What is a Biopic & Why Are They Dominating Hollywood?
Sometimes the best story you have is the one about someone else's life...Biopics welcome.
Have you noticed a trend in Hollywood lately? It seems like every time you got to the movies or see a new trailer; it's an ad for a movie about someone famous' life. In 2018 alone, Hollywood produced 20+ movies about historical people. And if you read the 2018 Black List, you'll see that it was dominated by biopics. The fact is, true stories and biopics were also some of the most-purchased spec ideas of last year, too.
If you're looking to get the attention of an agent or manager, writing a biopic might be right for you.
And it's not just Hollywood; even Bollywood is going biopic crazy. So time for you to cash in.
But what's a biopic? And how can a biopic help you break into Hollywood?
Today we're going to answer those questions and more, and give you some exclusive video content created for No Film School readers.
Let's dive right in!
What's A Biopic?
A biographical film, or biopic for short, is a film that tells the story of the life of a non-fictional or historical person. Biopics use the central character(s) to show an important discovery, period in history, or dramatically relevant period within their lives to tell a contemporary lesson. That all seems straightforward, but there are some serious discrepancies in how you should pronounce biopic as well.
Why Are Biopics Are Oscar Bait?
Typically, biopic scripts attract bigger actors looking to take on a role that the audience already understands. These bigger actors help movies get bigger budgets, meaning wider releases. If the movie is good and seen by a lot of people or both, it can usually generate Oscar buzz.
We also have a disproportionate amount of Oscar wins for biopics. Or, at least it feels that way. Part of that has to do with why so many biopics are being made.
After researching biopics, we decided to work with Senior Post to make a video that discussed why biopic movies are such Oscar bait.
List of films referenced
How Do You Pronounce "Biopic?"
You pronounce "biopic"...bio-pick. Not bi-opic. Let's just confirm that. I can't sit in any more meetings and hear bi-opic. It's a biographical picture. Biopic. This is not complicated, people. So let's get it right moving forward.
What Defines A Biopic?
Whether you cover a character's entire life the way Malcolm X does, or just a few long weeks the way Selma maneuvers its tale, biopics are centered around interesting historical characters. Many people quibble over whether or not Apollo 13 can be a biopic because it's truly an ensemble, versus First Man which centers around one guy, so you have to take care not to mislabel historical dramas biopics. I'm more focused on writing the best thing possible, but let's entertain what the classical definition of a biopic must be.
I think the clearest way to define a biopic is to look at the central plot. If the story revolves around one person and their actions, then it's a biopic. If it revolves around a group of people trying to do one thing, then it's probably just a historical drama. That means movies like Vice are biopics. But movies like Game Change would be historical dramas.
What Are Some Biopic Examples?
There are so many biopics to choose from, between Schindler's List, Lawrence of Arabia, The Coal Miner's Daughter, The Social Network, Ray, Lincoln, Milk, Imitation Game, and The Wolf of Wall Street you have a ton right there and I haven't even opened up Google yet. I mean, off the top of your head you may be able to name 10-20 music biopics without trying.
Rolling Stone made a list of the Top 30 Music Biopics, and that's just a list of the good ones!
Biopics have always been a staple of the Hollywood landscape. John Ford did a movie called Young Mr. Lincoln.
Biopics have been a mainstay in the Hollywood landscape for a long time, but it does seem like they're popping up more and more now. According to a study on IMDb, 6 of the top 10 highest-grossing biopics ever were released in the last decade, led by American Sniper with $350 million, The Blind Side with $256 million and Bohemian Rhapsody with 211 million.
From Bohemian Rhapsody to At Eternity's Gate, it seems like playing a historical figure lands actors an Oscar nomination no matter the movie.
“It does seem that in 2018 we’re seeing biopics than ever...Cinema is under so much competition that the more the medium can offer the audience in terms of added value the better,” he said. “Being based on a true story gives the audience a sense of greater substance and coming away with something extra.”
But are audiences totally behind what makes biopics so popular?
Or is there something more at play?
Why Are Biopics so Popular Right Now?
We talked about intellectual property in our Public Domain post and our how to adapt a screenplay post; intellectual property rules Hollywood. People want ideas that already have a certain public recognition, so they're easier to get clicks or to sell tickets. It's really expensive to option huge books or news articles. And it's competitive.
But as you know, the Public Domain contains lots of free ideas. And you know who's part of the Public Domain? Most historical figures or famous people.
Screenplays that cover the lives of famous people are free intellectual property. They're great ways to build a story and to highlight story structure, without having to make up everything that happens.
Sure, you have to be truthful, but writing about a famous figure and chronicling their lives or a moment in their lives gives you less to pitch. Usually, these people are part of the cultural lexicon already. So you don't have to do much, just add drama and reasoning to the internal and external conflict provided by history.
That's easier said than done, but you understand the gist.
This makes writing biopics very attractive to writers.
Summing Up Biopic Films In Hollywood
So there you have it - biopic films are all the rage now. They're easy to sell, end up on a lot of the year-end lists, and can be popular with agents, managers, and audiences alike.
Got a great biopic idea?
Consider joining our Free Screenwriting Seminar to flesh out your idea.