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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

the screenwriting bible that is to blame for the tedious blandness of blockbusters

When I look at my watch during a movie (which I do occasionally do), it’s not because I’m bored. It’s because I’m checking to see if my guess about where in the runtime we are coincides with what just happened onscreen. (My guess is almost always correct.) I just didn’t know that someone had actually written a book breaking down the formula so specifically. Peter Suderman at Slate:

If you’ve gone to the movies recently, you may have felt a strangely familiar feeling: You’ve seen this movie before. Not this exact movie, but some of these exact story beats: the hero dressed down by his mentor in the first 15 minutes (Star Trek Into Darkness, Battleship); the villain who gets caught on purpose (The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Skyfall, Star Trek Into Darkness); the moment of hopelessness and disarray a half-hour before the movie ends (Olympus Has Fallen, Oblivion, 21 Jump Street, Fast & Furious 6).

It’s not déjà vu. Summer movies are often described as formulaic. But what few people know is that there is actually a formula—one that lays out, on a page-by-page basis, exactly what should happen when in a screenplay. It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster.

The formula didn’t come from a mad scientist. Instead it came from a screenplay guidebook, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. In the book, author Blake Snyder, a successful spec screenwriter who became an influential screenplay guru, preaches a variant on the basic three-act structure that has dominated blockbuster filmmaking since the late 1970s.

There’s tons more, and it will all make you despair.

posted in:
easter eggs
  • RogerBW

    I wish all of Hollywood had one throat, and I a knife.

    With studios getting increasingly conservative, the only way I can see out of this trap is microbudget film.

  • I’m just skipping big movies. I think Star Trek was the last “big” movie I saw and I felt like I’d seen it a few dozen times before.

  • Prankster36

    I thought this was going to be about Syd Field’s “Screenplay”, which has been forcing people to adhere to the same kind of metronomic formula since, what, the 80s?

    At least this Snyder guy has apparently actually sold some screenplays (though being referred to as a “spec” screenwriter means that it’s unlikely any of his scripts have actually been filmed), unlike Field, who basically showed up one day and started calling himself an expert.

    There’s also that firm that claims to be able to identify exactly what elements your movie needs to be a success using SCIENCE! We’re talking about shit like insisting that there be a dog in the movie adding 20 million dollars to the gross, or how movies about aliens sell more than movies about witches, or whateverthefuck. Like it’s a computer program where you can just plug in random variables and somehow produce the perfect movie (which you could then presumably keep making over and over again?) Fortunately those guys don’t seem to be taken as seriously.
    The only thing that shakes Hollywood out of this complacency is a string of blockbuster bombs (it happened in the late 60s, leading to the golden era of the 70s, and to a lesser degree at the end of the 90s, leading to a pretty good era of films in the oughts). I’m daring to hope this summer, which has seen some real bombs, might provide a kick in the pants. But what really needs to happen is a megahyped film–ideally a comic book movie–performing way below expectations.

  • Prankster36

    And may I add the “villain gets caught on purpose” trope has been getting stupider and stupider every time it appears? It actually made sense in The Dark Knight, though it was a little convoluted; it made less sense in The Avengers; and by the time you get to Skyfall and Star Trek: Intestinal Disease, it’s become completely nonsensical. What did Silva or Khan actually gain from being caught by the heroes? Nothing. It’s just dramatic.

  • RogerBW

    What seems to happen these days is that a bomb attracts blame to the easiest target — it was about a woman! It didn’t have a sufficiently upbeat ending! — and the formula is tweaked as little as possible.

  • Prankster36

    Yep. Although as someone wrote in an article a few months back, when a movie with an element that doesn’t fit the formula SUCCEEDS, it never gets the credit. Like how Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games were smash hits, but we didn’t see a string of female-starring wannabe blockbusters.

    From what I’ve heard, it’s not so much that Hollywood execs actually believe that movies with a hero wearing a red shirt make more money than a movie with a hero wearing a green shirt (as Brad Bird memorably framed it), it’s that everyone in the boardroom is focused on keeping their jobs. So they like to be able to point to a checklist to say “I did everything right!” for protection even if their movie bombs.

    Hollywood’s making plenty of money, so it can afford to be myopic. Like I say, it’s going to take some cataclysmic bombs to wake them up even a little. When the formulas stop working, that’s when you see the bean counters flailing around desperately and new ideas can sneak in.

  • RogerBW

    Yes, indeed. Play it safe and you may eventually get to make the film you want to make. But step out of line, and if the film isn’t a towering success you shoulder all the blame.
    My answer to this, as I’ve said before, is for the smart creative people to let Hollywood wither on the vine and make small interesting films instead of jumping down the throat of the system. We’ve seen with directors like Robert Rodriguez and John Woo that it doesn’t matter how amazing your voice is, you don’t get to make unique film when there’s that much money on the line.

  • Danielm80

    First it was Syd Field, then it was Robert McKee, now it’s Snyder. Somewhere in the middle it was Joseph Campbell. Structuring a screenplay is really hard, and people would rather reduce it to a formula than stare at a blank screen for hours on end. Also, if your screenplay looks like every successful movie of the past few years, it’s much easier to sell.

  • LaSargenta

    Somewhere in the middle it was Joseph Campbell.

    Wasn’t he first?

    Or, you could make a case for Reynald Wolfe and his “Universal Cosmography of the whole world, and therewith also certain particular histories of every known nation” as coming first. After all, Shakespeare mined it pretty hard.

  • Prankster36

    While I’m no fan of Joseph Campbell, he didn’t set out to write screenwriting books. His formula wasn’t meant to be proscriptive, it was descriptive, as in, “Here are commonalities I’ve noticed in many of the world’s myths and legends”. George Lucas is the one who decided that he should try actively applying Campbell’s ideas to a SF story. And even Lucas never proclaimed that he had found the eternal secret of successful storytelling; it’s just that everyone in Hollywood saw his success and decided he’d found the winning formula. It was kind of an unfortunate perfect storm.

    I’ve always wondered what might have happened if Star Wars had bombed. I still love the original flicks, but their impact on Hollywood, pop culture, and arguably even our civilization (would Ronald Reagan have been elected without Star Wars?) has been unfortunate. And then it happened again with the Prequels, which proved that you can tell a shitty, nonsensical, boring story and people will go see it in droves if it’s connected with an IP they loved as kids.

  • Lydia

    I got the book years ago, as well as the follow-up “Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies”, in which Snyder describes the 10 genres he claims all movies fall into, then gives beat sheets of examples of said genres. It’s kind of amusing in a TV Tropes sort of way to watch him tease out similarities between films, but, yeah, depressing to think that storytelling could be seen as so limited. And it would help his case if I had ever heard of any of the scripts he wrote.

    And as for Hunger Games-inspired female-starring blockbuster wannabes, they seem to be working on it:

    The Mortal Instruments


  • Danielm80

    In my English classes, the teachers used to say things like, “There are only two kinds of stories: A man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town.” This obviously wasn’t true, even if Tolstoy said it was. But it’s a useful way of looking at a story, if your story happens to have a stranger or a journey in it.

    When I’m writing a story, I sometimes find it useful to think of the characters in terms of Tarot cards. Other people relate the plot to the Hero’s Journey or divide it into a “three-act structure.” You could probably write a screenwriting guide based on the archetypes in The Breakfast Club. There’s nothing wrong with any of these methods, if they work for you. They’re only harmful when everyone ends up writing the same screenplay.

    The truth is, most of the popular screenwriting books aren’t about storytelling. They’re about marketing. If you write a formulaic movie, the studios will know how to promote it, and audiences will know that they’ll probably like it, since they liked it the last four times they saw it. If you want to be a working screenwriter, it helps to know there’s a demand for your story.

    If you write a movie like Titanic or Inception or Borat and it becomes a huge success, the studio has a problem. The people in charge don’t know how to replicate it. It’s much easier to make a meet-cute romantic comedy or a low-budget horror film. Those films may also ensure that the studio makes a profit at the end of the year, even if it’s taken a risk on an unconventional story.

    But if you’re writing Titanic or Inception or Borat, a screenwriting guide may help you to structure the movie, and that’s very comforting when you’re staring at a blank computer screen.

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