Friday, August 2, 2013

Is This Really Going to Ruin Hollywood?

Finding the big summer movie plots oddly interchangeable and familiar this year? Slate’s Peter Suderman is, and in a recent article, he believes he has hit on the reason why: Hollywood’s over-reliance on a by-the-numbers screenwriting formula that has him wondering, “Is it killing movies?”

Suderman traces this formula to one book in particular out of countless screenwriting guides: Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need. “It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster.” With a heavy dose of melodrama, Suderman describes this sinister Hollywood secret as “a formula that threatens the world of original screenwriting as we know it.”

Save the Cat! is a book largely for beginners that elaborates on the conventional three-act structure that has already dominated screenwriting for decades. It offers a detailed checklist of plot points tied to specific page numbers in a standard screenplay. Screenwriting gurus like Syd Field and Robert McKee had long ago broken down the three-act structure into smaller peaks and valleys of scene sequences. But when Snyder’s more fun and less pedantic guide hit bookshelves in 2005, it was “as if an explosion ripped through Hollywood,” as Suderman wildly overstates it. According to him, it has since “taken over Hollywood screenwriting.”

He cites examples of recent films that seem to adhere closely to Snyder’s template: Gangster Squad, Jack the Giant Slayer, Oz the Great and Powerful, The Great Gatsby, Monsters University, Olympus Has Fallen, Oblivion, 21 Jump Street, Fast & Furious 6, and more. “[O]nce you know the formula,” Suderman writes, “the seams begin to show. Movies all start to seem the same, and many scenes start to feel forced and arbitrary, like screenplay Mad Libs.”

Suderman argues that an over-reliance on Snyder’s formula straitjackets creativity and “means that there’s far less wiggle room for even minor experimentation.” Well, by definition, an over-reliance on anything at the expense of creative story solutions is a problem. But Snyder aside, the fact is that structure is crucial to a well-told tale, and rules force writers to be more creative than if they are given all the free rein of, say, novelists or free verse poets.

Because movies are costly to make and only two hours long, screenwriters don’t have that luxury. Anything that doesn’t propel the narrative forward scene-by-scene, directly from the story’s “spine,” gets cut – or should. Hollywood has long relied on the traditional framework and its subdivisions because it works. That storytelling structure prevents aimlessness and self-indulgence, and gives moviegoers a satisfying ride. Know what makes for a really boring movie? Giving auteur directors and self-absorbed actors the freedom to wallow in their egos at the expense of story and pacing.

That doesn’t mean that creativity is squelched; look at Memento or Pulp Fiction. It also doesn’t mean that structure is everything. You must have a good story to begin with. Characters must be drawn in such a way that we become emotionally invested in them. But none of that will keep moviegoers in their seats if the tale is poorly told, and that’s where structure comes in.

The Slate article gives Snyder’s book way too much credit for making movies feel formulaic, and blames it for things it is not responsible for, such as an overabundance of male protagonists, an overdependence on blockbusters, and an obsession with capturing the young male audience. Suderman’s thesis might have been more convincing had he provided actual confirmation that the screenwriters of the movies he mentions used Save the Cat! as a strict template – or at all.

Movies are problematic today not because of one guidebook or because structure hinders creativity, but because Hollywood’s notoriously risk-averse studios are increasingly playing it safe (they believe) with massively-budgeted blockbuster franchises built on properties that come with a ready-made audience (like bestsellers or comic books). The financial and career pressure to avoid taking a chance on originality is intense. Also, unlike just about every other form of art, movies are the product of a committee rather than a single artist’s vision. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Compromises are inevitable.

It’s a minor miracle if any movie gets made and in the theaters at all, because there are so many hurdles to overcome along the way. It’s a major miracle if that movie also ends up a work of art and/or a popular success, rather than an uninspired flop. More often than not, the latter is not the storyteller’s fault – it’s the system’s.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/31/13)