What is a Biopic & Why Are They Dominating Hollywood?

Credit: Esquire
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

“12 Years a Slave” (2013) dir. Steve McQueen
“20th Century Women” (2016) dir. Mike Mills
“A Beautiful Mind” (2001) dir. Ron Howard
“A Cry In The Dark” (1988) dir. Fred Schepisi
“Adaptation” (2002) dir. Spike Jonze
“Ali” (2001) dir. Michael Mann
“American Sniper” (2014) dir. Clint Eastwood
“American Splendor” (2003) dir. Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman
“Arrival” (2016) dir. Denis Villeneuve
“At Eternity’s Gate” (2018) dir. Julian Schnabel
“Beyond The Sea” (2004) dir. Kevin Spacey
“Black Panther” (2018) dir. Ryan Coogler
"Blackkklansman" (2018) dir. Spike Lee
“Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018) dir. Bryan Singer
“Boys Don’t Cry” (1999) dir. Kimberly Peirce
“Braveheart” (2005) dir. Mel Gibson
“Capote” (2005) dir. Bennett Miller
“Catch Me If You Can” (2002) dir. Steven Spielberg
“Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) dir. Jean-Marc Vallée
“Darkest Hour” (2017) dir. Joe Wright
“Dreamgirls” (2006) dir. Bill Condon
“Eighth Grade” (2018) dir. Bo Burnham
“Ex-Machina” (2015) dir. Alex Garland
“First Man” (2018) dir. Damien Chazelle
“Florence Foster Jenkins” (2016) dir. Stephen Frears
“Foxcatcher” (2014) dir. Bennett Miller
“Frida” (2002) dir. Julie Taymor
“Gandhi” (1982) dir. Richard Attenborough 
“Green Book” (2018) dir. Peter Farrelly
“Hacksaw Ridge” (2016) dir. Mel Gibson
“Hidden Figures” (2016) dir. Theodore Melfi
“Hotel Rwanda” (2004) dir. Terry George
“I, Tonya” (2017) dir. Craig Gillespie
“I’m Not There” (2007) dir. Todd Haynes
“Invictus” (2009) dir. Clint Eastwood
“Jackie” (2016) dir. Pablo Larraín
“Jobs” (2013) dir. Joshua Michael Stern
“Joy” (2015) dir. David O. Russell 
“Julie & Julia” (2009) dir. Nora Ephron
“La Vie En Rose” (2007) dir. Olivier Dahan
“Les Miserables” (2012) dir. Tom Hooper
“Lincoln” (2012) dir. Steven Spielberg
“Loving” (2016) dir. Jeff Nichols
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) dir. George Miller
“Milk” (2008) dir. Gus Van Sant
“Monster” (2003) dir. Patty Jenkins
“Mudbound” (2017) dir. Dee Rees
“Music of the Heart” (1999) dir. Wes Craven
“My Week With Marilyn” (2011) dir. Simon Curtis
“One True Thing” (1998) dir. Carl Franklin
“Out of Africa” (1985) dir. Sydney Pollack
“Patton” (1970) dir. Franklin J. Schaffner
“Queen Christina” (1933) dir. Rouben Mamoulian
“Raging Bull” (1980) dir. Martin Scorsese
“Ray” (2004) dir. Taylor Hackford
“Selma” (2014) dir. Ava DuVernay
“Silkwood” (1983) dir. Mike Nichols
“Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) dir. David O. Russell
“Snowden” (2016) dir. Oliver Stone
“Steve Jobs” (2015) dir. Danny Boyle
“Swiss Army Man” (2016) dir. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
“The Blind Side” (2009) dir. John Lee Hancock
“The Danish Girl” (2015) dir. Tom Hooper
“The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) dir. David Frankel
“The Disaster Artist” (2017) dir. James Franco
“The Elephant Man” (1980) dir. David Lynch
“The Florida Project” (2017) dir. Sean Baker
“The Imitation Game” (2014) dir. Morten Tyldum
“The Iron Lady” (2011) dir. Phyllida Lloyd
“The King’s Speech” (2010) dir. Tom Hooper 
“The Last Emperor” (1987) dir. Bernardo Bertolucci 
“The Last King of Scotland” (2006) dir. Kevin Macdonald
“The Lobster” (2016) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
“The Master” (2012) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Post” (2017) dir. Steven Spielberg
“The Queen” (2006) dir. Stephen Frears
“The Revenant” (2015) dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu
“The Social Network” (2010) dir. David Fincher
“The Theory of Everything” (2014) dir. James Marsh
“The Witch” (2015) dir. Robert Eggers
“Trumbo” (2015) dir. Jay Roach
“Unbroken” (2014) dir. Angelina Jolie
“Vice” (2018) dir. Adam McKay
“Walk The Line” (2005) dir. James Mangold
Ok before we move further let's get one other thing clear: 

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. 

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVOvVFCLFcE

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

Young Mr. Lincoln - A Biopic
Credit: Classic Films

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. 

In an interview with Market Watch, screenwriter Henry Fitzherbert, who wrote Born a King, a biopic about the early life of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, said:

“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.

We have lots of tips on dialogue, pitching, and treatments to get your idea together, too.      

Senior Post is an award-winning Brooklyn-based post house that provides full post production services for film and television. Their work has screened at Sundance, Slamdance, Tribeca and SXSW and they've worked with clients such as HBO, Hulu, A24, Apatow Productions, Comedy Central, Vice, Vevo and Refinery 29. Their latest project, the second season of 2 Dope Queens, airs Fridays on HBO at 11pm. 


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Your Comment


Bohemian Rhapsody is such an offensive film to the memory of Freddie Mercury that one can only think there's someone spending a lot of money to push this garbage forward - after all, these big awards have nothing to do with cinematic quality but they serve to guide the attention of the sheep. The said sheep get so entretained with the sign-along during the movie that they eventually miss what the film is really talking about. This is not a bio-pic, but a portrait of the disgust and envy that has been eroding the band members since Freddie died and became a legend, while they have been completely forgotten.

February 19, 2019 at 10:26AM


Biopics are the easiest path to Oscar. It's that simple.

February 19, 2019 at 12:01PM, Edited February 19, 12:01PM


Bohemian Rhapsody very good

May 23, 2021 at 5:00AM

Austin Atkins