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Essential Reading – Screenplays and Pilots

A curated list of produced screenplays and TV pilots chosen by Script Pipeline staff. All scripts are linked to third-party sites and are copyrighted by the original author/s. They are (obviously) for educational purposes only.

Promising Young Woman – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Oh, where to start? Well, the opening description in writer/director Emerald Fennell’s screenplay for Promising Young Woman is so great that I might as well quote it verbatim: A super-depressing dancefloor on a Thursday night. 2-for-1 shots and a sticky floor. The kind of last-resort place people end up after work having accidentally nailed ten “just one” drinks. A bored DJ plays the DROELOE remix of “Boys” by Charlie XCX, while the thin and kind of tragic crowd dances. We linger on the men dancing in particular, their bodies, the sweat running down their backs as they grind and thrust. The slow-mo, the lascivious pan-up, the sort of erotic gaze normally reserved for oiled-up music-video hotties. Except we’re looking at regular dudes in chinos with absolutely no dancing ability. Wanna know how to open a script? You could do worse than that. I could dissect all the ways this is perfection—the…

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on August Wilson’s play, follows the titular blues legend Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band, specifically trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman), over the course of a single afternoon as they record her album. Writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who adapted the screenplay, and director George C. Wolfe mostly stuck to Wilson’s work, the most notable changes being an abridged runtime (the original play clocked in at two-and-a-half hours versus the film’s brisk 94-minute runtime) and a thematic gut punch of an ending appended to the story. That new ending (the last shot in the film) accomplishes what every great adaptation does: While it doesn’t appear in the original, it is expands on the play’s themes in a way that feels inevitable and inextricably linked to the narrative. The film and play touch on many themes including racism, violence, religion, and masculinity, most notably by exploring the exploitation…

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Ted Lasso – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

If you’ve been on Twitter the last few months, you’ve probably heard of Apple TV+’s new sitcom Ted Lasso. It seems almost everyone who’s seen the show has fallen in love. Written by Jason Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence and developed by Sudeikis, Lawrence, Joe Kelly, and Brendan Hunt, the pilot follows American football coach Ted Lasso (Sudeikis) as he takes a new job as the head coach for the London football club AFC Richmond. That is, the other football. Soccer. A sport Ted has absolutely no experience in or knowledge of. The show becomes a fish-out-of-water comedy as Ted tries to make sense of the rules of British football and his new life in London. He also clashes with the club’s owner, Rebecca Welton (an excellent Hannah Waddingham, whom you might remember ringing the shame bell in Game of Thrones), who has ulterior motives. You see—SPOILERS—she’s a recent divorcée who…

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Dead to Me – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

In recent years, the lines between comedy and drama have become increasingly blurred, at least in the television world. It’s not uncommon to see hourlong series that more closely resemble comedies and half-hour shows that are for all intents and purposes dramas. This current trend was kickstarted almost fifteen years ago with shows like Weeds and Desperate Housewives that, while being ostensibly comedies, often leaned more heavily toward the drama side of the coin. Demand for this type of series has only increased, and dramedy has become a surprising enduring and successful genre for female-led series. Just look at last year’s Emmy nominations — Fleabag, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Russian Doll each straddles that line and all were met with critical acclaim. Also add Dead to Me to that list. The series, created by Liz Feldman, is a (dark) comedy about grief. Two women meet in a therapy group for…

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The Devil Wears Prada – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Should we do a comedy this month? Yeah… let’s do a comedy this month. Released almost 15 years ago, The Devil Wears Prada was written by Aline Brosh McKenna and adapted from Lauren Weisberger’s novel. (We previously talked about McKenna’s work with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.) Upon its release, the movie was met with critical acclaim and even scored Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, as well as another nomination for Best Costume Design (natch). Since then, it’s become a staple of cable television and has even gotten a second life with Twitter reaction gifs. One of the things that makes The Devil Wears Prada a timeless movie is its specificity. Each character feels unique and lived-in, and they each talk in their own rhythms and languages. This is one script where each character has a clear and distinct voice. You could take almost any line out of context and…

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Parasite – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

The most basic story for any movie goes like this: A protagonist faces obstacles and conflict while trying to achieve a specific goal. Of course, that’s a very reductive take on narrative storytelling, but that is the skeleton most movies are built on. However, the best movies are about more than just plot; with themes and metaphors, filmmakers hold a mirror to society and use their movies as a commentary on today’s world. One of the best directors doing that today is Bong Joon-ho. Bong has made a name for himself, in his native South Korea and throughout the entire world, with strongly metaphorical satires. The genres vary greatly—the sci-fi/horror/comedy The Host, the sci-fi/action Snowpiercer, the (very) darkly comedic Barking Dogs Never Bite—but each offers some view on modern life and society in general. But the one that has gotten the most recognition (perhaps you’ve heard of its Cannes and Oscar wins?) is Parasite….

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Stranger Things – Bible

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

For this column, we typically focus on produced screenplays and teleplays to give aspiring writers a sense of what the standard is for professional screenwriters. The scripts we choose typically have strong characters, poignant themes, and — it should go without saying — exceptional writing. Although a well-written screenplay is still the best calling card an aspiring writer can have, focusing solely on the script doesn’t fully reflect the reality of the film industry. It has become increasingly common for producers, managers, and especially TV execs to request a bible or pitch deck before even reading the script, and perhaps the best example in recent years is the pitch document for Stranger Things. We’ve written about Stranger Things before, and needless to say, we’re big fans of the series (as is everyone else on the internet). This pitch deck was written before the show was picked up (the original title…

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Dolemite Is My Name – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Over the past few decades, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have carved a niche for themselves in Hollywood. Although they’ve written in other genres, they’ve found the most success writing biopics about off-kilter or notorious individuals. The tone of these movies combines sharp social commentary and tragicomedy to create some of the best examples of the genre. Their scripts Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, Big Eyes, and The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story have all attracted A-list talent behind and in front of the camera because of the strength of their writing, the allure of their movies’ subjects, and the relevance of their stories’ themes. Most recently in this line of biopics is Dolemite Is My Name. Set in the 1970s, the film follows comedian Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy, in his best performance in years) as he sets out to find his…

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Us – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

We were huge fans of writer-director Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we also loved his recent follow-up, Us. Unlike Get Out, which was equal parts horror movie and caustic social satire, Us’s script focuses primarily on genre thrills. That’s not to say that the film is devoid of commentary, mind you. It’s just that the themes and metaphors are less transparent. While Get Out took its influences from The Stepford Wives and its message was a condemnation of a very specific type of racism, Us has more in common with horror classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and Night of the Living Dead: The social commentary exists, but it’s obliquely referenced and open to interpretation (though we definitely have our theories). But the primary driving force instead comes from character, plot, and the typical set pieces inherent in the…

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Search Party – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

So many elements go into a screenplay that it’s difficult to say which one is the most important (though that hasn’t stopped us in the past). Different genres require different things to succeed, but for a screenwriter just starting out, perhaps the definitive make-it-or-break-it element is voice. “Voice” is that vague amalgam of dialogue (how the characters speak), description (how the screenwriter describes the character’s actions), and theme (what the screenwriter has to say about the world at large) that makes the screenplay feel unique. It’s something that writers develop after putting in tons of time and effort, but it’s the thing that elevates a good or decent script to the next level. It’s how writers get repped, get staffed, and get hired. One of the best recent shows with a strong, unique voice is Search Party. Created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, the show is perhaps…

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The Ring – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Because of Halloween, October is the unofficial horror movie month (though, really, it’s our opinion that you can—and should—enjoy them all year round). Released in 2002, The Ring kicked off the early-aughts trend of PG-13 adaptations of Asian horror movies, and it remains one of the scariest movies of this century. Directed by Gore Verbinski and written by Ehren Kruger (with revisions by Scott Frank), The Ring is an Americanized remake of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu. The story follows Rachel Keller (an always amazing Naomi Watts), a reporter who investigates the origins of a cursed video tape after her (and, later, her son) watch it and receive the creepiest phone call of all time: A raspy voice whispering, “Seven days.” What follows are a series of well-executed set pieces that rely more generating dread than surprising its audience with empty jump scares. As a screenplay, The Ring is perhaps the best…

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On Becoming a God in Central Florida – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

To be completely reductive, every story is about desire. A character wants something so much that they will do whatever it takes to achieve it, and the alternative is inconceivable to them. When writing dark comedy, things become more difficult: The main character’s goals tend to be less than noble, but the audience still needs to care about their journey. If the audience doesn’t empathize or sympathize with the characters, then what’s the point of watching? Set in the early 1990s, On Becoming a God in Central Florida, created by Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, walks that fine line. Krystal Stubbs wants stability. She grew up poor, and now that she and her husband have infant daughter, she wants to make sure there’s food on the table and a roof over their heads. As she tells her husband, “I won’t be poor again.” About her husband: Travis wants more. He…

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Fleabag – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Character, character, character. At its heart, every story is about character. Characters who have wants and needs and flaws. Fleabag has wants. They mostly revolve around sex. Fleabag has needs. Love, specifically. And Fleabag has flaws. Oh my, does she have flaws. Fleabag, created by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the title character, is an equally hilarious and tragic character study of a single, perpetually horny British woman. She doesn’t get a name in the show, but she’s known to the audience as Fleabag. In the pilot, she describes herself as “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist,” and although she’s being overly critical, she’s not far off. Despite all this, Fleabag comes across as charming, in no small part because of Waller-Bridge’s perfect performance. She’s one of the few actresses who can tell you exactly what they’re thinking with…

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The Martian – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Story is conflict. It should seem obvious, but in order to have a compelling story, the characters need to face conflict and overcome obstacles with stakes high enough that the audience roots for the characters to succeed. The Martian takes these basic fundamentals and ratchets everything up to an 11. Based on the novel by Andy Weir and adapted by Drew Goddard, The Martian follows astronaut and botanist Mark Watney’s fight for survival after he is accidentally stranded on Mars. The premise is simple (and high-concept!) enough—it’s Castaway on a distant planet. From there, everything that can go wrong does. He’s running out of food and has to find a way to grow potatoes on Mars, he has to fix pretty much every piece of equipment including the base he’s living in, he has to find a way to contact Earth with outdated and outmoded technology… it’s the ultimate fight for survival. Weir…

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Big Little Lies – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Melodrama is perhaps the most derided genre there is. Often, critics use the word as a euphemism for entertainment with poorly written, on-the-nose dialogue and exaggerated emotions and performances. But when done right, melodrama draws audiences in and establishes an irresistible tone while exploring narratives with rich themes. Written by David E. Kelley from Liane Moriarty’s novella, Big Little Lies certainly has large emotions. At certain times, it feels like scenes exist solely for the murderers’ row of actresses (which includes—deep breath—Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, and Shailene Woodley) to chew every piece of scenery in sight. However, every emotion is grounded and true to character. The show’s central characters—later dubbed the “Monterey Five” in season two—each has her own issues and conflicts to work through, including rape, spousal abuse, and bullying. Big Little Lies deals with these themes sensitively and insightfully, elevating what could have been…

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