If the hook/A-story gives us the “what the movie is about,” theme is “what the movie is about besides the plot.” It’s the exploration of a broader idea. This broader idea is the thematic statement. The thematic statement is to theme what the logline is to the A-story; a concise summation that solidifies what the story is trying to “do,” and acts as a guide through both the writing of the script and the shooting of the movie.
Not every script needs to be driven by a theme. There is room in the world for kiss-kiss-bang-bang popcorn. But cinema is an artform – even when the cinema involves monsters, robots, fart jokes, etc. – and art is a reflection of the human experience. Themes provide a ballast to the story. They give the audience something to unpack long after the film has ended.
For example, ROBOCOP could have been about nothing but a robot cop shooting criminals. But it’s one of the best sci-fi action movies of the ‘80s because it’s elevated by strong themes. We get the shooting, explosions, and one-liners necessary to pay off the genre goods, while also sneaking in a sharp satire about corporate culture, and even a bit to say about the resiliency of the human soul.
There are two good ways to realize theme. The first is in the setting/set-up/world of the movie. For example, in DARK CITY the thematic elements are loaded into the unique setting. Our protagonist can be little more than an any-person cypher (a stand-in for the audience) whose thematic arc is about simply exploring the setting and trying to figure out what’s going on.
The second is via the protagonist’s journey, the lesson they learn for having gone through this adventure. For example, in the original TOY STORY we have two protagonists, Woody and Buzz. Woody’s lesson is he learns how to share. This is a very child-level theme, but that’s fine since it’s a film intended to include a younger audience.
Now compare this to Buzz’s “lesson.” He discovers that, instead of being a space hero, he’s actually a toy. He isn’t even human. Worse yet, he’s a child’s plaything. This is an existentialist nightmare, yet Buzz comes to accept his reality, and let his former delusion inform a pathway toward new heroism.
Heady stuff, huh? But it’s right there in a “cartoon movie for kids.” There are plenty of animated family films out there, many of which include simple life lessons as expressed by the protagonists (“sharing is good!”), but not many also delve into more adult thematic business. Which is TOY STORY is a classic franchise that went a long way toward launching Pixar, as opposed to sitting in a wire rack display next to a grocery check-out aisle.
So you’re writing a script. If it sees production, millions of people might watch the movie. Given the opportunity to speak to millions of your fellow humans… what would you like to say?