Many aspiring screenwriters watch the latest releases and then get influenced by them. The drawback is that they tend to churn out scripts that are derivative of today’s hits. Rather than waste your time and money on new releases, watch old movies.
Go to Hulu or Crackle and you can watch plenty of movies for free. While most of these films are simply awful, they’re usually no worse than the latest batch of multimillion dollar bombs like “Jonah Hex,” “The Last Airbender,” or “Clash of the Titans.”
Watching old movies can be helpful for several reasons. First, they’re free so by selectively watching free movies, you can learn storytelling without spending money at the theater or renting DVDs. Second, if you’re going to be inspired to mimic a movie, it’s safer to choose an older one that most people don’t know about. Thus your idea will feel fresh.
When Dan O’Bannon wrote the classic science fiction “Alien,” he borrowed the idea from two sources. First was a movie called “It! The Terror From Beyond Space.” Second was the persistent belief in World War Two that American bombers were sometimes plagued by gremlins that would sabotage the airplane.
In “It! The Terror From Beyond Space,” an American rocket lands on Mars to rescue a stranded astronaut. While there, a Martian stows away on board and begins hunting down and killing the crew until the crew opens the air lock to suck the oxygen out of the ship. Early in the movie, the Martian even hides in the ventilation ducts and despite the crew’s best efforts, it can’t be killed. Sound familiar? Just like “Alien.”
If you watch these two movies, the plot may be similar but the actual story details are vastly different, and that’s the difference between a good movie and a bad movie. Both “Jaws” and “Jaws 4” are about a man-eating shark, but look at the massive gap between the quality of these two films. The story forms the foundation, but how you tell that story determines your script.
If you’re stuck for how your story should proceed, watch a few old movies that are similar to your own. You may be inspired to take an idea from an old movie and recycle it in your own with better story details (hopefully).
Ultimately, there are no new stories told. Every story is just the unique creation of the writer that tells the same story in a different way. That means that every roadblock in your screenplay has probably already been solved by another movie somewhere in time. All you have to do is study old movies and learn from them, and you can do that for free.