30 Essential Movies for Screenwriters to Watch

October 14th, 2013 by

A bit of recent synchronicity in my life led to this idea for a blog series. Two parts to this tale, so please bear with me as I walk you through the process that led to this particular inspiration.

My wife Rebecca (@bf4tbrainy) is not only founder of the popular Facebook community The Brain Cafe and senior editor at The Creativity Post, she also started and is the director of online education for the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum. To help launch the program last year, I taught a weekly class called The Hero’s Journey to 15 incredibly bright middle schoolers, essentially teaching them college level content. It was a great success. This year, I am teaching a class called Film Festival where each month we research, watch and analyze a notable movie around the theme of metamorphosis. I selected 9 movies covering a wide range of genres, eras and country of origin including Spirited Away, The Searchers, Groundhog Day, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Singin’ in the Rain, and Whale Rider.

The very first movie we studied in September: Citizen Kane. One of the students’ assignments: Find a good online resource. I suggested that it may include analysis of the film, either its place in movie history like this, essays on the narrative like this, or cinematic technique like this. After giving them those leads, I waited to see what my students, ranging in age from 13-16, would come up with.

Well, safe to say, they knocked it out of the park. Check out these resources, a few examples of the quality items they sourced:

1941 NY Times Movie Review: Citizen Kane: Yes, the original NYT review of the film.

Citizen Kane Cinematography: A list of every single camera shot in the movie.

Citizen Kane: Dramatic Structure: A breakdown of each scene in the movie along with the writer’s analysis of the story’s five act structure.

Light and Shadow in Citizen Kane: A lengthy analysis of this particular aspect of the movie’s cinematic innovation.

Orson Welles Explains the Meaning of Rosebud: The writer, actor, and director himself on the movie’s key mystery.

The Complete Citizen Kane Documentary: A 90 minute documentary online and viewable for free.

How great, right? All these amazing resources online, just sitting there waiting to be tapped — and my crew uncovered them.

Now the second part of my story. When I traveled to Las Vegas on Sunday, September 29th to participate in the Black List Screenwriters Lab, I had these research results from the Film Festival class rolling around in my mind.

During the week, the screenwriting mentors, Brian Koppelman (Ocean’s 13), Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married), Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), and Kiwi Smith (Legally Blonde), Franklin Leonard and I had numerous conversations about the craft and the business. One of those talks that stuck with me was how critically important it is for screenwriters to have seen movies. Lots of movies. Tons of movies. And especially important movies.

The reasons for this are many, but here is perhaps one of the most valuable: Everyone who works in Hollywood film development, whether studio exec, producer, director, actor, manager, agent, or writer constantly refers to previously produced movies when in conversation. Not just casual chat, but in actual development meetings. In order to make a point or a quick reference, it’s often easier to suggest the escape sequence in The Shawshank Redemption, the train scene in Stand By Me, and the hitchhiking scene in It Happened One Night than fabricate something out of thin air.

Which means if you, the screenwriter, don’t know the movie reference, you not only can’t get what they’re saying, you also run the risk of looking like a complete laggard. What do you mean you haven’t seen The Godfather: Part 2?!?!

So as I was flying home from Las Vegas, I put one and one together, and came up with this thought: Why not ask the GITS community to come up with 30 essentials movies a screenwriter absolutely must watch. And once we settle on that list, then crowdsource online resources, just like my savvy GHF students.

Run it as a series: An essential movie each day for a month, aggregating a bunch of excellent resources about each one, then archive the whole list to make it easy for a writer to screen and analyze each film.

Note: Obviously there are more than 30 movies we absolutely need to see, but let’s start here, then maybe we revisit to increase the list.

How I’d like to approach this project is this week, let’s see if we can come up with a set of guidelines about how we determine what is an essential movie for screenwriters to see. You may think it’s as easy as taking the top 30 films on the IMDB 250 list, but that’s not necessarily the case. In my view, this is not a best of or favorite list, rather this is about movies a working screenwriter ought to have a working knowledge and understanding of.

For example, one criterion I would include as part of the guidelines: Movies that execs, producers and reps bring up as the type of films they really want to emulate in a new ‘similar but different’ project. I’m not sure if these titles are still in vogue, but for awhile it seemed like almost every meeting I took and this idea would come up, the usual suspects including The Goonies and The Sting. Those would not necessarily be on anybody’s favorite list, but for a time they were top of mind for folks in film development. So that would be one piece of the guideline puzzle I would suggest has to be included in our list.

How about you? What criteria do you think need to be part of the selection process in creating a list of essential movies screenwriters need to watch?

I hope this idea catches on with the GITS community as I think the end result could be a beneficial resource for aspiring and even working screenwriters, driving home once again how important it is to Watch Movies [and Read Scripts and Write Pages].

Let’s see how much response there is today and what type of criteria folks come up with. Maybe we’ll take two or even three days to brainstorm ideas. By the end of the week, hopefully we can come up with a set of guidelines.

Then next week, we can solicit movie suggestions and use some sort of voting system to aggregate 30 essential movies with an eye toward running this series in November.

I’ll make this pledge: Whatever list we generate, I will commit to finding one solid online resource per movie during the series run. Hopefully there are those of you who will want to join in this project.

So what do you say? Is this a good idea? Are you down with it? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what criteria we should use to determine a list of 30 essential movies for screenwriters to watch.

13 thoughts on “30 Essential Movies for Screenwriters to Watch

  1. Maybe we could start from this list: http://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx

    or perhaps this list is more relevant: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/adjusted.htm

    I guess the thing I’m really not sure about, which speaks to your “same but different” criterion, concerns a film like Casablanca or Citizen Kane: as great as they are, from a writing point of view, are these movies even relevant to the modern screenwriter? Likewise for any movie made before 1969 (or pick some arbitrary date).

    Is there some value in reinventing classic tropes for the modern era, or is the intent to simply treat these movies as markers or shorthand for a more modern film vocabulary?

  2. Mark Walker says:

    Sounds like a great idea to me….although, once we have the list, please don’t ask me how many I have seen – I tend to fare badly with such things!

    Not sure if this makes sense, but I was thinking of a criterion around SIMPLICITY….finding a film that is a great story and/or a complex/complicated story, but so well written that, on screen it just works sublimely. I guess I am thining of LOOPER as an example here…so much opportunity for confusing timey-wimey stuff to confuse and obfuscate (sorry I love that word) the story….but so well written that it makes it clear and accessible…..so maybe ACCESSIBILITY and SIMPLICITY as crtieria….in some way….does that make sense – and yes, I do see the irony if it doesn’t!! :-)

  3. JoeyArone says:

    Since we’re dealing with this from the perspective of the writer, “must see” movies are movies that illustrate a certain aspect of writing. First, this means that movies that show how not to write (we’ve all seen those movies) as well as the great movies should be included on the list. Second, movies that illustrate easily defined and recognizable styles and elements. (Such as Tarantino, Kaufman) Third, movies where dialogue (again both good and bad) takes precedence. Finally, movies that are based on previously written material probably should not be included (yes, this would exclude the previously mentioned Godfather) unless adaptations is a specific subject to be highlighted.

  4. Shaula Evans says:

    Scott, I’m so thrilled you’re doing this series. I’m excited to watch it develop.

    Some thoughts on “essential movie lists”:

    There are really two overlapping lists under this umbrella: (1) movies that are reference points for people inside the industry; and (2) important movies for screenwriters to learn from. The first list is learning how to “speak film” fluently in a Hollywood industry context, and the second is about learning from great screenwriting.

    Both lists are important, and they may have some overlap, but the spirit behind them is fundamentally different.

    I would love it if the readers and friends of the blog who are working in Hollywood could contribute suggestions for the first “industry” list–because useful suggestions for that list can only come from people with industry connections.

    Perhaps you could do one series of Hollywood reference point movies and a whole other series for studying screenwriting. They are both valuable lists.

    I’m glad you’re taking the time to start a conversation about criteria. It’s really tough to compile these kinds of lists and get suggestions that amount to anything other than people’s (subjectively) favourite movies. Getting the nature of the list and some criteria established up front should really improve the quality of the final lists.

    Thank you again for launching this project.

  5. Kalen says:

    I think coming up with criteria to judge scripts and films is difficult. Everyone’s opinion is subjective. One script that resonates with an action fan might not hit home with a more sentimental person. And I would say the 30 films would have to rank on some kind of a list, but again, there are so many important movies with great scripts that aren’t gonna appear on a critics’ top 100 list — especially newer ones.

    The best way of doing this might just be to ask readers to submit three of their personal choices, then add up which appear most and go from there. Or you could pick a genre (history, sports, love, etc.) and have three choices, ask the readers to pick one, then go with whatever one the readers selected most. Either way, there are a lot of intelligent people here who know their movies. I think getting them involved could be the best way to decide this.

  6. Scott says:

    Thanks for the feedback. I think Shaula’s point is a valid one. Since I am in the middle of a lot of traveling this month, I believe what I’ll do is focus on suggestions from the GITS community, then derive a list of essential movies from that. Then I’ll reach out to screenwriters, managers, producers, etc to get feedback on “Hollywood reference point movies” or something similar to that for a later list.

    1. Shaula Evans says:

      Hurray! (Two lists are better than one–and I can’t get enough of these kinds of lists)

      For a GITS-generated list, I’d love to see people suggest movies that they have learned from as screenwriters, along with what they’ve learned. That would supply the data to create a diverse set of movies that can teach us a broad set of writing lessons.

  7. Debbie Moon says:

    Late to the party, but: for criteria, how about including some movies that use unusual structures or elements – a dual protagonist movie, a multi-strand movie like Babel, something that plays with time like Memento…?

  8. Simon Littlefield says:

    Scott, I think this is a great idea. Is there any way you can search GITS to find the most mentioned movies? If not I’m sure between us all we can compile a list of films that are frequently refered to in screenwriting discussions: Casablanca, Shawshank, Toy Story etc.

    As a sidebar to this, I had been thinking of suggesting a weekly feature focussing on reading a screenplay (of the three main areas of writing pages, watching films and reading screenplays, the latter is definitely my weakest).

    Is there a way of exploring the list further by studying the actual language, style and structure used to write those screenplays?

  9. Daniel Smith says:

    Scott, I think the criteria for this list is simply the movies that are the best exemplars of specific scenes or plot elements or genres AND that are well known. I mean, that’s how you introduced them in your post! The movies on this list will be important because (1) they contain plot elements or scenes that are in some way iconic or exemplary and (2) they must also be widely known since using them as a mental shortcut is only useful if everyone in the conversation has seen the movie.

    I’m getting ahead of the group, but my list would definitely include: The Godfather, Die Hard, The Shawshank Redemption, Star Wars, and Back to the Future.

    All 5 meet both criteria. What adult living in America today wouldn’t recognize all 5 of these titles as movies? And what screenwriter living in America today would dare write a mob movie/contained action flick/historical redemption film/sci fi epic/time travel adventure without either watching, or expecting their screenplay to be compared to, the corresponding film in the list above? Only an amateur, that’s who.

    I think Pliny’s suggestion for where to start is a good one, but I would suggest we add the limitation that there be no duplicate story types (refer to Scott’s list of Story Types (in the sidebar?)) or genres at least among the initial 30 to maximize the coverage and appeal of the initial list. Also, I would probably go with only the American box office numbers rather than include the international since Hollywood is located on US soil.

  10. Ryan Canty says:

    My list:

    Dog Day Afternoon
    Alien
    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
    Resevoir Dogs
    Pulp Fiction
    Se7en
    The Tenant

    I could be compiling this list forever! lol!

    But i’ll go with these as screenplays I’ve learned the craft of screenwriting from.

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