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  • Writer's pictureLee Hamilton

Biopics – Are they worth it?

We all know biopics make hot Oscar contenders and they’re super appealing to actors. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there always seems to be a huge bias towards nominating roles playing real life people. This potentially career-changing prospect gives any budding spec writer a compelling reason to find an interesting historical figure to go write about.

But, let’s look at it with a more practical eye.

1. Have you got the time to do extensive research on your chosen protagonist? You’ll need to know your hero inside out if you want an accurate portrayal. That might involve reading already written material, watching footage, or even interviewing family, friends, or colleagues of the person in question.

2. Do you have the rights? If the person you’re writing about is still alive, you may only be able to use material that’s already publicly known, otherwise you’ll need to get permission from the source. For long-dead people, things become much easier, but be prepared to use a lawyer just to make sure you’re in the clear from any existing descendants.

3. Is the story marketable enough? Biopics are great when focusing on a well-known person as there’s usually a guaranteed audience ready and waiting. For lesser-known figures, you’ll need to do more than just detail a series of events; you’ll need a compelling narrative that pulls us along too. Assume that the audience knows nothing about the protagonist in order to ensure that you do enough to make us want to root for them.

4. Know what to cut and what to keep. It’s easy to fall foul of writing a ‘from birth to death’ story. Problem is, we really only want to know the interesting bits. Knowing where to start and end a story is key, as is cutting out any characters, locations, or events that sure, happened in real life, but might be cluttering up the script. You’ll also need to know when to bend the facts. Just because something happened, doesn’t mean it’s interesting to watch. Pick the best bits, cut out the rest (which is good advice for any script you’re writing!).

5. Traditionally, it’s extremely hard for new unproduced writers to sell period spec scripts. Why? Period pieces usually cost more to produce and studios and execs are less likely to take a large financial risk on someone whose yet to prove themselves. To combat this, write with budget in mind, which will help make a biopic more appealing to indie production companies.

6. Have you written other scripts? If a biopic’s the only script in your portfolio, there’s the risk that you may be viewed as a one-trick pony. While a well-written biopic may never be made, they can make excellent contest winning scripts that give a new writer some much-needed exposure. Just be prepared for the inevitable “What else do you have?” question.

Tackling a biopic can be daunting, time-consuming, and potentially fruitless (what script isn’t though, right?), but high risk also comes with high reward. Yes, have a biopic in your body of work, but show your versatility by having other scripts in there too. Consider writing a short version first or shoot a proof of concept to get some interest. Or alternatively, simply take inspiration from a public figure and use that to develop a uniquely original character of your own.

Remember, good stories always sell!

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