All four of these action screenplay genres share the script characteristics studios look for when buying any screenplay. They’re more likely to spawn prequels or sequels than other genres Perhaps more importantly, they all play well in the international markets, because of their emphasis on visual displays of violence or combat.
Of all the genres you could chose to write as an original spec screenplays these four appear to have the best chance of being purchased by a studio;
1.Die Hard – Genre: Call to Duty
I call this genre “Call to Duty” because the protagonist is a regular guy or girl next door, who is faced with an immediate conflict which is generally life-threatening and requires that he or she take action (usually physical) now or people will die. The protagonist is not prepared, but is called to duty. They step up.
Let’s look at Die Hard, which pits LA Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) against what appears to be an army of terrorists who take over a Los Angeles skyscraper. Gruber (Alan Rickman) poses as the leader of this group of terrorists who start taking hostages (including McClane’s wife Holly).
Outnumbered and out-gunned, McClane fights a series of increasingly violent battles with Gruber’s army of machine-gun-toting henchmen. The stakes keep getting raised as more hostages are taken and more people are endangered.
Guber plants C4 on the roof and plans to blow the entire building apart killing everybody and escaping in a helicopter with hundreds of millions in bearer bonds when McClane single-handedly overcomes overwhelming odds to prevail over Guber’s army, saving the building full of people, the hostages and his wife Holly. As McClane aptly puts it, “ Yipee-ki-yay-motherf#*ker!!”
Generally the protagonist in this genre film out-numbered or out-powered. Generlly the conflict takes the form of physical action. Fights, or gunfights, maybe war. The films often feature a series of increasingly difficult battles, building to an action climax.
To demonstrated how varied screenplays in this genre can be, here are a few more examples; Open Water, The Perfect Storm, Cape Fear, Misery, The Fugitive, The Bourne Identity, North By Northwest, Shooter, Flightplan, Outbreak and The Day After Tomorrow.
2. Saving Private Ryan – Genre: Treasure Hunters
In general this genre also involves a protagonist who embarks on a journey of growth and discovery. It can be a search for hidden bars of gold, as in “Three Kings,” or special people or a special person, as in Saving Private Ryan.
In Saving Private Ryan It’s decided by the military brass that since Ryan’s two brothers have already given their lives fighting for their country, their mother has suffered enough.
Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is charged with the task for finding Private Ryan and returning him safely to the States. Miller thus embarks on a journey of mercy, through the battlefields that take their toll on the men under his command.
We learn through his actions that Captain Miller is honorable, courageous and merciful to a fault.
Miller does his best to protect the soldiers under his command, but loses a few while searching for Ryan. When what’s left of the group finally finds Ryan, he doesn’t want to go home without finishing out his current battle. Miller’s soldiers feel Ryan is ungrateful for all they’ve sacrificed on their journey.
Captain Miller, however, sees things differently; he understands and admires Ryan’s loyalty to his fellow soldiers. Miller convinces his men to stay and take a stand against the Nazi’s. They do and they prevail.
In a cruel twist, Captain Miller dies in the process. With his last breath he tells Ryan, “Earn it,” a message Ryan carries with him the rest of his life.
After Ryan is safely returned to his mother and a normal life in the states, Miller’s mission is accomplished. In a tag, we see Ryan decades later in a Veteran’s cemetery placing flowers on Captain Miller’s grave.
These stories feature a protagonist who embarks on a harrowing journey (often with others), with the added motivation of “collecting a treasure,” and returning home. They are changed in the process.
Among the variations that still fit into this niche are; Ocean’s Eleven, Easy Rider, Thelma and Louise, Oh Brother Where Art Thou? The Lord of the Rings, and Maria Full of Grace.
3. Silence of the Lambs – Genre: Criminal Minds
In the Criminal Minds sub-genre, we’re definitely into solving some kind of mystery – usually criminal. The hero of this movie peels the layers of the onion back on a mystery to reveal the evil or dark flaws that motivate the antagonist to commit the crime, or to amass power, or perpetrate their dark actions against society.
Let’s talk about Silence of the Lambs; Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) is one of the best and the brightest students at the FBI training academy. She is assigned to work with Hannibal Lechter (Anthony Hopkins) a genius-level psychiatrist, murderer and cannibal who is thought to have special insight into the psychology of Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who skins his female victims.
Lechter sends Starling to investigate a former patient of his who may be connected to the case. She finds a human head with a sphinx moth stuck in its throat. Hannibal continues to offer Starling obscure clues, with the quid pro quo that she tell him about the murder of her father when she was ten years old.
Using Lechter’s expert profiling of the killer and his notes on the case files, Starling realizes the killer she’s after, Buffalo Bill, knew his first victim personally. She flies to the victim’s hometown where she discovers Buffalo Bill was a tailor and conjectures that the serial killer is making a “suit” out of the skins. Starling determines that the serial killer is disturbed man who requested but was denied a sex change.
The psychology now falls into place and all clues point to this would be transsexual named John Gumb. Starling and the FBI track Gumb to his underground basement where Gumb/Buffalo Bill holds a naked female victim at the bottom of a well. Starling closes in on Gumb, who has her in his cross-hairs and pulls the trigger, just as she turns and unloads her service revolver into the killer.
Other examples in the Criminal Minds nice can work a bit differently. Instead of revealing the villain’s deep dark human secret at the end of the story, you can reveal the secret to the audience first, then to the hero at the end.
Some examples of other films that fit into this nice include; Zero Dark Thirty, Fargo, Mystic River, Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, Body Heat, Blue Velvet, The French Connection, LA Confidential, The Sixth Sense, and Minority Report.
4. Jurassic Park – Genre: Survival Horror
Let’s talk about a good example here, Jurassic Park. In this storyline, our hero, paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neil) helps the good guys escape, and later takes on the monsters (in this case various dinosaurs). There is often, but not always a lesson about humans messing with nature, and having it backfire.
While the monster could take the form of a human villain, or a ghost, or alien, the “house” could take the form of a village, a haunted house, a spaceship, or as in Jurassic Park, an island.
The human villain behind the monsters is the creator of the park, Professor Hammond (Richard Attenborough). Hammond in this case –is the one who’s messed with nature, and you could also say God, in assuming the creator role by using DNA to create modern day Dinosaurs. This is considered the sin that begets the horror in the film.
Hammond feels he has it all under control, until he realizes he’s not God, and he can’t control the “monsters” he’s created. The story line involves the hero organizing a lot of scrambling for safety. Finally as the film climaxes, Grant saves Hammond’s grandchildren, Lex and Timmy, re-enters the control room where he can get the park back online and electrified again.
The good guys, Grant, and the others, including Timmy and Lex all escape in a helicopter. Grant tries to pull Hammond on board. However, unable to part with his creation he stays behind to meet whatever fate has in store.
Survival Horror can include many other types of “monsters,” human and otherwise. Consider other films that fit into this niche; Fatal Attraction, Jaws, The Exorcist, The Grudge, The Shining, Hannibal, American Psycho, Pacific Heights, Men in Black and Rosemary’s Baby.
In all of these genres the stakes are clear — they’re life or death. Not only that, but the lives of great numbers of people are in jeopardy. The higher the stakes the better the studios will like it. The problems these protagonists face include terrorists, Nazis, serial killers and genetically engineered dinosaurs.