5 Screenwriting Lessons from 2015's Best Films

Written by Arik Cohen on .

Old ProjectorAnother year, another batch of wonderful films. To a regular moviegoer they're just entertainment, but to a screenwriter they are inspiration. Every film is a potential lesson for what to do (and maybe for what not to do). For your convenience, here are some of the best lessons you can take from the movies that lit up screens in 2015!

1) Don't Be Afraid to Put a Woman at the Center of Your Blockbuster (Star Wars: The Force Awakens / Mad Max Fury Road)

Of course women have starring roles, but it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes (male) to notice that action blockbusters typically star men. The argument of "Well, female-driven action films aren't as successful," might have been accurate at some point, but the two most acclaimed action blockbusters of 2015 both had estrogen in the central role, and one of them is now the most financially successful film in North America of all time. So do you think your action spec won't be commercial if it stars Jane McClohn instead of John McClane? Think again. The new Star Wars film tells the story of a woman in a galaxy far, far away. Even with a film called Mad Max, director George Miller found it necessary to push the title character to a secondary position to make way for the incredible Furiosa, played with zeal by Charlize Theron. The critical and commercial success of these two films prove that if you're writing a big action film, it might be in your best interest to put a woman at the center.

2) Writing a Biopic? Think Outside the Box (Steve Jobs, The End of the Tour)

The biopic is not only a staple of the Oscar circuit, but it's also a pretty solid choice for an engaging spec.

But we've all seen enough biographical films to know how they generally go: a birth-to-casket movie covering a famous person's greatest hits. But the current trend is doing something different and covering just a small microcosm of the subject's life. The End of the Tour uses a single week-long interview to cut to the core of who infamous writer David Foster Wallace was behind the bandana, rather than showing his upbringing and eventual suicide. In Steve Jobs, accomplished writer Aaron Sorkin takes twenty years of turmoil and hangs them on three separate 40-minute scenes to give an artistic rendering of a business man. Both of these films show that just because you're following a true story doesn't mean you can't seek out a structure or format that we haven't seen before.

3) A Small Niche Could Be Big Business (Straight Outta Compton)

Hip-hop films have always been a niche market. 2009's biopic Notorious made a low $36 million. Hustle & Flow only $22 million. 8 Mile made a solid $116 million, but that was made at the height of Eminem's celebrity status. Straight Outta Compton, on the other hand, is a hip-hop film with no stars that made over $160 million. Off its success, multiple hip-hop films are in development including a Tupac biopic. Now this doesn't mean you have to write a hip-hop film (though if you have one now is the time to get it out there!), but rather it shows that subjects once thought to be valuable to only small markets can sometimes become major audience-pleasing hits! So don't stop writing that 1970s video game movie that you think would only appeal to hardcore video-gamers or your motorcycle thriller that might only appeal to Harley Davidson riders, because you never know when that niche will become big business.

4) Look to the Past for Thrills (Bridge of Spies / The Hateful Eight / The Revenant)

Historical films are not new, but something interesting is emerging: The critical and commercial success of not the historical drama, but the historical thriller. The historical films that used to populate the Best Picture category were usually hard dramas. Think Lincoln¸ The King's Speech, Atonement from recent years. But 2015 is the year that historical dramas got some thrilling edge. We have two Oscar-caliber films that take place around the time of the Civil War: One a little before (The Revenant) and one a little after (The Hateful Eight) and neither one plays it dramatic so much as they play it suspenseful. They're both full of white-knuckle thrills and eye-popping violence rather than dreary, slow scenes of historical detail. Bridge of Spies feels more dramatic, but by throwing an American into Communist-ruled Berlin it ends up being a real thrill ride from Steven Spielberg, a man who knows a thing or two about thrill rides. The lesson? Just because you're writing something that covers a historical period that involves old-timey, dull costumes doesn't mean you can't take your audience on a rollercoaster ride!

5) Don't Be Afraid to Write That Franchise (Creed)

Let's say you have a great idea for the next step of a beloved franchise, but you don't own the rights. What do you do? Most people would move on and try something else. It's not worth spending all that time developing an idea you don't own the rights to, right? But not writer/director Ryan Coogler. He had a great idea for a spin-off to the Rocky franchise and pursued the franchise's originator, Sylvester Stallone. Stallone didn't give an answer to his pitch right away, but after Coogler directed the indie hit Fruitvale Station, Stallone came around and allowed Creed to be made and also starred in it. So follow your creative inspiration. If you have a great idea for a James Bond spin-off where we see Moneypenny on a mission and you can't imagine yourself writing anything else, then maybe you should write it! Sure you can't make it today, but who knows where you'll be in the future. Maybe you'll one day have the opportunity to convince the right people that you know where the franchise should go!