After researching the scripts that studios have bought over the past few years, some patterns emerge. While fewer original screenplays are being purchased by studios each year, (60-130) the few they do buy tend to fit into certain genres.
In the case of dramatic original spec screenplays — there are three genres I recommend writing 1) “Against All Odds,” which tell a story of how David takes on Goliath, 2) “Life Transitions,” which deal with universal themes we all go through, and 3) “Rage Against the Machine,” where someone, or a group manages to thrive or fail up against an established structure, like the mob, the army, or the corporate world.
Call them formulaic if you want, but I disagree. They capture a feeling that inspires audiences. There are a million possible variations in each of these genres –it’s not paint by numbers. You make them original by your creative choices.
1. Erin Brockovich: “Against All Odds.”
Let’s look at Erin Brockovich. Brockovich (played by Julia Roberts) is the everyman’s lawyer, or rather the everywoman’s lawyer. She is kind of a gum-chewing plainspoken blonde bombshell who dressed and acts the part.
She’s basically broke when she begs Ed Masry (Albert Finney) for a job as basically a glorified secretary at his law firm. Against his better judgment, he hires her.
At the firm, Brockovich stumbles across some records while examining real estate files that point to a cover up by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG &E) of contaminated water which has been causing various cancers and birth defects among the locals living in Hinkley, CA.
She convinces Masry to help her sue the arrogant and formidable corporate force that is PG&E. The class action lawsuit in especially hard on Brockovich, a single mom juggling work with motherhood, but the two manage to prevail in court on behalf the Hinkley victims.
Thanks to Brockovich’s rapport with the locals and Masry’s legal acumen, they manage to win a fortune in damages for the desperate and ailing victims of PG&E’s negligence and cover up.
So the commonality in these films is that we start with an average person as the hero, who goes up against what appears to be an unassailable opponent. While not all dramas are selling, this one still has commercial potential with the studios.
To give you an idea of the range of stories this niche encompasses, consider the following films; Raging Bull, The Chronicles of Narnia, Batman, X-Men, The Jungle Book, The Passion of the Christ, and Schindler’s List.
2. Kramer vs. Kramer: ”Life Transitions.”
This genre focuses on storylines based on real life transitions like coming of age, getting over a breakup, grieving for a loved one, recovery from addiction, changing genders, or struggling with a mid-life crisis. These transitions resonate with us at some level because we all go though them or know someone who has.
Let’s take a look at Kramer vs. Kramer; Ted Kramer (played by Dustin Hoffman) is a rising star at his advertising firm and, when he has time, a loving father. The story starts when his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) decides to leave Ted and their son Billy to pursue her own career aspirations.
Kramer is left to juggle his lucrative advertising career with being a full-time father. It doesn’t go well at first; especially with Billy, who’s resentful over the breakup, and constantly acts out to get attention.
Kramer finds a friend and confident in his neighbor, Margaret (Jane Alexander). While they sit in the park watching Billy play on the monkey bars, he slips and is badly injured.
Ted rushes the boy to the hospital where he finally realizes the most important priority in his life is raising Billy. After quitting his high-profile advertising job, he finds one that allows him to spend more time at home with his son.
Over two years pass when Joanna returns to fight for custody of her son. Both Kramer’s lawyers pull out the stops to win this hard fought court battle. Evidence of the injury is brought in to hurt Ted. In the end Joanna wins custody of Billy, but realized now that he is better off with his father.
These stories feel like real-life situations any of us could experience. They are often psychological in nature, and sometimes don’t have clear antagonists. Sometimes they end with acceptance or loss instead of victory. While studios aren’t buying blockbuster-type period dramas, they’re still looking for these.
To demonstrate how varied scripts in this genre can be, here are some more examples; Ordinary People, Trainspotting, American Beauty, 10, Lost In Translation, Leaving Las Vegas, Casablanca, Risky Business, 28 Days, Permanent Midnight and All That Jazz.
3. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: “Rage Against the Machine.”
This dramatic genre introduces us to a hero that finds himself in an institution, an actual institution, or an office setting, the military, the mafia or even the fashion world. The protagonists in these films explore their settings, take in the rules, norms and expectations of their new worlds – and adapt/or rebel.
A good example is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Randal McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson) is a career criminal who pleads insanity to get out of hard labor in prison and ends up in a mental institution run by the abusive and inflexible Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
As the story unfolds, McMurphy sizes up the way things are done in the institution, and the way the arrogant controlling Nurse Ratched demoralizes the inmates. He then instigates a rebellion amongst the inmates against their oppressive treatment .
McMurphy gets the inmates to join him on field trips out of the hospital against “policy.” While he’s successful in restoring humanity to his fellow inmates, Nurse Ratched, she exacts a high price. McMurphy is given a full frontal lobotomy.
These films involve a character who finds himself in a new world (law school, reporting, or volunteering in a war zone, in a gang, in the police force, etc.). While adapting, he or she is changed and finds new ways to work within they system, or to change the system. There is a fish-out-of-water quality to these stories that makes them feel more high-concept.
To give you an idea how films in this niche can vary while still following in this genre, here are some more examples; M*A*S*H, The Godfather, Training Day, Office Space, Sin City, Dead Poet’s Society, Glengarry Glen Ross, and The Royal Tenenbaums.
Note that these same genres could be written as comedies, too. For example, 10, M*A*S*H, Risky Business, Office Space and others. It’s all about the tone you choose. Your original characters, stories, plot twists, premises and themes will differentiate your work from the rests of the films in your chosen genre. Remember, every film fits in a genre. They’re not all alike.