For some odd reason, many people want to write a screenplay, yet they fail to study and learn from existing movies to see what works and what fails. The more you study existing movies, the more techniques you can learn. By dissecting a favorite movie, you can see why it works. By studying a lousy movie, you can better understand how it failed.
Bad movies are often instructional because they show how the execution of a good idea failed. “The Layover” has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, yet it actually starts with a good idea. Two women are on a plane when they meet a handsome man that they both want to win over. As a comedy, this idea offers plenty of possibilities.
Yet as promising as the idea might be, “The Layover” absolutely fails in making us care about the characters in any way. There’s no sense of character development or underlying theme. Instead, the movie focuses on meaningless action to evoke laughs, but it even fails to do that. When you see a poor movie like “The Layover,” you can see how a good idea means nothing if you can’t execute on that good idea well.
Ideally, watch and study independent films because they must tell a story within a limited budget. That means no CGI special effects, no A-list movie stars or directors, and no exotic locations like Paris in the 1920’s complete with antique cars and period costumes.
Independent films lack special effects and stunts so they must totally rely on character development. As a result, the premise is often less than exciting so independent films must perform with flawless execution.
In “Short Term 12,” the premise is nothing more than a woman working at a facility that temporarily houses kids until they can be moved to a more permanent home. That premise alone sounds kind of boring, but the execution of that story is amazing.
The key is that the hero (played by Brie Larson) is a woman who was raped by her father so she testified against him and sent him to prison. Now her father is being released from prison and the hero must now take care of a new girl who has come into her facility who is going through the exact same problem of her father sexually abusing her.
Now the hero must deal with her own traumatic past while also trying to help this young girl deal with her own abusive father. The only way she can help this other girl is by overcoming her own personal demons from the past.
“Short Term 12” would never be a Hollywood blockbuster, but by studying it, you can see how it tells a focused story that constantly challenges the hero to overcome her past and learn to shed her past trauma so she can live a happier life in the future.
That’s essentially what every story must do. “Top Gun: Maverick” managed to include both action and a compelling emotional story so it succeeded. The latest “Mission Impossible” movie simply doubled down on more action with no emotional story whatsoever, so it was much weaker as a result. “The Layover” has no compelling action and no emotional story either, so it’s a completely flop.
To study movies, you can subscribe to the many streaming services, but in the United States, there are several streaming sites that offer free movies as long as you’re willing to put up with ads. By taking advantage of these free movies, you can study different types of movies you may never have heard about before, and watch them for free in the convenience of your home.
Because you can pause and go back to study a scene, you can focus on learning why a scene works and how it works. Browse through this list of free movies online to see some of the better movies available at no cost.
If you’re serious about screenwriting, study good and bad movies and learn why they work or fail. The more you know, the more you can apply your knowledge to improving your own screenplays.