Every year major film awards are made in the world the Oscar’s; the BAFTAS; EFA, Palme D’Or; BIFA, Sundance, IFFA etc. with much press coverage, celebrations, disappointments, box office boosts and some disbelief. However, what genre is most likely to win you one of the major awards? Recent winners include ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri‘; ‘I, Danial Blake’; ‘Moonlight’; ‘Toni Erdmann’ and ‘Neerja‘.
In this blog I identify the genre which dominates the global awards , and layout the key elements you need to create a potentially award winning narrative. Note, this is not the genre they may have been advertised as for example a thriller or comedy, but the underlying genre which allows an audience to connect with the film. It is also not the subject of the film, which is almost certainly why thee films were chosen for the award lists in the first place.
The genre we are looking at is personal dramas.
This is the genre which has dominated independent and art-house cinema and much of low budget film-making for the last thirty years. Not discussed in the same way as thrillers or horror are discussed as genre, but probably the most important genre with regard to addressing the major issues confronting societies at the time of their making. A genre that has largely worked quietly to to explore those things that we find difficult to discuss or possibly act upon.
To understand this genre we need to identify the common elements of all these award winning films.
First there is the protagonist. A isolated protagonist/s, who undergo, or attempts, a major transformation of themselves or their world. This is really clear in ‘Three Billboards…’ but it is also true of the more comedic ‘Toni Erdmann’. The nature of this isolation is dependent on the sub genre group to which the film belongs.
In most recent award winners the main character has been isolated from, or within, a community ranging from a theatre group in ‘Birdman‘ to the social system in ‘4 Months,3 weeks ,2 days’. It is the conflict with the communities around us which appear to be a key element to making award winning films.
On of the major advantages, and joys, of going to the cinema is to enter a distinct world. A world audiences are not normally part of, and crucially do not often see on television. It is in this distinctive world which our protagonist is at odds with, and is critical to the success of the award winning films. The creation of a particular set of locations and characters which define this distinctive world is another of the key factors in making an award winning film. The most important element of which is that is not one which can easily be found in television dramas.
Successful personal dramas are hard to create as they operate in the same dramatic space of much television drama e.g. the workplace, local community, or family. Therefore, it is essential that this distinctive world is somehow clearly defined as not television. This of course highlights one of the major advantages of this genre – its ability to deal successfully with minority cultures and experiences which are not dealt with on television.
The main story of this genre is a quest, which forms a central plotline. This is the dominant type of storyline identified in most of the recent books on screenwriting from McKee’s ‘Story’ and Vogler’s ‘The Writer’s Journey to Synder’s ‘Save the Cat’. However, this genre also frequently uses the character who cannot be put down story type, often found in action thrillers – think Superheroes etc.. However, this story type can often be found in true life based winners e.g. ‘Spotlight’ and Neerja’, where the main character/s do not fundamentally change but they do change the world around them.
The central character’s dramatic arc is enormous compared with the changes within the characters of other genres. If you think of the protagonists in these award winning films they change enormously. For example, the estranged father and daughter, who bond in ‘Toni Erdmann’ to the astronaut in ‘Gravity’ discovering her true strengths.
Interestingly this is the one genre, where though the dramatic structure is generally linear it is happy to use large time jumps. An option difficult in thrillers and horror, except for prologues, as the tension leaves the plot with too large a time jump. In personal dramas months and years may have passed between scenes, and over the course of the narrative.
The emotional themes of this genre are a desire for order, or the desire for validation. These are the underlying themes that focus the audience’s emotional engagement throughout the narrative. The desire for validation is clearly dominating the current crop of award winners from ‘I,Daniel Blake’ to ‘Three Billboards….” and is a reflection of a wider dominance of this theme’s power stretching at least as far back as ‘The Full Monty’ and including such animated classics as ‘Up’.
The desire for order is more prevalent in the big action driven personal dramas e.g. ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ or the superheroes franchises, which tend not to win prestigious film awards except for special effects etc. The exception to this being ‘Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’.
The dominant style of the genre at the moment is expressionist, but naturalism is also commonly used. Expressionism, a style created in German cinema in the 1920’s and 1930’s grew out of the silent era. It has evolved from the exaggerated acting of this era into a sophisticated combination of camera angles, stark lighting and an emotional use of sound. It can be found in everything from ‘Pulp Fiction’ to’12 Years a Slave’. The use of which reflects our sense of everyday reality but adds exaggerated points of view, and seeks to engage an audience directly in the protagonist’s emotions.
There are some award winners which us naturalism e.g. ‘I ,Daniel Blake’, where an almost documentary style of images and sound dominate the visual look and feel of the narrative. Historically, realism has been a successful award winning style in this genre e.g. ‘Rosetta’,‘ Tree of Wooden Clogs’. However, the lack of recent winners in this stye points to a shift in acceptability.
Personal dramas are the big film award winners, yet as a genre it is barely recognised hiding as it does behind other genre labels e.g. thriller; tonal categories e.g. comedy or the subject of the narrative from true-lives to outcasts. However, if you want to make an award winner it is probably wise to check if you have all the key ingredients of this genre if you want to succeed.