each other on in the comments section. But now they’re battling it out on the page!
We’ve got a first-ever for you on Scriptshadow today. Two of our most opinionated readers have decided to square off against each other to determine who can write the better script. There’s some backstory worth getting into here in order to understand how this grudge match came about.
Long-time commenter, Grendl, has adamantly stood up for his Loch Ness Monster script, Haddegon Tails, as worthy of being a Hollywood film. Without getting into the weeds, Grendl has been highly skeptical of the way the industry operates and believes that choosing which scripts get purchased and which don’t boils down to luck and subjectivity.
Kagey, meanwhile, who has some produced credits, has called Grendl out for being delusional in this belief. Kagey believes that the cream rises to the top and that if Grendl’s script was actually any good, it would’ve sold. Their heated argument resulted in Grendl challenging Kagey via a head-to-head screenplay matchup, a challenge which Kagey accepted.
Now that you know the backstory, here are the entries, along with their script download links.
Title: Haddegon Tails
Logline: When an American team of filmmakers arrive at an Irish lake, purported home to the cursed spawn of the last two snakes on the Emerald Isle, it threatens to tear a family apart.
Why You Should Read: Kagey said lake monsters are not Spielberg material, and I disagreed. He (Spielberg) has a wide ranging resume spanning all sorts of subject matter, including a Disney Eyed alien on a flying bike. I want this script to show its not subject matter that isn’t commercially viable, but actually just the opposite. Unexplored territory for the most part.
Download Link: Haddegon Tails
Title: For Good Men To Do Nothing
Logline: When a thief contracts a fatal illness, he joins a top secret organization that only hires terminal patients, in order to pay off a drug kingpin and save his family.
Why You Should Read: I’ve always loved action movies. Especially 80’s style. This is my homage to them.
Download Link: For Good Men To Do Nothing
So here’s how this is going to work. The comment section of this post will serve as the official Voting Docket. Read as much of each script as you can then vote for your favorite script via your comment. Feel free to provide any additional context for why you liked one script over the other.
Because this is a script showdown, I’m going to give everyone an entire week to read the scripts. Next Tuesday we will have an official post declaring the winner and discussing the results. Which means you can vote right up until 6pm, Pacific Time, Monday, April 24th.
Per agreement of the two writers, the loser has to publicly admit that the winner is indeed the better writer and STFU on the forums for three months.
I realize that this will be a bit of a confusing week since we have Logline Showdown this Friday (by the way you still have time to send in your loglines – I will pick the five best loglines to compete on the site!).
What: Title, Genre, Logline
Rules: Your script must be written
When: Send submissions by April 20th, Thursday, by 10PM pacific time
But I figured since the Logline Showdown just consists of loglines, the time commitment will be minimal, and allow you plenty of time to do both. If this goes well, I could see myself doing more grudge matches in the future. I expect this to be a wild ride. Good luck to both participants. May the best writer win!
One of my favorite directors hops on a thought-provoking concept with shades of Charlie Kaufman!
Premise: After dying, a man is re-born into his life, reliving it from the start, unable to do anything but observe. Except for one difference – he saves a woman’s life who changes everything.
About: Did someone say that short stories are the new specs? Oh yeah, I SAID THAT. Cause these things sell like iced lemonade in Death Valley. And it’s not just horror stories. In this case, we’ve got a science-fiction short. This package came together when Ben Stiller signed on. The original story was published on Slate and was part of series of short stories about how technology and science will change our lives. The writer, David Iserson, has written on Mr. Robot, Mad Men, and New Girl.
Writer: David Iserson
Details: 4600 words (roughly one-fourth of a screenplay)
Link to short story: This, But Again
THE NEXT LOGLINE SHOWDOWN IS THIS FRIDAY, APRIL 21!!!!!
I will pick the five best loglines to compete on the site.
What: Title, Genre, Logline
Rules: Your script must be written
When: Send submissions by April 20th, Thursday, by 10PM pacific time
Okay, onto the review…
I’m always here for whatever Ben Stiller is up to.
He picks interesting subject matter as a director. From Severance to Escape at Dannemora to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to Tropic Thunder. Whatever he does, I know I, at least, have to check it out.
Marcus dies in 2076 at the age of 87.
He wakes up in his mother’s womb. Marcus knew something like this would be coming because, back in the 2060s, scientists discovered that we were living in a simulation. Therefore, he knew that there was probably some sort of afterlife. Although he didn’t know it meant living your life over again.
Marcus quickly discovers that he’s an exception. Everybody else is ignorant to the fact that they’re reliving their lives. But because of some glitch in the code, Marcus is aware that he’s doing this again.
Unfortunately, he can’t change anything. He can only observe, like a passenger in a car. Which kind of sucks. Although it takes away a lot of anxiety and fear, since you already know what’s going to happen.
One day, in Life #2, he’s standing behind a girl, Sara, in college, at a street corner. In his previous life, Sara would voluntarily walk out into the road, get hit by a car, and die instantly. This time, however, Marcus uses every ounce of energy to do something to stop her. And he’s somehow able to utter, “Don’t.”
And she doesn’t. In this new life, Sara lives. Marcus had been obsessed with Sara from afar in college so he’d like nothing more than to get to know her. But, again, Marcus is a passenger. He can’t change things. The only time he’s able to change anything is when Sara speaks to him first. Then, he can override the autopilot and hang out with her.
They do end up re-meeting years later and, because Sara talks to him, they’re able to hang out together. This is when Marcus tells her what’s happening to him. She’s fascinated by this and wants to know more.
But, even though she likes being around Marcus, she grows frustrated. Marcus’s autopilot keeps taking him back to his original life. He ends up meeting his wife and also having two kids. So he and Sara can’t have a real relationship. They can only be together in fits and spurts.
Sara becomes obsessed with this concept of living a life without fear or anxiety. So she uses a video game coder to decode Marcus and becomes the announcer of the simulation a full 40 years before it was announced in Marcus’s previous lifetime.
Sara starts selling “Marcus” packages where people can live in their body already knowing what’s going to happen. Which a lot of people sign up for. However, as Sara gets older, and meeting with Marcus becomes harder, she questions what it is she wants out of life. Unlike everyone else, Sara is not reliving her life. She never made it past 20. This glitch ends up having a profound impact on her as she prepares for her next life.
Gimme a dramatic Jonah Hill for the part of Marcus!
I definitely see why Stiller signed onto this.
It’s a really weird and compelling story.
One of the best things about science-fiction is that it can change the perspective of otherwise common things so that they now appear new and fresh.
In This, But Again, we’re watching people live their lives and go through all the things they normally do but through a lens that makes it all feel very different.
Take Sara, for example. She wants love like everybody else.
But Sara was supposed to die at 20. That means everybody else in the simulation never ends up with her, as they all met someone else. They had to. Sara wasn’t around. So even though Sara’s around now, nobody can access her. Their autopilot won’t allow them to.
Meanwhile, Marcus wants nothing more than to be with Sara. But he can’t. His autopilot keeps taking him back to his other life.
Normally, all we’d have here is an average love story. We’ve read a million love stories so one more is going to be a bore-fest. But because of the unique circumstances surrounding these two, their love story feels unlike any other love story we’ve encountered.
Good old fashioned storytelling tools also help the story stand out. One of the best things you can do for your story is make things as hard as possible on your hero. Whatever it is they want, make it impossible for them to get. The more impossible it is, the more riveted the reader will be, since we’ll wonder how he’s going to overcome such a gigantic obstacle.
Nobody gets riveted when obstacles are easy. Cause we know that the hero will figure them out.
What’s more impossible than trying to be with someone when your body and mind literally won’t you let you? There’s a moment early in the story where Marcus and Sara go on a date to watch a movie together. And when Sara goes to the bathroom, Marcus’s autopilot takes over and he simply goes back home and rejoins his wife. How do you overcome that?
I’m curious how Stiller is going to film this because the best way to tell this story is exclusively through Marcus’s eyes. His attempts to break through the programming and be with Sara make for the best aspect of the story.
If we’re also covering Sara’s point-of-view in the movie, which we do here in the story, we’re not going to feel as much pain during the times when Sara gets away because we’re going to see Sara ourselves a scene later when we cut to her. One of the stronger components of the story is that desperation to keep Sara around and not having any control over it.
Plus, I’m not totally on board with Sara’s storyline. All the stuff about her creating a giant corporation around living a foreknowledged-life is thought-provoking but it feels like the wrong direction, going that big, since the rest of the story is so intimate. Not only that, but the intimate aspect of it works so well.
I thought this was a top-notch story, though. Beyond everything I just mentioned, there are so many themes here that resonate. We don’t need to be living in a simulation over and over again to feel like we’re on autopilot. We’re constantly in situations where we really want to do something yet some invisible hand prevents us from doing it. This short story showed me what that felt like in a different way. And the next time I want to do something but my mind won’t let me, maybe I’ll push a little harder to override it.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: I’m a big believer that short stories need highly memorable endings. A twist-ending is preferable. But you can also include an ending like this, which is intense and has a huge emotional impact. I say this for short movies as well, the reason being that THERE ARE SO MANY OF THEM. There are endless short stories and short films. So if you don’t leave the audience with your biggest punch, there’s a good chance they’ll forget you. This one definitely leaves you with a gut punch.
Today is going to be fun. We’re going to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, which is to talk about the screenplays that most influenced screenwriters over the last 50 years. Every five years or so, a script – usually from a new screenwriter – hits the scene and, all of a sudden, everyone wants to write like that guy or gal. These are the scripts that reinvigorate the screenwriting ranks as well as bring new screenwriters into the party.
I’ve created a somewhat quirky set of rules for picking these 10 scripts. I can only pick one script for every five years. So if you’re in a tough 5 year set, you may get left behind.
Let’s get started…
This was a huge time for film in general. You had Star Wars. You had Annie Hall. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Apocalypse Now. Jaws. This was back in a time where there wasn’t much of a difference between the movies that won awards and the movies that performed the best at the box office. But the 70s weren’t really a screenwriting time. The focus was more on experimental filmmaking and taking chances. It really was about the directors more than the writers. But one movie captured screenwriting by storm because of its inspiring story. That movie was….
Rocky by Sylvester Stallone
This film had a lot of great behind-the-scenes stories going for it. But the one that stuck out to me was this nobody actor who tried to create a career for himself by writing his own movie. Nobody did that at the time. And even when they offered him 10000 times as much money as he had in his bank account, he said no until he could play the lead. So they just kept offering more and more money. But he kept turning it down. He finally took less money just so he could play the lead. This script showed screenwriters just how much power they wielded when they wrote a great script.
While there were hints of the spec boom coming, the 80s were a, mostly, confusing time for the industry. They were becoming more corporate and struggling with the growing pains of trying to make money versus letting these amazing artists do what they did best. Spielberg was starting to dominate the industry, so his movies were the main draw. However, there was script that, without question, changed the game in screenwriting. And that script was…
The Breakfast Club by John Hughes
At a time when the industry was making bigger and bigger movies, John Hughes reminded them that you could put five interesting characters in a room, let them talk for 100 minutes, and create an iconic film. Hughes also got people really excited about dialogue in a way that hadn’t been done before. Of course, Woody Allen was unstoppable during this time, but Hughes’s dialogue was more accessible and fun, which brought a lot of screenwriters into the industry.
This is when the screenwriting world started cooking with gas. We had some good scripts during this time. Platoon, Broadcast News, Rain Man, Bull Durham, Die Hard, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Stand by Me. This is where choosing one script above all others starts to get hard. Cause the industry really began paying attention to screenwriting. And writers were starting make some big bucks. There were two big guns in particular that had an outsized effect on the screenwriting world and it’s almost impossible to choose between them. But since I have to, I’ll say When Harry Met Sally came in a close second. And the script that came in first was…
Lethal Weapon by Shane Black
You may look at this script and say, “Well hold here. This is more of a movie than a screenplay.” That’s true. But Shane Black changed the game in Hollywood. He wrote in this fast fun self-referential way that made non-screenwriters want to be screenwriters. They saw his style and said, “Well if I knew screenwriting was that fun, and I could get paid THAT MUCH for doing it?? I would’ve started writing a long time ago.” Like any new style, people pillaged it until it barely resembled its original form. But when it first hit, everyone was obsessed with it.
The 90s was when screenwriting officially got sexy. This is when you could come up with the dumbest idea ever, scribble together a barely cohesive first draft, and sell it for a million bucks. Even fragments of ideas would sell for ridiculous money. I remember this guy sold a script about someone who lived in The Statue of Liberty. That was it! There was no story!!!! The person just lived in The Statue of Liberty, which was enough to make a million bucks. But let’s be real here. This half-decade has no competition since it contains the single most influential screenplay ever.
Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino
The combination of fearless dialogue, cool characters, out-of-order narrative, and weird ideas gave both the writing and directing worlds something they’d never seen before. We just all stared up at the screen gobsmacked. I didn’t even understand what I was looking at when I first saw Pulp Fiction – it was so different from anything I’d seen before. But the script mainly got people into screenwriting because the dialogue was so fun. Writers didn’t know that they could write what real people actually said. They’d been taught that every dialogue scene had to rigidly move the plot forward. Tarantino blew that concept out of the water. And screenwriting was forever changed because of it.
This may be the most competitive half-decade of them all. You had Fargo, Good Will Hunting, American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, Trainspotting, Jerry Maguire, Election. You had the Michael Bay boom, which coincided with these gigantic script sales. The Rock, Twister, Air Force One, Face/Off. You had huge comedies like Liar Liar and There’s Something About Mary. You had one of the most talked about script sales ever, in The Truman Show. And yet theres’s still one script that clearly takes the cake in the influential department of this time. And that script is…
Being John Malkovich by Charlie Kaufman
You see, up until this point, we’d been told that the only way to sell a script was to give audiences something gigantic. The idea had to be humongous. We’re smack dab in the Armageddon era. So to say studios were thinking big was an understatement. Then this weird screenwriter came along and broke every rule in the book. Small weird idea and, oh yeah, I’m going to make it even harder on myself in that one actor determines if this movie gets made, and if he says no the project is instantly dead. Nothing about this project made sense. So when it became a phenomenon, it inspired so many screenwriters to take chances. You were allowed to be weird. You were allowed to break the rules. Writers really needed to hear that at the time.
This was a tough half-decade for the movie business as it lacked a clear identity. You had Miramax and the indie era that came out of the 90s pushing out mostly subpar indie fare. M. Night started making his big messy movies. Crash won an Oscar, which some people say is the worst Oscar-winning film ever. We had the Harry Potter movies. The Rush Hour movies. There wasn’t really anything that screamed, “Screenwriting Game Changer.” Well, maybe one movie did…
Memento by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan
Memento introduced the idea of the giant concept in a tiny package. The reason this is such a big deal in screenwriting is because it made getting your movie produced feel possible. You didn’t have to sell it to a studio for it to see the light of day. You just had to come up with a really clever idea and take some chances, which Christopher Nolan definitely did. He not only came up with this idea of a main character who could only remember 8 minutes at a time. But he also told his story backwards. It was a mind trip and there’s nothing that gets writers more excited than mind trips.
This will be the most controversial half-decade of the post. So let’s not even draw it out. There is one script that, like it or not, had an outsized influence on the screenwriting world.
Juno by Diablo Cody
Dialogue. Dialogue. Dialogue. Dialogue. There’s probably a debate that could be had here about whether it was the controversy surrounding Diablo Cody herself that made Juno such a hot screenwriting topic or the actual Juno screenplay. I choose to believe it was the script. While her dialogue hasn’t survived the test of time, at the time, it was all the rage. It was quirky, different, fun. Her characters always found a unique way to say something and that’s one of the best dialogue lessons you can teach. Look for unique ways to say common things. Like her or hate her, Diablo Cody is one of the few household names that have come from screenwriting.
2011 – 2015
There were some really good movies in this era. Room, The Big Short, The Martian, The Wolf of Wall Street, Silver Linings Playbook, Nightcrawler, Ex Machina. The script that had the biggest influence on screenwriting, however, is maybe one you wouldn’t expect.
Bridesmaids by Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo
This script ushered in, not just the female-focused comedy, but the female-focused everything. A lot of people thought this film was going to bomb because they thought nobody wanted to see a bunch of women s—-ting themselves. Boy were they wrong. The success of the movie then gave the industry permission to greenlight every female-centric project in sight. And that trend really never stopped. It’s ensured that we get films like The Marvels, which is coming to theaters this November! Lots to celebrate there.
This era coincidences with the rise of the streamers and Covid. So it was a weird half-decade. But we don’t have to look far for the script that most influenced screenwriting. That was…
Get Out by Jordan Peele
Get Out ushered in the social justice, or social issues, screenwriting era. An argument can be made that Get Out influenced the screenwriting industry more than any other script on this list. I mean, since it was written, at least 40 scripts on every Black List tackle social issues. And that’s a direct result of Get Out’s success. Ironically, I think people are missing the boat on what made Get Out so good – cause it’s a script that I fell in love with long before it came out. Peele just wanted to write a fun scary movie. He wasn’t trying to change the industry. That’s something screenwriters forget. Entertain the reader first, insert your message second.
It’s hard to tell where this era is going. It definitely doesn’t feel like a screenwriting-friendly era. The movie industry has become so top-heavy that the support system underneath it is beginning to crumble from its weight. While I’m tempted to call this the era of the Safdies and Daniels, I’m not convinced they’ve inspired the same passion in the screenwriting ranks that Tarantino and Danny Boyle movies did back in the 90s, even if they do contain that same level of energy and passion. So that means that this slot is still open. And if the slot is still open, maybe someone you know very well could take it…
Your Script by You
I mean this. The next big influential screenwriter can be you. However, note the constant throughout all of these scripts: THEY COME FROM WRITERS WITH A STRONG VOICE. All these writers had a unique point of view. Or they took chances. They embraced weirdness. They gave us something that, at the time, we weren’t getting from anyone else. So if you want to be that person, you have to identify what makes you different then lean into that with a script idea that’s giving audiences something fresh.
Remember to sign up for David Aaron Cohen’s “the business of screenwriting” class where you learn how to get an agent, how to navigate TV writers’ rooms, how to deal with producers and their notes, how to pitch, and much much more. The class is closing in on being full. Check out the bottom of this interview I did with David to get your big $300 Scriptshadow discount!