Getting Inspired: How to Come Up With Compelling Movie Ideas
It’s the Writer’s imagination from which great movie ideas come, right?
Eh, not always. Sure, Writers do seem to have epiphanies in the shower, during a dream or while doing anything else that makes for inconvenient timing. But truthfully, those movie ideas often stem from something that the Writer has already seen, heard or experienced for themselves.
And especially when a Writer is feeling uninspired—or worse—suffering from Writer’s block, it’s important to remember that the avenues to finding movie ideas are plentiful. So, for Writers who want to always be prepared for that dreaded block, or who just want to reach beyond their normal bag of tricks, the following breaks down some movie idea resources at their fingertips.
One of the most common—and perhaps overused—adages in the filmmaking business is write what you know. But there’s good reason for it: It works1. When in a room with an Executive, Agent or Producer, the question is often asked, “Why are you the only person who can tell this story?” Well, when the movie idea comes from that Writer’s own life, that’s a pretty convincing answer. Says filmmaker Jason Charnick, “Most of my ideas do indeed come from personal experience. I always feel I need to be connected to the work in a way that’s personal to me.”
But what kind of personal experiences? Read ahead!
Movies are generally about conflict. And even in the most supportive and healthiest of upbringings, childhood experiences and memories often make for great movie ideas. Why? Because no one comes out of adolescence unscathed. Consider all the many coming-of-age films from over a century’s worth of cinema: Rebel Without a Cause, American Graffiti, Dead Poets Society, Rushmore and Moonlight, just to name a few. No two adolescences are the same, which means that as a Writer, this time in life can be a rich one for movie ideas.
Graduating college. Getting married. Having a baby. Suffering loss. Any and all these life-changing events happen to many people, which can make them relatable to audiences on a large scale—and that is exactly why they make for compelling movie ideas. Much of what cinema is about is finding common ground through someone else’s story, which explains how seminal films such as The Graduate, Ordinary People and My Big Fat Greek Wedding have continued to influence both filmmakers and fans even decades after they were released. While these films depict their characters’ particular experiences, the universality of those experiences resonates with those of us watching them play out on the big screen.
Love and relationships encompass far more than just getting married. Some relationships don’t work out. Some do but still don’t result in marriage. People get betrayed. Others do the betraying. Few instances of personal experience can be more powerful than that of love and romance. So for the Writer who feels at a loss for interesting movie ideas, they may need to look no further than their own romantic past for inspiration. Some of the most iconic films are romances, including Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Love Story, When Harry Met Sally and The Notebook. Whether a love that has endured, evolved or faded away, this personal experience is typically a great stepping stone for Screenwriters and their stories.
Travel allows us to experience different people, places and cultures. It often makes for special memories as well. Think about it; it’s the photographs from trips and vacations that typically end up on work desks, living room walls and computer wallpaper screens. So when a Writer is struggling to come up with that next great movie idea, it might be time to think back to a past holiday for inspiration. Roman Holiday, Vacation, Dirty Dancing and Eat Pray Love are just a few of the many films that use a locale unknown to the protagonists as a backdrop for the action that unfolds.
Depending on the job, many people spend at least a third of their lives—give or take—at their workplace or working towards their professional ambitions. That’s a lot of hours. It naturally follows that the location where that person has spent so much time would be a resource when it comes to finding interesting movie ideas. Writers, in particular, can mine their career past and present for script fodder, as they often have to take on various and sometimes odd gigs to keep the bills paid and food in the fridge until their creative payday comes in. Hence, all the many films about work and its highs and lows. Consider His Girl Friday, 9 to 5, Broadcast News, Office Space, The Devil Wears Prada… All movies that center on life at the office.
It’s clear at this point that a Writer’s own life can be a terrific resource when it comes to movie ideas. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only resource. The world is a pretty big place and has no lack of opportunities for Writers looking for creative inspiration2. In some instances, all it takes is looking outside the window to find that next great narrative.
Actor and filmmaker Skylar Schock has this to say about her movie idea inspiration: “I tend to be inspired by a mix of both personal experiences and outside influences. Often times it becomes a hybrid of putting a character like myself in a story inspired by something I read about or am drawn to. I also pay attention to what content I can’t stop consuming. For example, when I read about a person that moves me or I listen to a podcast I just don’t want to end, I will try and figure out how that ‘thing’ might play out in a film or script.”
And it’s that outside content in all its many forms that can trigger a Writer’s next big movie idea.
We already talked about how going to a new destination can stir the imagination, but the imagination is hardly bounded by it. All a Writer has to do is get curious about any city or country in the world to get inspired. Paris, Rome, Cairo, Tokyo: just pick a place. Films often find their magic not in the travel to a destination, but in what that destination’s culture or history offers. Films like Before Sunrise, 7 Years in Tibet, Chocolat, Amélie and Lost in Translation are as much about the charm of the location as they are about the characters in it.
Some Writers want to write a life story… Just not their own. Fair enough. Being a Writer doesn’t mean having to use the most personal and intimate moments of their lives for their scripts. But there are plenty of other stories out there. To be exact, seven and a half billion of them. While true that many great films are biopics about well-known public figures, they are just a fraction of all the many more stories to share. As a Writer, the work is getting curious. What about that elderly neighbor? Or an old schoolmate? Or even the bagger at the grocery store? There’s no shortage of options, but one important disclaimer: Should another person’s life story be used for a script, explicit written permission must be given3. So go ahead and write that great movie idea—just get the okay from the subject of it first!
There are no more original ideas, right? Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean a great script can’t be written from a familiar story. Existing intellectual property has shown no signs of slowing down when it comes to what the studios in Hollywood want. But for the average Writer, there’s just no way to afford the fees that come with getting the rights to such content… unless it’s public domain! As with personal life stories, knowing what is legally permissible is of the utmost importance4. That aside, Writers have at their disposal thousands of ideas that they can change, update or faithfully adapt that are all in the public domain. Not convinced? Consider Disney. This filmmaking giant has largely made its fortune on public domain stories, including Snow White, Cinderella, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and of course, Frozen!
Not a day goes by in the world without something notable happening, whether inspirational or heartbreaking—and maybe a bit of both. Now considering just how long the world has been around, that’s a lot of stories to be told! Sure, some have already had their time in the sun, such as films about ancient Rome or World War II. But all a Writer needs to do is pick up a history book or newspaper to find some great movie ideas. If the past is more compelling, maybe that next idea will be about the Middle Ages or the Roaring Twenties (1920s!). If what is happening at this very moment is more intriguing, that’s an option, too. Between films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Schindler’s List, Braveheart, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan and more, it’s clear that Writers have an endless source of movie ideas from world events to last a lifetime.
When it comes down to it, though, movie ideas are only as good as the Writer putting them down on paper. So it’s important that beyond technical expertise and the discipline to do the work, the Writer must be passionate about the idea. Whether that inspiration comes from the Writer’s life or outside of it, they can never truly run out of movie ideas. They need only to look with fresh eyes at their own experiences or those of the world around them for that next screenwriting stroke of genius.
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- 1. "Script Ideas: 5 Proven Ways to Unlock Original Movie Ideas". Script Reader Pro. published: 6 August 2018. retrieved on: 10 January 2020
- 2Hellerman, Jason. "20 Dynamic Ways to Come up with Amazing Movie Ideas". No Film School. published: 6 June 2019. retrieved on: 10 January 2020
- 3Rodner, Stephen. "Life story rights: What's possible and what's not". Hollywood Reporter. published: 24 January 2008. retrieved on: 10 January 2020
- 4Spanier, Kristen. "Cinema Law: What Is In the Public Domain?". MovieMaker. published: 15 June 2009. retrieved on: 20 January 2020