While pundits will testify to the notion that novice screenwriters should write high concept screenplays that major movie studios and production companies would want to make — otherwise known as trend-chasing — it’s the innovative screenplays that really get a writer noticed.
Here we feature our top fifteen most successful innovative screenplays (in no particular order), complete with the actual scripts and brief insight as to why these scripts are so innovative.
It’s important to remember that we’re looking at successful screenplays. Yes, many more innovative screenplays have been produced, but we’re primarily focusing on those that actually had some success while standing out amongst the studio tentpoles and franchises.
Click on the titles to read the scripts provided by The Script Lab!
Written By Charlie Kaufman
A lovelorn screenwriter becomes desperate as he tries and fails to adapt The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean for the screen.
Why It’s Innovative: You can’t have a list of “innovative screenplays” without having Charlie Kaufman’s scripts appear on the list at least three times. He was hired to write a straight-up adaptation of The Orchid Thief. Amidst his insecurities and frustrations, he actually wrote himself into the screenplay. Within the script, his character says, “I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know… or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end, you know.” The script ends up offering all of those things and more. Brilliantly innovative.
Written by Christopher Nolan (based on a short story by Jonathan Nolan)
A man juggles searching for his wife’s murderer and keeping his short-term memory loss from being an obstacle.
Why It’s Innovative: If the script scenes were displayed in general chronological order, this might have been just a somewhat unique take on a “Who Done It?” mystery, but the story called for a unique character that only could remember things thanks in due part to tattooed reminders all over his body. And because of this, Nolan was able to offer probably the most innovative usages of structure the cinema has ever seen as the story plays from end to beginning in short fragments to replicate the memory loss of the protagonist.
Read ScreenCraft’s 10 Screenplay Structures That Screenwriters Can Use!
Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, and Alexander Dinelaris (based on a play by Raymond Carver)
A washed-up actor, who once played an iconic superhero, attempts to revive his career by writing and starring in his very own Broadway play.
Why It’s Innovative: The story takes place in relative real time and plays with the notion of an actor losing his mind as he confronts his inner demon in the form of a superhero he used to play. While the script itself could have been a simple story of a has-been movie star trying to showcase his talent through a play he wrote, the writers managed to shake things up with a surreal narrative.
Written by Charlie Kaufman
A puppeteer discovers a portal that leads literally into the head of the movie star John Malkovich.
Why It’s Innovative: Again, it’s about a puppeteer who discovers a portal that leads literally into the head of the movie star John Malkovich.
5. The Lobster
Written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
In a dystopian near future, single people, according to the laws of The City, are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into beasts and sent off into The Woods.
Why It’s Innovative: The first half of the logline sounds somewhat routine enough for the subgenre of dystopian dramas, but the second half veers into a world of the oddity. It’s an intriguing concept that delivers on some fantastic characterization and story narrative.
Written by Gary Moss
Two 1990s teenage siblings find themselves in a 1950s sitcom where their influence begins to change that complacent world profoundly.
Why It’s Innovative: The gimmick of teenagers thrown into a television show world could have been a studio comedy full of hijinks and fancy special effects, but Moss managed to adapt the gimmick into an innovative way to tap into character depth and universal themes.
7. Pulp Fiction
Written by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary
The lives of two mob hitmen, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.
Why It’s Innovative: Beyond playing with traditional structure, the writers managed to weave four stories into one masterfully. While this became somewhat of a gimmick in movies since its resounding critical, financial, and pop-cultural success, this film was the first to do so in such a successful fashion that resonated with audiences.
Written by Guillermo del Toro
In the falangist Spain of 1944, the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world.
Why It’s Innovative: The script could have been a strong WWII story of survival and war-torn despair, but the writer masterfully blended the fantasy genre into the story as a way to explore themes of escapism amidst the horror of war.
Written by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis
A weatherman finds himself inexplicably living the same day over and over again.
Why It’s Innovative: Yet another example of a gimmick that could have resulted in mere laughs, but instead the writer used the gimmick to explore themes of existentialism and fate.
Written by Guillermo del Toro
At a top secret research facility in the 1960s, a lonely janitor forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity.
Why It’s Innovative: A love story between a mute woman and an amphibious creature being studied by the government. Once again del Toro manages to beautifully blend genres (love story, fantasy, and science fiction) with a successful effect.
Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
Marty McFly, a 17-year-old high school student, is accidentally sent thirty years into the past in a time-traveling DeLorean invented by his close friend, the maverick scientist Doc Brown.
Why It’s Innovative: Sure, in this day and age, the concept doesn’t seem that special. We’ve seen many variations since. However, back in 1985, studios weren’t taking chances on such original material. The script was passed on forty times before Universal picked it up finally. “Innovative” doesn’t always have to mean “odd or surreal.”
12. The Matrix
Written by The Wachowski Brothers (now known as Lana and Lilly Wachowski)
A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.
Why It’s Innovative: Once again, we have a concept that in today’s world would be standard studio fare. But back in 1999, there was nothing like it. Science fiction was more grounded in reality. The action genre was still feeding on the leftovers of the 80s with action star pieces and buddy cop action comedies. This script changed all of that, which begs the question — what’s the next script to test the boundaries of those genres?
Written by Christopher Nolan
A thief, who steals corporate secrets through the use of dream-sharing technology, is given the inverse task of planting an idea into the mind of a CEO.
Why It’s Innovative: If there was an answer to the question of “What’s Next?” in the science fiction genre after The Matrix, this script is likely the answer circa 2010. Nolan blended regular science fiction, action, and espionage tropes into the truly innovative concept of dream espionage. This proves that you can inject original and unique concepts into big-budget studio fare.
Written by Charlie Kaufman
When their relationship turns sour, a young couple undergoes a medical procedure to have each other erased from their memories.
Why It’s Innovative: Because it’s Charlie Kaufman. He manages to make a science fiction gimmick into a heartfelt love story of loss — literal loss in the case of their memories being wiped out so that they can both get over each other’s love for one another. The unique angle here is that the memory wipe plays out onscreen as we witness the visual interpretation of the protagonist’s memory loss as he tries his best to hold on what he no longer wants to forget.
15. Inside Out
Written by Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley (with additional story material and dialogue credited to Michael Arndt, Simon Rich, Bill Hader, and Amy Poehler
After young Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness – conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house, and school.
Why It’s Innovative: Because it’s Pixar. Despite the sequels of late, Pixar has always managed to find fantastic and original cinematic narratives. This script explored an area within our humanity that has never been truly tackled — our emotions. And it managed to imagine what it would be like if our feelings were actually living beings, each with a purpose to serve us well.
What other successful innovative screenplays did we miss?
Chasing trends and trying to keep in touch with industry demand is part of the grind of being a screenwriter — you do need some of those types of scripts stacked within your deck. However, a majority of the time it’s those innovative scripts that rise above the rest in the screenplay market through contests, competitions, fellowships, and networking.
Sometimes it’s about writing the craziest concept you can think of — but writing it well. Other times it’s about finding innovative ways to tell otherwise familiar stories.
Regardless, don’t be afraid to be different. Different is good. And different is sometimes necessary to stand apart from the rest.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies