This post is by Jason Hellerman from No Film School

Have you noticed a trend in Hollywood lately? It seems like every time you go to the movies or see a new trailer; it’s an ad for a movie about someone famous’ life.

Biopics are all the rage.

But what’s the definition of biopic, and what are some of the best biopics of all time?

Today, we’re going to answer those questions.

If you’re looking to get the attention of an agent or manager, writing a biopic might be right for you. And it’s not just Hollywood; even Bollywood is going biopic crazy.

Let’s dive in.


What’s A Biopic? 

A biographical film, or a biopic for short, is a film that tells the story of the life of a non-fictional or historical person.

Biopics use the central character(s) to show an important discovery, period in history, or dramatically relevant period within their lives to tell a contemporary lesson. That all seems straightforward, but there are some serious discrepancies in how you should pronounce biopic as well.

Biopic Definition

A biopic is a movie about someone’s life.

There are music biopics, true story, presidential profiles, and breakdowns of military leaders. So many different ideas to choose from!

How Do You Pronounce Biopic?

You pronounce “biopic”…bio-pick. Not bi-opic. Let’s just confirm that. I can’t sit in any more meetings and hear bi-opic. It’s a biographical picture. Biopic. This is not complicated, people. So let’s get it right moving forward.

Key Characteristics of Biopics

Key Characteristics of Biopics

Biopics are designed to dramatize the key events, experiences, and achievements of the subject’s life, offering audiences insight into their personal and professional journey.

These films often focus on notable individuals such as political leaders, artists, musicians, athletes, scientists, and other influential figures.

  • Real-Life Subject: Biopics are centered around a real person, whether they are a historical figure, a contemporary personality, or someone from the recent past.
  • Narrative Structure: They follow a narrative structure similar to traditional storytelling, with a beginning, middle, and end. The story typically covers significant milestones and events in the subject’s life.
  • Character Study: Biopics aim to provide a deep character study of the subject, exploring their motivations, struggles, successes, and failures.
  • Authenticity: Biopics often strive for authenticity by recreating the historical period, locations, and circumstances in which the subject lived.
  • Casting: Actors are chosen to portray the subject, often undergoing physical transformations to resemble them and capture their mannerisms.
  • Research: Filmmakers conduct extensive research to ensure accuracy in depicting the subject’s life, including consulting historical records, biographies, and firsthand accounts.
  • Dramatization: While biopics are based on real events, they may take creative liberties to enhance the storytelling or condense events for cinematic purposes.

Why Are Biopics Are Oscar Bait?

Typically, biopic scripts attract bigger actors looking to take on a role that the audience already understands. These bigger actors help movies get bigger budgets, meaning wider releases. If the movie is good and seen by a lot of people or both, it can usually generate Oscar buzz.

We also have a disproportionate amount of Oscar wins for biopics. Or, at least it feels that way. Part of that has to do with why so many biopics are being made.

Examples of Biopics

biopic examples

  • “12 Years a Slave” (2013) dir. Steve McQueen
  • “20th Century Women” (2016) dir. Mike Mills
  • “A Beautiful Mind” (2001) dir. Ron Howard
  • “A Cry In The Dark” (1988) dir. Fred Schepisi
  • “Adaptation” (2002) dir. Spike Jonze
  • “Ali” (2001) dir. Michael Mann
  • “American Sniper” (2014) dir. Clint Eastwood
  • “American Splendor” (2003) dir. Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman
  • “Arrival” (2016) dir. Denis Villeneuve
  • “At Eternity’s Gate” (2018) dir. Julian Schnabel
  • “Beyond The Sea” (2004) dir. Kevin Spacey
  • “Black Panther” (2018) dir. Ryan Coogler
  • “Blackkklansman” (2018) dir. Spike Lee
  • “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018) dir. Bryan Singer
  • “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999) dir. Kimberly Peirce
  • “Braveheart” (2005) dir. Mel Gibson
  • “Capote” (2005) dir. Bennett Miller
  • “Catch Me If You Can” (2002) dir. Steven Spielberg
  • “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) dir. Jean-Marc Vallée
  • “Darkest Hour” (2017) dir. Joe Wright
  • “Dreamgirls” (2006) dir. Bill Condon
  • “Eighth Grade” (2018) dir. Bo Burnham
  • “Ex-Machina” (2015) dir. Alex Garland
  • “First Man” (2018) dir. Damien Chazelle
  • “Florence Foster Jenkins” (2016) dir. Stephen Frears
  • “Foxcatcher” (2014) dir. Bennett Miller
  • “Frida” (2002) dir. Julie Taymor
  • “Gandhi” (1982) dir. Richard Attenborough
  • “Green Book” (2018) dir. Peter Farrelly
  • “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016) dir. Mel Gibson
  • “Hidden Figures” (2016) dir. Theodore Melfi
  • “Hotel Rwanda” (2004) dir. Terry George
  • “I, Tonya” (2017) dir. Craig Gillespie
  • “I’m Not There” (2007) dir. Todd Haynes
  • “Invictus” (2009) dir. Clint Eastwood
  • “Jackie” (2016) dir. Pablo Larraín
  • “Jobs” (2013) dir. Joshua Michael Stern
  • “Joy” (2015) dir. David O. Russell
  • “Julie & Julia” (2009) dir. Nora Ephron
  • “La Vie En Rose” (2007) dir. Olivier Dahan
  • “Les Miserables” (2012) dir. Tom Hooper
  • “Lincoln” (2012) dir. Steven Spielberg
  • “Loving” (2016) dir. Jeff Nichols
  • “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) dir. George Miller
  • “Milk” (2008) dir. Gus Van Sant
  • “Monster” (2003) dir. Patty Jenkins
  • “Mudbound” (2017) dir. Dee Rees
  • “Music of the Heart” (1999) dir. Wes Craven
  • “My Week With Marilyn” (2011) dir. Simon Curtis
  • “One True Thing” (1998) dir. Carl Franklin
  • “Out of Africa” (1985) dir. Sydney Pollack
  • “Patton” (1970) dir. Franklin J. Schaffner
  • “Queen Christina” (1933) dir. Rouben Mamoulian
  • “Raging Bull” (1980) dir. Martin Scorsese
  • “Ray” (2004) dir. Taylor Hackford
  • “Selma” (2014) dir. Ava DuVernay
  • “Silkwood” (1983) dir. Mike Nichols
  • “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) dir. David O. Russell
  • “Snowden” (2016) dir. Oliver Stone
  • “Steve Jobs” (2015) dir. Danny Boyle
  • “Swiss Army Man” (2016) dir. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
  • “The Blind Side” (2009) dir. John Lee Hancock
  • “The Danish Girl” (2015) dir. Tom Hooper
  • “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) dir. David Frankel
  • “The Disaster Artist” (2017) dir. James Franco
  • “The Elephant Man” (1980) dir. David Lynch
  • “The Florida Project” (2017) dir. Sean Baker
  • “The Imitation Game” (2014) dir. Morten Tyldum
  • “The Iron Lady” (2011) dir. Phyllida Lloyd
  • “The King’s Speech” (2010) dir. Tom Hooper
  • “The Last Emperor” (1987) dir. Bernardo Bertolucci
  • “The Last King of Scotland” (2006) dir. Kevin Macdonald
  • “The Lobster” (2016) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
  • “The Master” (2012) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
  • “The Post” (2017) dir. Steven Spielberg
  • “The Queen” (2006) dir. Stephen Frears
  • “The Revenant” (2015) dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu
  • “The Social Network” (2010) dir. David Fincher
  • “The Theory of Everything” (2014) dir. James Marsh
  • “The Witch” (2015) dir. Robert Eggers
  • “Trumbo” (2015) dir. Jay Roach
  • “Unbroken” (2014) dir. Angelina Jolie
  • “Vice” (2018) dir. Adam McKay
  • “Walk The Line” (2005) dir. James Mangold

What Defines A Biopic?

What is a Biopic? (Definition and Examples)

The Academy Awards loves biopics. that’s why we see so many nominated. Whether you cover a character’s entire life the way Malcolm X does, or just a few long weeks the way Selma maneuvers its tale, biopics are centered around interesting historical characters. We want to follow a famous person or historical figures through their personal life!

Many people quibble over whether or not Apollo 13 can be a biopic because it’s truly an ensemble, versus First Man, which centers around one guy, so you have to take care not to mislabel historical dramas biopics. I’m more focused on writing the best thing possible, but let’s entertain what the classical definition of a biopic must be.

I think the clearest way to define a biopic is to look at the central plot. If the story revolves around one person and their actions, then it’s a biopic. If it revolves around a group of people trying to do one thing, then it’s probably just a historical drama. That means movies like Vice are biopics. But movies like Game Change would be historical dramas.

Biopic Tropes

Biopic Tropes

While each biopic is unique in its own right, there are several common tropes and conventions that tend to appear in many biographical films.

These tropes help to structure and dramatize real-life stories for the big screen. Here are some common biopic tropes:

  • Rise to Fame: Many biopics start by showing the subject’s humble beginnings and follow their journey as they rise to fame or prominence in their field. This often includes scenes of early struggles, setbacks, and determination.
  • Conflict and Obstacles: Biopics frequently highlight the challenges and obstacles that the subject faced throughout their life. These could be personal, professional, or societal challenges that they had to overcome.
  • Personal Relationships: Biopics often delve into the subject’s personal relationships, including family, friends, and romantic partners. These relationships can provide insight into the subject’s character and motivations.
  • Historical Context: Biopics often place the subject’s life within a broader historical or cultural context. This helps viewers understand the significance of the subject’s achievements or actions.
  • Flashbacks: Flashbacks are a common narrative device in biopics to provide insight into the subject’s past. These flashbacks can reveal formative experiences or key moments in the subject’s life.
  • Iconic Moments: Biopics often include reenactments of iconic moments from the subject’s life, such as historical speeches, performances, or pivotal events. These moments are often recreated with great attention to detail.
  • Transformation: Actors in biopics often undergo physical transformations to resemble the subject. This can include changes in appearance, such as makeup and prosthetics, as well as changes in mannerisms and speech patterns.
  • Struggles and Addictions: Many biopics explore the subject’s struggles with personal demons, such as addiction, mental health issues, or other challenges. These struggles add depth and complexity to the character.
  • Triumph and Redemption: Biopics often conclude with a triumphant or redemptive moment in the subject’s life. This can be the culmination of their efforts or a resolution to a long-standing conflict.
  • Narrator or Framing Device: Some biopics use a narrator or framing device to provide context or commentary on the subject’s life. This can help guide the narrative and provide perspective.
  • Music and Soundtrack: Music plays a significant role in many biopics, especially if the subject is a musician or performer. The soundtrack often features the subject’s music or music from the era they lived in.
  • Awards and Recognition: Biopics often depict the subject’s receipt of awards, accolades, or recognition for their achievements. This can serve as a climactic moment in the film.
  • Text at the End: Many biopics conclude with text that provides updates on what happened to the subject or other key characters after the events depicted in the film. This helps to tie up loose ends and provide closure.

Why Are Biopics Popular?

What is a Biopic? (Definition and Examples)

We talked about intellectual property in our Public Domain post and our how to adapt a screenplay post; intellectual property rules Hollywood. People want ideas that already have a certain public recognition, so they’re easier to get clicks or to sell tickets. It’s really expensive to option huge books or news articles. And it’s competitive.

But as you know, the Public Domain contains lots of free ideas. And you know who’s part of the Public Domain? Most historical figures or famous people.

Screenplays that cover the lives of famous people are free intellectual property. They’re great ways to build a story and to highlight story structure, without having to make up everything that happens.

Sure, you have to be truthful, but writing about a famous figure and chronicling their lives or a moment in their lives gives you less to pitch. Usually, these people are part of the cultural lexicon already. So you don’t have to do much, just add drama and reasoning to the internal and external conflict provided by history.

That’s easier said than done, but you understand the gist.

This makes writing biopics very attractive to writers.

Summing Up Biopic Films In Hollywood

So there you have it – biopic films are all the rage now. They’re easy to sell, end up on a lot of the year-end lists, and can be popular with agents, managers, and audiences alike.

Got a great biopic idea?

Consider joining our Free Screenwriting Seminar to flesh out your idea.

We have lots of tips on dialogue, pitching, and treatments to get your idea together, too.

Senior Post is an award-winning Brooklyn-based post house that provides full post production services for film and television. Their work has screened at Sundance, Slamdance, Tribeca and SXSW and they’ve worked with clients such as HBO, Hulu, A24, Apatow Productions, Comedy Central, Vice, Vevo and Refinery 29. Their latest project, the second season of 2 Dope Queens, airs Fridays on HBO at 11pm.