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The Not-So-Secret Formula Behind Every Hollywood Movie

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by Sam Adams
July 19, 2013 10:37 AM
2 Comments
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Save the Cat

At Slate, Peter Suderman looks into the history of Blake Snyder's screenwriting manual Save the Cat!, whose beat-by-beat storytelling structure has, he says, become "a formula that threatens the world of original screenwriting as we know it."

The difference between Save the Cat! and previously influential books like Syd Field's Screenplay and Robert McKee's Story is that Snyder's is a nuts-and-bolts how-to, laying out page by page where the ideal screenplay should be at any given moment. (Click here for a very funny parody of Snyder's "beat sheet.") 

Field and McKee were obsessed with the theoretical underpinnings of storytelling. But Snyder's book is far more straightforward. And that's why it's conquered the big screen so thoroughly. Indeed, if you're on the lookout, you can find Snyder's beats, in the order he prescribes, executed more or less as Snyder instructs, in virtually every major release in theaters today.

Suderman doesn't really prove that the problem with formulaic Hollywood screenplays stems from Snyder's book; in fact, he doesn't even try. It's slightly terrifying to watch him tear through recent movies and show how they conform note-for-note to Snyder's structure. But he also points out that movies like Star Wars, Die Hard and The Matrix, all of which were written before Save the Cat! was published, fit the formula as well. Snyder may have mechanized the method, but he derived it from dozens of successful movies that came before, some of which are among the medium's acknowledged classics.

The true insidiousness of formula isn't that it results in Hollywood churning out piece after piece of virtually identically product -- that would be the case with or without Save the Cat! It's the way that formula acts as an undertow, pulling the audience comfortably along and whisking them past whatever superficial tweaks to convention the film might make on the surface. It's why it wouldn't matter if a major studio handed a female director the keys to a superhero franchise without making substantive changes to the script she's working from. The house always wins.

Read more: Save the Movie!

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2 Comments

  • Alex | July 19, 2013 4:22 PMReply

    Thanks, Fox... I think you speak for a lot of us writers and artists.

  • FOX | July 19, 2013 3:36 PMReply

    People are still talking about this damn book!

    My issue with this entire concept is not that Snyder revealed any "secrets" when he documented the formula of the Hollywood blockbuster, but that he obviously wrote the book for the businessmen and not the creatives. His book is damning of writers from page one. His language is brutal and spiteful (again it's big studio producer language not writer language).

    The reason this book is more of a hinderance than a blessing is the fact that the people he wrote it for (producers and execs) are the people drinking the books Kool Aid and demanding that writers adhere to this "magic" formula.

    Snyder's confident bashing of the writer is very convincing, because he says it with such arrogant venom, but when you take into account the only projects the man actually wrote for the screen and had produced before his death (Blank Check; Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot: seriously, that's it!), his arguments (should) carry significantly less weight.

    Also, I've heard the man change his story many, many times and the moral of his end game has always been $$$$$. The preface of his book states Miss Congeniality is a greater movie than Memento, why? $$$$$.

    He'd gone on record professing his love for Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, regardless of the fact that it breaks many of his "absolutely correct" rules. When asked about this, he stated, "When you've written one of the highest grossing film series' of all time (Lethal Weapon) you've earned the right to break a few rules." Again, $$$$$.

    I'll stick with Charlie Kaufman, you can keep your Lindelofs!

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