7 Award Winning Scripts Screenwriters Should Know

Reading award winning scripts is one of the best ways to learn how to write a screenplay.

Let’s jump right into one of my favorite genres—historical drama, aka the “biopic.”

The biggest factor that increases the odds of selling your screenplay is getting a movie star attached to the project. So it’s worth looking at these award-winning scripts, not only for the excellent writing, but to see how the writers created roles that are “movie-star bait.”

In addition to these award-winning scripts, I’ve highlighted the challenges and triumphs of these screenwriters who persevered for years before their projects were produced.

7 Award Winning Scripts (Biopics)

12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave Movie Scripts Poster

12 Years A Slave won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Here’s how it started: screenwriter John Ridley met with director Steve McQueen to discuss working on a project together.  However, it was McQueen’s wife (a historian) who had discovered Solomon Northrup’s book. After reading the book Ridley said, “I could not believe I had grown up in the States and not been aware of this individual, Solomon Northup, and his circumstances and his story.”

“One of the things you have to keep in mind, believe it or not, there is more slavery going on in the world today, right now, than there was at that time.”

Ridley shares a moving story [1:45] about receiving a letter from his neighbor after seeing the film.

Discuss The 12 Years A Slave Movie Script

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club Movie Poster Movie Scripts

Dallas Buyer’s Club was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

Initially, screenwriter Craig Borten knew the pitch for his film was a tough sell.

“This was the elevator pitch for my film: ‘It’s a story about a racist homophobe with AIDS who befriends a man who dresses as a woman. Then they both die.'”

Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack worked for many years and getting Dallas Buyer’s Club made was an extraordinary saga.

Borten and Wallack share how they started working on the project and the many financing challenges they encountered throughout the process of getting the film made.

Discuss The Dallas Buyers Club Movie Script

The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady Movie Scripts Movie Poster

The Iron Lady was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay.

Screenwriter and playwright Abi Morgan said, “When I was first approached about writing a film about Margaret Thatcher, there was a very good script in place. But at the time, the small screen had suddenly been inundated by some very brilliant films covering her early years.” Morgan watched the many other projects and had to come up with her own take on the material.

“It would not only be a study of power, but also loss of power. The ability of the mind to play tricks and rewind one’s life would provide a structure, a form for the chaos of a rich and powerful life. I approached this as I would approach any other subject.”

“I am a writer of fiction, that is my job.  To find something beyond the real: truth in artifice.”

Discuss The Iron Lady Movie Script

 

The King's Speech

The Iron Lady Movie Scripts Movie Poster

The King’s Speech won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

Screenwriter David Seidler shared, “It only took me a couple of months to write a first draft of the script. I wasn’t happy with the results so I showed it to my then wife. She said it had ‘some rather nice scenes’ (so diplomatic) but I was being ‘seduced by cinematic technique’. Harrumph.

She then suggested, purely as an exercise, I write it first as a stage play. This would force me to focus on the key relationship. After all, the core of The King’s Speech is two men in a consultation room; if I could get that tent pole right, everything else could be hung from it like Christmas tree ornaments.

After The King’s Speech was a box office success, Seidler said,

“I have a 1,000% better chance than a few years ago of getting work. If I’d walked into a studio five years ago and said, ‘I want to make this film about a dead Brit king who stutters’ I’d have been out the door in 60 seconds. Now they’re very interested in what I have to say.”

David Seidler shares the genesis of The King’s Speech movie script and why it was a such a personal story.

Discuss The King's Speech Movie Script

Lincoln Movie Script

Lincoln Movie Script Movie Poster

Lincoln was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner revealed,

“I had said, ‘No’ to writing the screenplay.  I just thought, ‘This is impossible.’ I had started to read Team of Rivals which is an 800-page four-way political biography, the living definition of a book that can’t be adapted.  I knew enough about Lincoln to know that I would be dealing with somebody who was a genius on the level of Shakespeare, Mozart, and I really think that he was one of those people. You can’t win because the minute you explain how they do the really superhuman things that they do, you’ve failed because, of course, we have no idea how they do them. If we did, we could all go out and write Hamlet.”

Tony Kushner’s first draft of the Lincoln screenplay ran to a mammoth 500 pages.

“You can always smell in a film or a play when the research has crushed the spontaneity of the thing and you feel the pages turning in a quiet library, instead of something lively and exciting.”

You want to be able to invent within reason. My guideline is, ‘Did it happen this way?  Did it happen at all?’ If the answer is, ‘No,’ then it’s pure fiction. If the answer is, ‘Yes, it happened,’ then it’s historical fiction. ‘Did it happen exactly like this?’ If the answer is, ‘Yes,’ it’s history.”

Discuss The Lincoln Movie Script

Milk

Lincoln Movie Script Movie Poster

Milk was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  

Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black shared, “This is a spec script and a spec script is really just a lot of paper and ink. It’s just a lot of paper and ink and credit card bills on top of everything else until a team of people come together who really believe in it and they lift it up. I don’t know if you’re aware, but this wasn’t the easiest subject matter to produce, it’s pretty gay, and it’s political.

“So why did I want to spend five years with this Harvey Milk guy? Honestly, it’s the longest relationship I’ve been able to maintain.”

In this video, Black shares his very personal story of contemplating suicide as he testifies about the importance of having a Harvey Milk Day in California. Harvey Milk Day passed and Black gave a touching introduction to a screening of Milk in the Castro on Harvey Milk Day.

Discuss The Milk Movie Script

The Wolf Of Wall Street

Wolf Of Wall Street Movie Scripts Movie Poster

The Wolf Of Wall Street was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Screenwriter Terrence Winter said, “Being a screenwriter was my deep, dark secret. I grew up in Brooklyn in a fairly blue-collar environment and anything to do with Hollywood was something other people did. I had gone to a vocational high school, I originally studied to be an auto mechanic, once I finagled my way into NYU, I paid for it myself, and I worked at night. I did every job under the sun to do that. I was a hospital security guard at an emergency room in Brooklyn. I drove a cab. I was the guy who delivered the NY Times in the middle of the night. I was a waiter. I was a doorman on the midnight-8 AM shift at a building on the Upper East side for a couple years and then ultimately went to law school. Did that, hated it, but figured, everybody hates their job. I didn’t count on how much I would actually hate it.

Couple years in, I just woke up one morning and was like, “I can’t do this.”

“I can’t deny what I actually wanted to do and that was to be a writer.”

Once I was able to say that out loud, I just said, “Alright, I’m getting on a plane and coming out to LA and doing it. If it fails, you can always go back to doing something else.”

The idea of flashing forward a few decades into the future and getting to work with him [Scorsese], beyond anything I could imagine. I think at any moment, I think the alarm clock is going to go off and I’m going to be late for my job at the delicatessen in Brooklyn.”

Discuss The Wolf Of Wall Street Movie Script

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Discussion About 7 Award Winning Scripts Screenwriters Should Know

  1. Ben van Bergen

    It’s always good to read awarded or winning scripts, but oftentimes the ‘shooting scripts’ and the ones that might be out there can be radically different. I once saw a shooting script on-set, which had one liners of action in the scene headings. There were up to 10 in any one start of a scene, which can be really deceptive if you read the non-shooting script.

  2. Geno

    I couldn’t disagree more with your opening sentence. Reading produced scripts do more harm than good with most screenwriters today, and here’s why. The scripts that are available to the writer are almost exclusively shooting scripts. Most- a large percentage of them- were written by long-established writers hired by a studio or a production company. The vast majority of your reading audience (your newsletter recipients), I have to assume are spec screenwriters, mostly with very little success in the studio world.

    What ends up happening, more often than not, is the spec screenwriter reads these scripts and “emulates” the formatting of these scripts; formatting that they’ve never been formally trained on how to use properly. I have seen parentheticals used for every character on every word spoken throughout the script. I have seen montages that were written as intercuts, phone conversations written as dual dialogues, and nine out of ten spec scripts open in a voice-over or a flashback- all because they “read it once in so and so Oscar-winning screenplay”. Even with all of the current recommendations of 90-110 pages in length, screenplays are commonly written to 170 pages or more, because “one page= one minute, and the last movie I went to was 3 hours long!”

    If you want to suggest that the writer could read screenplays for the pure enjoyment of it, excellent. To say that it is a great way to learn how to write a screenplay? Huge mistake, in my book.

    Love your newsletters, though!

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Thanks for your response, Geno.

      Your point is well taken – I agree with you that the script that sold is ideally what a new writer would read. However, these are the scripts that the writers submitted for consideration by the Academy – the version that they have chosen to share.

      I do think that these scripts – formatting issues aside – are worth reading because it does showcase how to structure a story centered around one key role that would interest a movie star.

      All that said, I agree with your point about formatting and am in the process of putting together some simple formatting recommendations for new writers.

  3. Jon Carlson

    THANK YOU STEPHANIE!!!!

    This is EXACTLY what I’ve been looking for. You read enough great scripts and they WILL have an effect on the quality of your OWN writing. It sure beats a LONG trip to the WGA library. Very cool indeed!

    Thanks again!

    JonCCC

  4. Eric Wiler

    Thank you Stephanie. What a great resource. You’re awesome!

  5. Doug

    Dear Stephanie,
    The length of a screenplay, written by an aspiring writer, is an area in which they are several points of view. It’s my understanding that the target length for an aspiring writer today would be in range of 100 to 110 pages. Granted, there are several current films, particularly the action based releases, that are in the range of 2 and 1/2 hours in length. These are generally films with millions of dollars behind them in production costs and in prints and advertising. I think it would somewhat suicidal for an aspiring writer to think that he or she would be able to merit a studio reader’s or executive’s time to take a serious look at the aspiring writer’s own 180 to 200 page masterpiece. One of the screenplays in your recent posting is “The King’s Speech.” It’s 92 pages long. It’s an excellent example of a very well-structured screenplay that’s under 100 pages in length. Aspiring writers should remember that it’s not about the length of one’s screenplay, it’s about how you tell the story and how you create engaging characters. That’s why the screenplays that you have posted have been wisely selected by you in order for aspiring writers to have access to screenplay structures and characters that have passed the litmus test.
    Also, I think your idea of posting some “do’s and don’ts” as far as standard formatting procedures is an excellent idea and I would encourage you to follow-up with that potentailly useful posting. You should cover the areas of “do’s and dont’s” that deal with the standard with the standard areas of controversy.
    Sincerely,
    Doug

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Great point, Doug. Yes, 100-110 pages is the target length I recommend for a script from a new writer. There is a bias (and I’ve done it) when you have a stack of 10-15 scripts for weekend read, it’s common to flip to the back of each script to see how long each script is, and then selecting which ones to read first because they are the shortest.

  6. Jeff

    Thanks for posting these.

    I get Geno’s point. But to me, it’s better to learn how to screenwrite from looking at scripts than it is from reading a screenwriting book. Most of those are awful. Check the writing credits for the people who write them and a lot of times they’ve written what? Two episodes of Full House maybe. I tried reading one of Syd Field’s and found it to be too rigid with its insistence on a slavish adherence to the three act structure. Life is not driven by a three act structure and since when one sets out to make a film, they want to create life onscreen, this makes things feel artificial.

    My first attempt at a screenplay I wrote in stage play format as that’s what I was used to. When I showed it to someone who had experience, he explained where it was formatted wrong. So I went on to the internet and began looking for scripts for films I like. I already own the Pulp Fiction script in book form. So I went looking for and found the scripts for Chinatown, Do The Right Thing, Network, Boogie Nights, Taxi Driver and a bunch of others. There are several sites where one can find scripts in various form from first draft to shooting script.

    Anyway, this is a great resource and thanks for having these here.

    BTW: Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is my favorite big screen biopic.

  7. Watson

    I understand the value in reading these biopic scripts, however, as a writer who has no connections, wouldn’t it seem unwise to write something that’s in the public domain? For instance, years ago, I had wanted to write a biopic about the Runaways (70s all girl band with Joan Jett). They of course made a movie about them years later (great movie too so I wasn’t bummed!) If I had written it, it would’ve been a good exercise and a writing sample, but not much more than that.

  8. Chris Chabot

    Great article! The WGA Foundation houses all the scripts that are produced and when I worked there a bunch of us used to go down to the library on the first floor and read them. The scripts in there are the script that was purchased and not the finished product, so you are able to see a lot of differences. Sometimes the writer would come in and talk about what it was like taking the script from sale to production in a small seminar for writers. The biggest surprised was Alan Ball who gave a talk for the WGA Magazine about what was cut from American Beauty – as I recall it was about 40 pages of a trial where the kids are convicted of murder and flashback scenes with Chris Cooper’s character and his lover in the military, where his lover dies on a fence wire. He said the director said the 40 pages were unnecessary once Kevin Spacey’s character died and if the flashback scenes were cut, the part where Chris Cooper tries to kiss Kevin Spacey would be far more of a shock.

    Keep those great articles coming Steph!

  9. naskah drama

    Thanks for share this very useful post.

  10. PK

    Hi Stephanie:

    Great collection of scripts! I’m curious to know why you’ve included only biopics. Any particular reason screenwriters should focus on how historical fiction is written?

    Gratefully,
    PK

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Hi, PK. This post focuses on biopics simply because it is a genre I personally like a lot. I also have posts on animation scripts and TV pilot scripts and plan to include other genres in the future. Have a request?

    • PK

      Cool, got it! Nothing in particular. Was simply curious, is all. Thanx! 🙂

  11. Odessa

    Thank you for these wonderful scripts. A friend of mine once told me that all the best writers were now writing for the film industry. But for a few exceptions, I have to believe it after reading some of these scripts. Simply delightful.