In discussing what makes an Oscar-worthy movie, Ray Morton suggests screenwriters stop thinking in narrow terms of art house versus box-office success.
Recently a colleague and I were discussing this year’s Oscar nominations. I was complaining about the Academy’s failure to nominate Ryan Coogler and Bradley Cooper for Best Director even though it did nominate the films they directed—Black Panther and A Star is Born—for Best Picture (I’ve never understood how a movie can be nominated without the director also being nominated—I mean, how does a movie become a Best Pictures unless it’s helmed by the Best Director?). My point was that the Academy—which has been panicking over falling ratings for years now—is desperate to appeal to a wider audience to the point where they’ve done a lot of really embarrassing things recently (trying to eliminate song performances, trying to give out major awards during commercial breaks, proposing a “Most Popular Film” Oscar, etc.) and here they have two big, solid, quality commercial movies that were extremely popular with audiences that would probably tune in to see how these films they enjoyed might fare and then failed to spotlight them. I also felt that both Coogler and Cooper’s work was stronger than that of Pawel Pawlikowsi, who was nominated for directing Cold War—a film I liked but did not love, in large part because I felt that, while Pawlikowski’s work was technically very impressive, he failed to wring the emotion out of his story that I felt it required to be effective. My colleague responded to my complaint by supposing that Lanthimos was nominated over Coogler and Cooper because Academy voters probably considered Cold War (a black and white, Polish-language film that played mostly in art houses) a worthy artistic achievement, whereas Black Panther and A Star is Born were “just” well-made, commercial pictures.
My colleague’s comment irked me in part because I suspect he’s right, but mostly because it reflects an attitude I see too much out there—the snobby opinion that only “art” movies are worthy of serious consideration and that commercial movies are a lesser entity.
Of course, there are those who hold the opposite view: that reverse-snobby opinion that only commercial films are valid because they are entertaining and that’s what movies are supposed to be and everything else—indie films, art films, and foreign films—are boring, artsy fartsy nonsense.
And then there are the folks who refuse to watch “old” movies (anything made prior to Pulp Fiction) or silent movies or movies shot in black-and-white because they deem such pictures to be out-of-date and irrelevant to their scarily up-to-date and modern lives.
Finally, there are those who refuse to watch films from certain genres—who won’t look at Westerns or Musicals or “Chick Flicks” or Horror movies.
These attitudes are disappointingly prevalent out there—even (surprisingly and disconcertingly) among screenwriters and other filmmaking professionals.
Now, of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinions and their own personal likes and dislikes. And it is my opinion that I personally dislike these opinions and that I reject them. And I believe if you are serious about pursuing a career in screenwriting, you must reject them too.
- If you expect to have a successful career as a working screenwriter, then you must be prepared to work in many styles and categories over the course of a healthy career—unique pictures, genre stuff, studio franchises, and indie films. Which means you need to be familiar with all of the different types of films that are being made out there—indie and arthouse fare, franchise films, low-budget B and DTV-movies, experimental stuff and so on.
- A successful screenwriter needs to have a working knowledge of the main movie genres—their core elements, conventions and tropes, and audience expectations—since it is likely she or he will be asked to work in at least a few of them over the years. A working screenwriter should also look to offbeat and less conventional fare for inspiration in how to approach familiar material in fresh and exciting ways, as well as for how to present new and unique material in modes that will be comfortable for a large audience.
- It’s also vital for screenwriters to keep current to know what sort of subject matter and storytelling methods are resonating with audiences these days and which approaches have worn out their welcome.
- I believe a successful screenwriter should watch as wide a variety of movies as possible to learn how other screenwriters approach their material and tackle their challenges both for inspiration and for practical problem solving.
- It’s important that screenwriters know the history of their craft—so they can know when genres came into being and to see how they’ve developed over the decades; so they can understand when various screenwriting conventions came into existence and how they’ve been employed and developed over the medium’s lifetime; and so they can understand why certain screenwriting techniques are now out of date and why some will never go out of style.
You can do accomplish none of these things if there are large swathes of films you refuse to watch.
And, frankly, I don’t think you can become a successful screenwriter if you are a snob. To be a snob—to say only one type of film is acceptable and that all other types of films are not acceptable—is to be rigid and rigidity is the opposite of the openness and flexibility that is required for successful creativity.
One of the things that is so exciting and unique about cinema is how breathtakingly broad and diverse it is—how the art and craft of moving pictures can generate films ranging from The Great Train Robbery to Citizen Kane to Un Chien Andalou and Meshes of the Afternoon to The General, Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, A Hard Day’s Night, The Godfather, Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song, The 400 Blows, Jaws, Casablanca, Shaft, Brief Encounter, Die Hard, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Singin’ in the Rain, Porky’s 2: The Next Day, and I Spit on Your Grave.
I’m not saying you have to like all of these films or all of these styles of films, but if you are a true cinema fan and professional, I do think you have to appreciate them and to understand why they are important, even if they are not to your own personal taste.
For me, there are only two types of movies: good and bad. A good movie is one that is well-made, fulfills its genre expectations (it’s funny if it’s a comedy; it’s scary if it’s a horror movie, and so on), succeeds in making the dramatic point it set out to make, and that generates some sort of powerful emotional, intellectual, or visceral impact. Whether that movie is an “art” film or a grindhouse quickie is irrelevant—if it succeeds in doing what it set out to do, then it’s good. A bad movie is one that does not succeed in doing what it set out to do and/or does not provide those other payoffs, although even the worst film has something in it to like and learn from.
I’m a movie lover—even if I don’t like them all, I sure do love them all.
Copyright © 2018 by Ray Morton
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