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July 19, 2013 5:45 AM   Subscribe

Why Every Hollywood Movie Seems Exactly The Same. - A look at the book that's become Hollywood's new bible.
posted by empath (264 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite

 
The bookending of theme...bringing it up at the beginning, then referencing it explicitly at the end, is the most obvious and egregious of the Save the Cat tropes. You can predict, about 11 minutes in, what the ending lines of the film are going to be, because they're almost always a mirror image of whatever that stated theme is.
posted by xingcat at 5:51 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


The bookending of theme...bringing it up at the beginning, then referencing it explicitly at the end, is the most obvious and egregious of the Save the Cat tropes. You can predict, about 11 minutes in, what the ending lines of the film are going to be, because they're almost always a mirror image of whatever that stated theme is.

a notable exception being "pimps don't commit suicide"
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 5:55 AM on July 19, 2013 [16 favorites]


I went to film school in Canada in the 90s and then mostly got distracted doing other things. Last year I went out to LA to hang out and met up with some film school pals who'd made it out there. The one who'd made it the furthest met me for a drink knowing that I'd just finished a new script. Within 5 minutes she'd asked me if I'd memorized this book. I've read it, but mostly thought it was garbage and that the author was a shitty writer.

In short: there's no hope for me in Hollywood.
posted by dobbs at 6:10 AM on July 19, 2013 [13 favorites]


I'm glad to see articles like this. I respect screenwriting, but listening to screenwriters pronounce edicts about their craft often drives me up the wall. I think the constraints on filmic storytelling arise from the collaborative nature of cinema and from the massive amounts of wealth it takes to finance a film. There's a lot of money on the line when a film is being made, so the studio suits need scoresheets to tell them whether a screenplay is any good. They turned to screenwriting classes and script doctors who were offering helpful heuristics meant to guide novices, and ballooned these heuristics into inviolable rules of good storytelling. Screenwriters want to sell their scripts, so they internalize these rules and treat them as end goals. What should have been scaffolding that can help in early design ends up being the final construction.

You only get something genuinely different from auteurs who the studios know to keep their hands off of. Trying to carve a Coen brothers movie into a three-act structure, for example, is procrustean and an exercise in futility.

Is any other artform as structurally constrained as film? Literary formalists like Vladimir Propp tried to catalog structural universals of literature, and although they have acolytes, they don't dominate the medium like the paradigm of the three-act structure in film (which is, in particular, a sham).
posted by painquale at 6:15 AM on July 19, 2013 [17 favorites]


Or look at March’s Jack the Giant Slayer. There’s an opening image that sets up each of the young protagonists’ problems and states the theme at the five-minute mark, a catalyst at the 12-minute mark, an act break between the 25- and 30-minute mark when Jack climbs the beanstalk, and a false victory 90 minutes in, when it looks as if the evil giants have been definitively defeated.

Oz the Great and Powerful is a fun riff on director Sam Raimi’s quirky early horror films. But check your watch a quarter of the way through and you’ll find a tornado that whisks Oz, and the movie, into its first act. Once Oz has landed, he meets Theodora, the love interest—and the B-plot. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby adaptation was reorganized to fit the formula, with a party-filled fun and games second quarter that leads to the decline of the third, in which tragedy looms as the bad guys close in.


Yet I liked Jack the Giant Slayer (unexpectedly smart and fun) and was extremely disappointed with Oz (boring overall and the star was annoying) and The Great Gasby (incredibly boring story and characters, just like the book. great sets though). Clearly there's more than just formula going on.

Take this Waltz was recent film a Iloved, saw it on Netflix. It was smart, had a an adult take on marriage on relationships and was drop dead gorgeously shot and directed. Plus I was able to watch it from the my couch. Think about that Hollywood.

Pacific Rim was also great, for other reason.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:17 AM on July 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


I figure within 3-4 years we'll just have a computer generate the script based on some knobs that a Film Executive twiddles. I mean, why bother with creativity? We've already done that with most pop music.
posted by petrilli at 6:18 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've definitely taken note of the number of villains who have been letting themselves get locked up (usually in a clear plastic prison) in order to spring some dumb plot. I didn't realize the trope came from a single book. That is gross. And much of the time, it makes no sense whatsoever. There is zero reason for Javier Bardem's character in Skyfall to get himself captured. Unless he just really likes hanging out in clear plastic prisons.
posted by painquale at 6:20 AM on July 19, 2013 [12 favorites]


This is precisely why I get so excited when things like "Upstream Color" happen. Mainstream movies are formulaic, sure, but that makes the experimental folks among us get more experimental, which is thrilling.
posted by jbickers at 6:21 AM on July 19, 2013 [13 favorites]


Before Save the Cat, in the late 1990s, Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Screenwriters was the vogue. That one pinned Joseph Campbell's ideas onto page counts.

I would argue that Save the Cat is just a continuation of the misuse of Campbell's work as screenplay formula that began with Star Wars years ago.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:26 AM on July 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


Skyfall at least had the excuse that he clearly loves fucking with MI6. It was still a drag on a movie that badly needed a cleaner path into its (great) climax.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 6:27 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have a theory that what Story and othe books on screenwriting have done is take the storytelling out of movies: They've identified the SHAPE of a story, and have lots of diagrams of rising and descending action that you can squish things into to make them story shaped, but the result is often as not a rather artificial affair that has a story-like structure that fills all checkboxes simply for the purpose of filling checkboxes.
posted by Artw at 6:29 AM on July 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


I've definitely taken note of the number of villains who have been letting themselves get locked up (usually in a clear plastic prison) in order to spring some dumb plot. I didn't realize the trope came from a single book.

It's a trope much older than this book. For instance, the final scenes of François Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black plays this trope out for the film's ending. Admittedly, it's on a much more personal scale than the usual "ends up nuking a city" twist of this particular trope that Hollywood is addicted to.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:30 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have a theory that what Story and othe books on screenwriting have done is take the storytelling out of movies: They've identified the SHAPE of a story, and have lots of diagrams of rising and descending action that you can squish things into to make them story shaped, but the result is often as not a rather artificial affair that has a story-like structure that fills all checkboxes simply for the purpose of filling checkboxes.

You should write a book about this! You could call it Save the Script!, maybe.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:31 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would just like to point out that he saves the cat. Because even in the midst of catastrophe (sorry), the cat knows that the human slave works for him.
posted by arcticseal at 6:31 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wince every time there's a implausibly complex villain plot with no allowance for anyone behaving anything other than just so.
posted by Artw at 6:33 AM on July 19, 2013 [19 favorites]


[epic wailing]
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:34 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I havent watched Lincoln yet, but before I do, how closely does it fit these 15 story beats?
posted by memebake at 6:34 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


@Brandon: Pacific Rim hit every beat.

That said, if once in a blue moon you want to set aside the Take This Waltzes and Safety Not Guaranteeds and just watch big stuff going kablooey on screen, it worked. I was struck by how much better it did with the well trodden Transformers style material, and in particular, how the two main chars could have swapped genders (Starbuck instead of Jax) and the plot would have still worked.
posted by Skeuomorph at 6:35 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is any other artform as structurally constrained as film?

Is there any other "art form" with (potentially) more money at stake on every project?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:37 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Most of the movies mentioned are generic schlock anyhow. I don't find that all the movies I watch are the same, because I stay away from the "blockbuster" type of movie. They usually look boring and cheesy to me.
posted by orange swan at 6:37 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wail aside, still some pretty great music has come out of those damn four chords.

But back on the gripping hand, though, I'd just like to not have great clockworks in my head not going TICK as each beat is set up and TOCK as it's released.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:37 AM on July 19, 2013


Pacific Rim hit every BEAST.

It's a very simple, straightforwards story, and you could absolutely call. It formulaic, but it never feels like it's built from a formula - It could be because every part seems necessary, or because it at least manages to hide its suprises.
posted by Artw at 6:38 AM on July 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


I wince every time there's a implausibly complex villain plot with no allowance for anyone behaving anything other than just so.

A proper implausibly complex plot will have been constructed such that no matter how you respond, it's been allowed and planned for.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:40 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pacific Rim was great because it doesn't feel like an endorsement of fascism, and Charlie Day is in it, and giant robots punch a shit load of monsters right in the face and you can tell what they're doing the whole time.
posted by theodolite at 6:43 AM on July 19, 2013 [26 favorites]


Every fight has its own structure and stakes and is directly relevant to the film as a whole... None of the action feels like some producer has just stamped [INSERT ACTION HERE] on a script and allowed the story to go on pause for the duration.
posted by Artw at 6:45 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


There aren't big factory like studios anymore. The idea that there are auteurs who can act alone and free from interference from "the Studios" is laughable. Maybe Woody Allen, who isn't particularly relevant. Hollywood knows too well that people can see human stories from the couch, ie TV, so to get asses on seats--things must blow up. And in movies where Things blow up--story structure is important, clever dialogue not so much. There are always screenwriting gurus and seminars and experts--Slate just happened to notice the most recent.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:46 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pacific Rim bored the snot out of me. I mean, the monster punching was fun enough, but I figured if I saw a Guillermo del Toro movie fail, it would at least fail for marginally interesting reasons. PR was like buying an out-of-season tomato. You're getting mostly the idea and the structure of the thing, with none of the flavor.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:46 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Does Save the Cat talk at all about character development? Because that seems to be missing from most modern tentpole films.

Pacific Rim was great, other than Isris Elba, none of the characters had character. They had backstories. And, really, Idris was just playing Idris.
posted by bpm140 at 6:47 AM on July 19, 2013


Where's the part where the world is about to be destroyed but we're supposed to care about whether the hero pops the question to the faraway fiancee over a scratchy comm link?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:48 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


All the writers ficking off to television if they want to do anything interesting would be a component - but is it cause, effect or hideous feedback loop?
posted by Artw at 6:48 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is any other artform as structurally constrained as film?

Funny you should ask
posted by IndigoJones at 6:48 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pacific Rim bored the snot out of me.

You should go to the doctor, something is clearly wrong with you. Hurry, I'm worried about you!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:49 AM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Is there any other "art form" with (potentially) more money at stake on every project?

Right, that was my point.

Architecture is probably the most expensive artform, but whether or not the building is artistically successful doesn't really influence whether the costs are recouped, so architects have freer rein.

It's a trope much older than this book. For instance, the final scenes of François Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black plays this trope out for the film's ending.


Yeah, it's not neccessarily a bad trope. The Dark Knight handled it well. But now it's being tossed around like common currency without regard to its appropriateness, there to tick off another box in the checklist.
posted by painquale at 6:49 AM on July 19, 2013


Before Save the Cat, in the late 1990s, Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Screenwriters was the vogue. That one pinned Joseph Campbell's ideas onto page counts.

There were also Syd Field's books on screenwriting, which insisted on rigorous three-act structures with a definite midpoint. It's worth noting that Blake Snyder, Christopher Vogler, and Syd Field have never produced a decent script between the three of them. Although Field was in the Hollywood High street gang that inspired Rebel Without a Cause, so props for that.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:49 AM on July 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


Syd Field was the first through the portal... At first the dangers were unknown. Then came others...
posted by Artw at 6:51 AM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


This explains why I get so bored during most big movies. It is so refreshing to watch something like Upstream Color or To The Wonder where the filmmaker doesn't give a crap about how it plays in foreign markets or if it hits all the right demographics.
posted by octothorpe at 6:52 AM on July 19, 2013


Didn't Fritz Lang once say something to the effect that the best films will leave you surprised to hear the tumblers of fate roll into place with a resounding click?

I think Hollywood can be too in love with hearing the tumblers click and doesn't think enough about the surprise.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:52 AM on July 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


Oz the Great and Powerful is a fun riff on director Sam Raimi’s quirky early horror films. But check your watch a quarter of the way through and you’ll find a tornado that whisks Oz, and the movie, into its first act. Once Oz has landed, he meets Theodora, the love interest—and the B-plot. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby adaptation was reorganized to fit the formula, with a party-filled fun and games second quarter that leads to the decline of the third, in which tragedy looms as the bad guys close in.

See, the article is seriously flawed. Oz the Great and Powerful is described as "fun."
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:52 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah. Field is mentioned in the article. McKee too.

Charlie Kaufman took the piss out of McKee and his gibberish fantastically in Adaptation.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:54 AM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


there was a Guillermo del Toro movie that was struggling to be born inside of Pacific Rim, involving a young girl who is very scared of monsters, but was aborted by the need to have a budget to sustain 2.5 hours of robots punching monsters.

Pacific Rim also had two big problems:

1) people want to see Godzilla destroy Tokyo, it's cathartic rather than scary.
2) If you haven't thought of a thing to do with giant monsters other than have them destroy a city, then that had better be the climax of your film, rather than a confusing fight about who gets to go into a giant glowing underwater vagina.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:54 AM on July 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


The idea that there are auteurs who can act alone and free from interference from "the Studios" is laughable. Maybe Woody Allen, who isn't particularly relevant.

I think you're probably right, but I mentioned the Coen brothers (who are very relevant) up above, and I am very curious about how much pressure they face from the studios. If they have to incorporate studio suggestions and demands, they are extremely good at hiding it. A Serious Man was one of the best movies of the last few years, and I'd be hard pressed to identify any part of it that reeked of interference.
posted by painquale at 6:55 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: A confusing fight around a giant glowing underwater vagina.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:55 AM on July 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


See, the article is seriously flawed. Oz the Great and Powerful is described as "fun."


And really, the part of it they choose to point out as cliched is the existence of a B-plot? That's some low-hanging fruit, guy.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 6:56 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


You should go to the doctor, something is clearly wrong with you. Hurry, I'm worried about you!

Yeah, I really feel like I missed the movie everyone else saw. Like bpm140 said, the characters were just a collection of stereotypical backstories (he's damaged by a failure! She's haunted by past trauma too! The other guy wants to protect her 'cause he's her dad, kinda!) that were just paper-thin stand-ins for conflict and setups for the next punchfest.

And I like punchfests, and I don't need it to be "A Room with a View and a Monster and a Robot", but Jesus, to me it played like someone spun the Hollywood Wheel of Tropes and Pacific Rim sharted out of it. GdT is capable of way better than this.

there was a Guillermo del Toro movie that was struggling to be born inside of Pacific Rim

Yeah, that.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:56 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm also curious about demands made of Wes Anderson. Maybe they care about who he hires, because his casts tend to be star-studded.
posted by painquale at 6:57 AM on July 19, 2013


2) If you haven't thought of a thing to do with giant monsters other than have them destroy a city, then that had better be the climax of your film, rather than a confusing fight around a giant glowing underwater vagina.

It was a metaphor about rebirth of human life in the face of the apocalypse brought about by the kaiju. It had to be in the movie!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:57 AM on July 19, 2013


It's all Aristotle's fault.
posted by wabbittwax at 6:58 AM on July 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm also curious about demands made of Wes Anderson. Maybe they care about who he hires, because his casts tend to be star-studded.

They probably do, but I also think there are probably a fair number of actors that would be willing to take a pay cut to work with him, and that happens to include some big names.
posted by Jpfed at 6:59 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm getting a little uncomfortable about the discussion of plot specifics here.
posted by Artw at 6:59 AM on July 19, 2013


It's worth noting that Blake Snyder, Christopher Vogler, and Syd Field have never produced a decent script between the three of them.

The other week, on the live episode of the Scriptnotes podcast, Craig Mazin said that using these books as a guide to writing your screenplay was like learning to build a skyscraper from a demolition expert. The screenplay books are post-facto analyses of the mechanics of extant screenplays--but that doesn't give you a recipe for producing a good screenplay from the ground up. (The only way to do that, he said, was to start building a lot of shitty buildings until you build a good one.)
posted by Beardman at 7:01 AM on July 19, 2013 [19 favorites]


RobotVoodooPower: That was one of the things I loved about Pacific rim actually. There's clearly something between Mako and Raleigh. They don't actually act on it during the film. You get the suggestion of a romantic relationship being possible after the credits. It was nicely restrained.

Tying it back to the post, that romantic subplot in Pacific Rim felt like it would have been the explicit B story in another film. The fight between Raleigh and Chuck would have been where the relationship started, rather than a way of showing that Chuck is an ass and that 5 years on the wall did nothing to cool Raleigh's temper, and the movie would have ended with them making out in the final shot.

I also expect that the fact that this Save the Cat beat structure plot sheet is filtering into mainstream awareness means its reached the zenith of its influence and is about to die back.
posted by Grimgrin at 7:02 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I imagine that filmmakers like Allen and Anderson aren't so much interfered with by financiers as limited in which financiers with whom they can work, on account of their demanded autonomy. This requires some hustling at times to get money (in Woody Allen's case I assume this is Jean Doumanian doing the hustling). I would imagine they sometimes have to make decisions about how they will let their story affect the budget, so that they can keep costs at a level the money people are comfortable with.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:04 AM on July 19, 2013


I've read a lot of how-tos and I've read a lot of people describing how they made their particular movie. Really I should just read the later, as it's interesting and informative, and not read the former as they just make me vaguely angry.
posted by Artw at 7:05 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's nothing wrong with a three-act structure. Nor is there anything wrong with the Hero's Journey. A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. The problem with the screenwriting gurus and the execs who follow their advice is that they've taken ideas that were descriptive of narrative fiction and made them prescriptive. And the execs are too stupid to know the difference.
posted by wabbittwax at 7:09 AM on July 19, 2013 [16 favorites]


Occasionally reviewers will complain about the act structure in something not being clear enough or some-otherwise Story-style "flaw", and I'll know we're doomed.
posted by Artw at 7:13 AM on July 19, 2013


Pacific Rim had so many problems.

1) It's Evangelion, but Evangelion is not actually about the war between the robots and the monsters; it's a character drama about how young pilots are exploited by a corrupt establishment that's actually working toward the end of the world + Shinji's Freudian and Oedipal issues

2) So when there's a long voiceover prologue about how the war has gone so far, and all of it is the stock sci fi "a menace appeared and all the nations of the world set aside their differences!", it's boring as fuck, and focused on the wrong things

3) The characters are too straightforward, nothing works realistically the way it would if this agency were actually the center of such immense power, there's not enough complexity or understanding of complex systems

4) Related to that, every single character is a stock trope if not an outright stereotype. Even good actors can't save these lame roles

5) Related to that, gross "the woman can only belong to the young man after he gains permission from the father" trope + embarrassing Japanese fanboyism. del Toro lifts the entire premise of the plot from Japanese anime and return only includes one Japanese character, as the love interest? No thanks.

It's not so bad if you think of it as a kid's movie for 8 year olds, but yeah Pacific Rim is pretty bad. The flashback is the best scene in the movie. It's too bad because the fights, especially the fight where Hong Kong is destroyed, are really really cool and well done.
posted by subdee at 7:16 AM on July 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Pacific Rim thread.
posted by cribcage at 7:18 AM on July 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


They probably do, but I also think there are probably a fair number of actors that would be willing to take a pay cut to work with him, and that happens to include some big names.

I think that's probably the kind of thing that would encourage more studio pressure, not less. If Tom Hanks announces that he wants to be in a Wes Anderson movie and is willing to work for peanuts, execs are probably going to pressure Anderson to find a part for him whether he has one or not.
posted by painquale at 7:19 AM on July 19, 2013


And another thing: the Vogler book is actually one of the better screenwriting books out there. But nobody in Hollywood read the book. They all read the 7-page memo summarizing the book. And that's what reveals the fundamental flaw of Hollywood studios: nobody reads.
posted by wabbittwax at 7:20 AM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't buy this article's assertion that this book/formula is all that different from what Syd Field did in the late 70s. They claim Field's stuff is much looser, but I don't think that's true at all, as I remember, in Screenplay, there's talk of on exactly what page of your script certain beats should occur, etc.

McKee's Story, on the other hand, fits the "loose shape" description much more.

But I think this is just the same worrying that we've had for the last 30 years or so, movies are becoming formulaic, there's no creativity anymore, the studio execs control everything and stifle the creators... I don't buy that either. It's always been like that. Some people make formulaic crap, some people go outside the system and make wildly inventive stuff, and some people manage to be quite creative within the constraints of the studio system. Nothing new.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 7:20 AM on July 19, 2013


<CAT SPOILER>

If you managed to attend a screening of this years remake of The Lone Ranger you will note that there is an explicit, and entirely gratuitous, "Save The Cat" scene. In the bordello. I am udderly embarrassed that I don't remember if when the Ranger returns the saved kitty to the madam if he utters the gratuitous "P" pun.

</CAT SPOILER>
posted by sammyo at 7:25 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hellboy really likes cats.
posted by Artw at 7:30 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Here's the Save the Cat "beat sheet" (Word doc). You will see that it has 15 beats, all with prescribed page numbers.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:31 AM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


10 pages is really too long to spend angsting.
posted by Artw at 7:33 AM on July 19, 2013


Related: Blake Snyder's Ten Movie Plots. (Timesuck Warning: TVTropes link)
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:37 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Scott Snyder is kind of sort of OK, despite involvement with DCs Nu52, but other than that I'm beginning to wonder if the name carries some kind of pop-cultural curse.
posted by Artw at 7:40 AM on July 19, 2013


It's worth noting that Blake Snyder, Christopher Vogler, and Syd Field have never produced a decent script between the three of them.

Yeah, be sure to follow the "successful spec screenwriter" link for Snyder in the Slate article. His filmography seems underwhelming, to say the least.

But it is nice to be able to nail down a specific, hilariously stupid and conservative behavior that is almost singly responsible for why I enjoy independent movies so much.
posted by mediareport at 7:42 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


It looks like Matt Bird's upcoming book is pretty well positioned to be the next structural vogue. Which is fine by me, as it's pretty interesting.

His analysis of the various different screenwriting gurus is fascinating background material for this discussion.
posted by MrVisible at 7:43 AM on July 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


Wow, that series of 'guru' posts from Matt Bird looks great , MrVisible, thanks. Here's his take on Snyder.
posted by mediareport at 7:48 AM on July 19, 2013


How Golden Ages happen: Shit goes south financially, and bean counters throw up their hands and let creators have control. Happened in the '70s in film and it happened not too long ago in Cable TV.

Come oooonnnn blockbuster meltdown!
posted by Trochanter at 7:53 AM on July 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


Yeah, that series on gurus is interesting, and I like the chart that compares the various formulae, but it's ridiculous to toss in Kubler-Ross and Maslow as other theorists who offer their own "beginning-middle-end" structures. He might as well have a row labeled "Mealtimes" with segments for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
posted by painquale at 7:54 AM on July 19, 2013


Saying that movies became formulaic after this book was published is like saying chemicals became formulaic after the periodic table was published.

Lots of movies are just garbage.

That being said, I am totally using the Beat Sheet while writing the next campaign for my RPG group!
posted by rebent at 7:55 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pacific Rim had so many problems.

It's not perfect, but it is wildly redeemed by giant robots and giant monster.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:56 AM on July 19, 2013


(The graph at Bird's site is better than Slate's summary, rebent.)
posted by mediareport at 7:57 AM on July 19, 2013


Ah!, this is explains Prometheus, too.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:04 AM on July 19, 2013


It always surprises me to see Snyder's book being taken seriously. He has exactly two (co-)screenwriting credits, and they're both godawful.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:05 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Surprised no one has mentioned Barton Fink yet.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:08 AM on July 19, 2013


Pacific Rim had so many problems.

It actually is perfect, but it's a perfect cheesy monster movie, perfectly ridiculous and perfectly serious. It's cool if you don't like it, but it's exactly what it set out to be.
posted by echo target at 8:09 AM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


The actual B plot in Pacific Rim is the romance between Charlie Day and the othe scientist, briefly impeded by Day's dalliance with Ron Perlman.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:10 AM on July 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


MetaFilter: A Room with a View and a Monster and a Robot
posted by bakerina at 8:11 AM on July 19, 2013


Is any other artform as structurally constrained as film?

The example that came to mind is the Serialist composers, starting with Schoenberg. He wanted to completely avoid tonality, which is actually hard to do, so he came up with a system to make sure he used every note in the scale as many times as each of the others. Other composers came up with other systems, but they're all pretty extreme structural constraints. They were doing it voluntarily, of course, not because the musical power brokers forced them to.

It's true this doesn't apply to the entire artform of music, but it doesn't apply to the entire artform of movies, either - just the big Hollywood ones.
posted by echo target at 8:15 AM on July 19, 2013


Pacific Rim thread. Seriously, can we stop with the unannounced spoilers?
posted by mediareport at 8:22 AM on July 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


None of the action feels like some producer has just stamped [INSERT ACTION HERE] on a script

Take a dip in the well, take it RIGHT TO THE SOURCE baybeee

(Bill's got a really great blog also)
posted by sammyo at 8:24 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is any other artform as structurally constrained as film?

Romance novels?

According to the Romance Writers of America, the main plot of a romance novel must revolve around the two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship together. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel should be directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters' romantic love. Furthermore, a romance novel must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending."
posted by jbickers at 8:26 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


(To clarify, with just a tiny bit of care, talking about Pacific Rim as it relates to Snyder's beats can be done without spoiling the specific details of those beats, i.e., "the actual b-plot involves Charlie Day and the other scientist, hindered by Ron Perlman" does the same job for folks in the know without spoiling things for other folks.)
posted by mediareport at 8:30 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sorry to make this the pacific rim thread but ...

subdee: 1,2,3,4,5

re: 1) If I'm paying £15 to see a 3D movie about giant robots punching giant monsters in the face, I want it to be about that, not a character drama. Pacific Rim is not trying to be Evangelion, its trying to be giant robots punching giant monster with just the right amount of plot and characterisation to make me care about the giant monster being punched.

re: 2) I'd say its the other way around now - 'government as bad guys' is increasingly true in real life but increasingly boring and tired in movies. Pacific Rim having everyone club together was actually quite refreshing. Del Toro said he wanted it to be about the world saving the world, instead of some lone hero or the USA.

Its interesting to compare Pacific Rim with something like The Dark Knight - both are essentially fantasy, and essentially childlike fantasy. (Giant robot punching giant monster, lone hero dressing in cape and driving a car that looks like a tank). The Dark Knight dresses this childlike fantasy up in a load of adult concerns. Vigilanteism, hero worship, prisoners dilemma etc. But ultimately its still a film about a man in a cape with a car thats like a tank. Its a childlike fantasy sugar coated with adult talking points so that adults can go and enjoy it without feeling too much like children.

Pacific Rim doesn't bother with that. Its a childlike fantasy that does enough to immerse you in the world, but doesn't waste any time trying to persuade you that there's any important political or philosophical issues being explored. Its a fairground ride, and doesn't try to be anything else.
posted by memebake at 8:34 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


best film I've seen recently had 5 Acts, albeit with cuts (Much ado about nothing).
posted by jb at 8:36 AM on July 19, 2013


The thing is....the averge Hollywood screenplay is allready of the tightest, most formalized and standardized ways of writing out there, I can't imagine making it any rigid does anyone any good.
posted by The Whelk at 8:38 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is any other artform as structurally constrained as film?

Perhaps symphonic composers? It's notoriously difficult to get anything new or contemporary played with any frequency by orchestras (at least in the US), unless it sounds similar to something written a century or two or three ago.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:42 AM on July 19, 2013


I thought Taken was the new model for every Hollywood movie.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:48 AM on July 19, 2013


I heard there’s a separate Pacific Rim thread for discussing that movie.
posted by bongo_x at 8:54 AM on July 19, 2013


I have a theory that what Story and othe books on screenwriting have done is take the storytelling out of movies: They've identified the SHAPE of a story, and have lots of diagrams of rising and descending action that you can squish things into to make them story shaped, but the result is often as not a rather artificial affair that has a story-like structure that fills all checkboxes simply for the purpose of filling checkboxes.

Kurt Vonnegut beat you to it: the shapes of stories. I don't think he sees it as a bad thing, though.
posted by dialetheia at 8:55 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm not only bothered about how structural formulas for screenplay have homogenized Hollywood product, but I also hate how these same formulas have trained filmgoers in almost Pavlovian fashion to expect the plot to generate "beats" in an almost assembly-line fashion. The result is that you won't get any structural innovation in Hollywood screenwriting any more, because the audience members are brainwashed to resist anything that doesn't deliver some hack's idea of the "right" plot sequence.
posted by jonp72 at 8:56 AM on July 19, 2013


It always surprises me to see Snyder's book being taken seriously. He has exactly two (co-)screenwriting credits, and they're both godawful.

Yeah, that occurred to me as well. For those who have mot sought out Snyder's IMDB profile, his only writing credits are Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Blank Check which between them have a median user rating of 4.2, squarely in the Uwe Boll range. Amusingly, his biography there begins Named "Hollywood's most successful spec screenwriter", Blake Snyder began his Hollywood career early in life, with no attribution of this accolade. I am guessing it was his publicist.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:56 AM on July 19, 2013


Surprised no one has mentioned Barton Fink yet.

Why?

Movies are dead, have been for a while. TV has reigned for, well, maybe since 2005.

What was the last *great* movie you saw that was like damn. It's been a while.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:58 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Drive?
posted by The Whelk at 8:59 AM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Kurt Vonnegut beat you to it: the shapes of stories. I don't think he sees it as a bad thing, though.

Right, he's not forcing limp dead things into imitations of those shapes and calling them stories though.
posted by Artw at 9:01 AM on July 19, 2013


Anyway I really like structure and storytelling frameworks ...as a starting point. They're great for getting out of ditches - right now my biggest problem is that I have too many plot points or Stuff I want To Happen I no idea which order or arrange it should go sort of putting every idea on an index card and drawing them from a hat - So these little guides and formulae help with the "well do I want this to be a spy narrative? a mystery story? a horror narrative? A "hidden world of supernaturalness" story, what?" for some basic bones I can hang the events off of in a way that makes sense (or deliberately doesn't! now it's a lovecraftian horror! woo)
posted by The Whelk at 9:03 AM on July 19, 2013


Bob the Angry Flower in A Night at the Feelies
posted by RobotHero at 9:04 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


The sad thing is that if movies like Pacific Rim had a half way decent story in addition to killer robots the movie would be hailed as groundbreaking and novel. But studios are just too chickenshit to take the risk.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 9:04 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Like it or not, I very much doubt Pacific Rim is anything Del Toro didn't want it to be.
posted by Artw at 9:08 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


What was the last *great* movie you saw that was like damn. It's been a while.

I watched Symbol last night.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 9:08 AM on July 19, 2013


Yuck it's so horrible, and what's worse is it all revolves around making 110 minute films, which are always too long unless you've got a specifically complicated plot - the like of which will never be generated by glib templates like these.

A lot of Americans are very smug about Hollywood, and don't realize that it's a big joke to millions of people around the world who prefer properly cooked dishes to shiny fast food crap, if you get my drift.
posted by Monkeymoo at 9:10 AM on July 19, 2013


The thing about the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufman, and Woody Allen is that their films are as slickly packaged and tightly controlled as all other films. It's just on a smaller and much more individual scale.

Each of them has their particular "brand", not to mention relationships with specific studios (and probably specific execs), the casts are pre-packaged, and the stories never stray very far from the rest of their oeuvre.

Also, those movies are made for a fraction of the budget of a Pacific Rim, likely based on formulas where the thing basically can't fail to at least break even.

It's every bit as business-driven as the big summer tentpoles, really.
posted by Sara C. at 9:13 AM on July 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


Movies are dead, have been for a while. TV has reigned for, well, maybe since 2005.

Yeah, but TV isn't really for story. If you want rambling bullshit that has some high points but ultimately doesn't really go anywhere, sure, accept no substitute. How many TV shows have had a coherent arc and ended on a good note? Did the Wire? I haven't seen it, so I couldn't say.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:17 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


A lot of Americans are very smug about Hollywood, and don't realize that it's a big joke to millions of people around the world who prefer properly cooked dishes to shiny fast food crap, if you get my drift.

I actually thought the problem with Hollywood was that movies are now primarily made for the foreign market, so that dialogue and nuance (or anything lost in translation) are disposed and the action, sex, and violence is ramped up.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:18 AM on July 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm not for a moment going to suggest that Snyder was secretly a good writer or anything, but it probably does mention that judging a career screenwriter solely by his listed credits is unfair to the point of ridiculous. Odds are, he script doctored any number of things and probably sold several more scripts of his own that languished in development hell.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:18 AM on July 19, 2013


How many TV shows have had a coherent arc and ended on a good note? Did the Wire? I haven't seen it, so I couldn't say.

Interestingly, I think the UK does quite well here because seasons tend to be 6 episodes or 12 episodes, meaning you can have quite tight story arcs. American TV seasons are about 22 episodes long which means loads of meandering subplots.
posted by memebake at 9:19 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Anyway I really like structure and storytelling frameworks ...as a starting point. They're great for getting out of ditches

I think this is exactly as far as someone should go with books like Snyder's. I got two of his Save the Cat books when I hit yet ANOTHER middle-of-a-book-I-can't-keep-writing. There is just something in my brain that cannot connect beginnings and endings with any vaguely plausible middle. And I roll my eyes at the idea that the Catalyst must be on page such-and-such (hey, what happened to in media res?), and his kind of snobbishness about not being a snob really grates, but once I dropped the notion that the books were scripture, I had a lot of fun with them. Currently rewriting the beginning of this foul tome to see if his structure ideas can get me through the middle. If not, maybe I will give up, and the world will be spared yet another coming-of-age-in-terrifying-dystopia.

But his books are so much better than Vogler...that book was awful, and spawned soooo much nonsense about heros and journeys and being given a gift from a secret mentor who is also the trickster goddess which just happens to be the one thing that can save the world. Although I think Pixar used the Vogler formula pretty well in their earlier movies, so maybe I oughtn't complain.
posted by mittens at 9:23 AM on July 19, 2013


Charlie Kaufman took the piss out of McKee and his gibberish fantastically in Adaptation.

One of my favorite scenes.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 9:25 AM on July 19, 2013


When it doubt i just use narrative mirroring, you can claim yer being arty.
posted by The Whelk at 9:27 AM on July 19, 2013


Interestingly, I think the UK does quite well here because seasons tend to be 6 episodes or 12 episodes, meaning you can have quite tight story arcs. American TV seasons are about 22 episodes long which means loads of meandering subplots.

Life rarely hands you perfect experiments with a control group and everything, but I have seen the first season of two different shows called House of Cards: one is four episodes long and one, thirteen. One is tightly plotted, compulsively watchable show about a deeply Machiavellian politician, with almost not a scene wasted; the other centres vaguely on the kind of corrupt pragmatic politician I have seen in every third movie made since 1978 and goes off on unrewarding tangents about (for example) how his wife has to fire half the staff at her NGO and then hires some other people and then she gets emotionally involved with a photographer who is supplying some photos for the upcoming silent auction blah-di-blah, which seems to serve no purpose other than to idle the engine for fourteen minutes an episode. Others may find their mileage varies, but to me it was a Spoorlos-versus-The Vanishing-level failure to grasp how and why the source material worked.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:29 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Some people like to play with the formula. "Side Effects" started off as one kind of movie and turned into another. It, not surprisingly, was a box office failure.
posted by mrhappy at 9:31 AM on July 19, 2013


Did the Wire? I haven't seen it, so I couldn't say.

The last season was a little ropey, but the first seasons were incredibly tightly plotted.
posted by empath at 9:33 AM on July 19, 2013


How many TV shows have had a coherent arc and ended on a good note?

Six Feet Under springs to mind. It was a complicated arc--the evolution of a medium-sized extended family--but it was coherent and ended on a good note.

Rome (BBC) did OK. Deadwood was a bit cut short, but seemed OK too. The Sopranos was fine. Weeds was fine.

Oh yeah: the first season of American Horror Story. I don't know if I'd call that ending a "good note" but it was a coherent arc and reasonably intelligent narrative.

I'll flip the question: How many recent movies have had a coherent arc and ended on a good note? I know there have always been formulaic movies, but it does seem worse now, mostly, I think of the changing audience demographic (younger people with no place of their own and nothing else to do who are used to watching video narratives all day.)
posted by mrgrimm at 9:40 AM on July 19, 2013


Interestingly, I think the UK does quite well here because seasons tend to be 6 episodes or 12 episodes

UK 6-episode arcs can be pretty sad. After you cross off one throwaway episode-dealing-with-side-issue-we'd-be-criticized-for-otherwise-ignoring, and possibly another heavy on the characters no one cares about or some current events fluff, suddenly you've got no time left. By the final episode you are needing to wrap up and often the characters are acting in ways that they haven't really earned, and it can all feel very surface-y, a lot more told than shown.

I think it's even worse in the 3 episode, 90+ minute format, where one dumb episode is 33% of the season, each episode is trying to have a full narrative arc, and the whole season is just a blip before it's gone anyway. It's like watching 3 pilot episodes.

On the other hand, I agree that 10-13 episodes seems to be a sweet spot.
posted by bleep-blop at 9:40 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


TV usually isn't about structure in a long term sense though. It's about character, mined over an extended period of time.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:53 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Did the Wire? I haven't seen it

Probably worth checking in some of the shows people talk about when they talk about TV writing of you're going to dismiss TV writing.
posted by Artw at 9:53 AM on July 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


How many TV shows have had a coherent arc and ended on a good note?

Avatar: the last airbender
has to be at the top of that list too. Three years and 61 episodes of a single arc. I'm very hopeful that the follow-on will do the same. Genre and medium have nothing to do with good writing.
posted by bonehead at 9:55 AM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Snyder was pretty famous for selling a bunch of spec scripts that never got made -- and it is very hard to sell a spec scrip. He didn't crack the code for how to make a script great, or even producible, but he did seem to have a talent for writing scripts that got sold. For a lot of writers, that's enough, especially as producers will treat these formulas as gold and force you to conform to them.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:57 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's about character, mined over an extended period of time.

Ulysseys? Rabbit, Run? Saturday?
posted by bonehead at 10:01 AM on July 19, 2013


A lot of Americans are very smug about Hollywood, and don't realize that it's a big joke to millions of people around the world who prefer properly cooked dishes to shiny fast food crap, if you get my drift.

Oh, don't worry. Other countries produce plenty of fast food, themselves.

The only "International" film markets I can think of that don't have the same schlock-to-quality ratio as the US are Britain and maybe Scandinavia. Even France makes a Taxi or an Emanuelle for every great film. And a lot of France's "art" films these days are schlocky garbage, anyway. Their formula for schlocky garbage is just different from that of the US.
posted by Sara C. at 10:07 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


You have to take these books for what they're worth. Having a little more understanding of the structure that allows a great many formula blockbusters to succeed is useful; and it allows one to think about what other sorts of structures you might use to achieve different ends.
posted by Mister_A at 10:07 AM on July 19, 2013


Deadwood was a bit cut short, but seemed OK too.

I did not particularly care for how Deadwood ended. It was rushed and felt forced, and I don't think they did a great job of wrapping things up, but I had it specifically in mind as a counterargument as I was writing my comment, so you could say my feelings on it are conflicted.

As far as recent movies go, you're not going to get a lot of argument out of me, but I do think the longer format of television lends itself to GRRM-esque right off the bat. See also: sequelitis.

Oh, and Artw, if only there were enough hours in the day for everything we wish we could do. It's on the list.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:07 AM on July 19, 2013


A lot of Americans are very smug about Hollywood, and don't realize that it's a big joke to millions of people around the world who prefer properly cooked dishes to shiny fast food crap, if you get my drift.

Most schlocky Hollywood blockbusters make more money overseas than domestic.
posted by kmz at 10:09 AM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yes, the first AVATAR cartoon series was remarkably coherent. It is one of the best considerations of imperialism and depression that I have ever come across, but done with no pretensions - just lightness and extraordinary concision - the writing is exceptionally tight. And it ended at absolutely the correct, natural point.

Sadly, I don't think that the writers responsible for that side of things (especially Aaron Ehasz) returned for the sequel, THE LEGEND OF KORRA, which is nowhere near as intelligent or moral or good-hearted (although it is very pretty). It remains to be seen whether the creators can "un-Lucas" themselves and make sure that the next few series of KORRA live up to the remarkably high standards set by their first work.

The huge problem with TV is that if a show succeeds it cannot end. Therefore it has to be kept going and going and going until it degenerates. This happened with THE SOPRANOS, BIG LOVE, WEST WING and even THE WIRE to some extent. However, there are many TV shows that deliver absolutely excellent stories before things start to fray. And they are refreshingly free of the narrative conventions of mainstream cinema. TV gives writers room to experiment and many of those experiments are tremendously exciting.

Perhaps the grim truth here is that writing is hard. Maybe it is even the hardest of the arts to master. It seems the easiest, the most accessible. Anyone can do it. All you need is a pencil and some paper. But the number of good writers on the planet at any one time seems to be genuinely ridiculously disproportionately small - smaller even than the number of genuinely talented visual artists and far, far smaller than the number of competent musicians. And what Hollywood has discovered is that you cannot force, or cultivate or even tempt writers into existence. I find that perversely satisfying.

As for SAVE THE CAT: it is at least written by a working writer, which many screenwriting gurus are not. McKee's book is a preposterous mess. SAVE THE CAT is clear, practical, focused. It recognises the economic realities that drive producers - they want something safe, cheery - the sort of thing you can imagine watching on an airplane ride.

Unfortunately - and again I have to speculate here, but it seems true based on the writers I have known - every writer has to find their own way through the act of creation. Blake Snyder can teach you how to be Blake Snyder, sort of, but we had Blake Snyder and we have plenty of other people a bit like him. What he can't teach you is how to be you. He might be able to help you sell a script, but only by making it a bit more like scripts that have already been sold. He won't - he can't - help you to answer whatever questions or massage whatever horrible niggling psychic scar tissue made you want to write in the first place. Only you can do that. When you write, you are on your own. Good luck.
posted by lucien_reeve at 10:12 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Rome (BBC) did OK.

The first season was good. But for the second season Bruno Heller had to collapse three seasons of material into one so the story could reach a natural conclusion. It was a disappointing waste, especially since the series likely would have been renewed if they (BBC/HBO) had known the ratings would pick up.
posted by stopgap at 10:16 AM on July 19, 2013


The dirty secret of screenwriting is that nobody "sells scripts" anymore, anyway.
posted by Sara C. at 10:17 AM on July 19, 2013


How so Sara?
posted by The Whelk at 10:18 AM on July 19, 2013


The recent Spartacus series had a really satisfying run. Started a bit rough, and there was tragedy with the star (RIP Andy), but goddamn if it didn't get so damn good.
posted by kmz at 10:22 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


There are fewer and fewer spec script sales each year, as more and more production resources are shifted to adaptations of existing properties.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:22 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well the spec market is pretty much dead as far as I know; perhaps that's what Sara means?
posted by Mister_A at 10:23 AM on July 19, 2013


As with a lot of things, I wonder how much different Hollywood blockbusters would be if the initial assumption going in to any given project wasn't "the average person is stupid and we can get money from that stupidity."
posted by codacorolla at 10:24 AM on July 19, 2013


(quietly puts half-finished spec script into a drawer, then (well it's TV soooo))
posted by The Whelk at 10:26 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


See also: Shmucks with Underwoods
posted by hot_monster at 10:26 AM on July 19, 2013


Yes, I'm talking about the spec market.

At this point, the vast vast VAST majority of all studio produced films are developed in-house, usually from pre-existing IP that the studio already owns.

Then you've got your auteurs, who are stabled thoroughbreds the studio gives deals to for the purpose of developing original material.

The real entry level for features at this point is one of two things:

- Write scripts as portfolio pieces, get an agent, get shopped around to studios on "writing assignments" (AKA in-house stuff that's in development). Very strong chance that you will NEVER actually get anything produced under your own name this way. Get burnt out, go to TV.

- Become an indie filmmaker. Write and either produce or direct your own films. Get noticed by the studios, hopefully become one of those stabled thoroughbreds. Probably end up in TV eventually anyway.
posted by Sara C. at 10:30 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I heard that they have software tools for plotting out scripts, and making sure that they hit all the beats and satisfy the relevant character-development and plot constraints, and that the software (and presumably the spec it's validating the script against) is mandated by Hollywood studios as a condition of financing, to ensure that films are compliant.
posted by acb at 10:32 AM on July 19, 2013


I follow various spec market twitter accounts, and literally the only spec sales I ever see anymore are for microbudget horror stuff. If you read spec blogs, they all recommend only writing in that genre if your goal is to sell a spec. There are a couple exceptions, and there's always the Black List, but most of what shows up on the Black List every year isn't scrappy specs making the rounds, but the unproduced work of those stabled thoroughbred screenwriters.
posted by Sara C. at 10:32 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I heard that they have software tools for plotting out scripts, and making sure that they hit all the beats and satisfy the relevant character-development and plot constraints, and that the software (and presumably the spec it's validating the script against) is mandated by Hollywood studios as a condition of financing, to ensure that films are compliant.

No.

I mean, there's Final Draft, but that's a script formatting software. It's like a really specialized version of Microsoft Word. There's no content aspect.
posted by Sara C. at 10:34 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Given the way Word used to check grammar, having a Script-checker program giving final approval would explain a lot...
posted by Trochanter at 10:40 AM on July 19, 2013


I don't even know how such software would even work, unless you just tell it how many minutes you want your film to be at the beginning, then it lays out that number of pages with BEAT X GOES HERE stamped on some of them.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:41 AM on July 19, 2013


Horror movies seem to be the one genre that still offers plenty of room for spec scripts and smaller budget films that still see wide release. The Purge, for example, was an original script and cost $3MM to make and still opened nationwide with heavy marekting.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:41 AM on July 19, 2013


Green underline: We're an hour in and we haven't seen the shark, Steven. Would you like me to help?
posted by Trochanter at 10:42 AM on July 19, 2013


This link is ragged from being passed around so much, but I cannot be part of a conversation about hacky screenwriting without mentioning Michael Bay's The Dark Knight.
We pan to a beautiful woman: platinum blond with a huge rack. She is the hottest woman in the world, but she wears glasses because she is also the smartest woman in the world
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:47 AM on July 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


This link is ragged from being passed around so much, but I cannot be part of a conversation about hacky screenwriting without mentioning Michael Bay's The Dark Knight.

*guitar solo*
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:50 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I should get back to said script cause it's half done and it's too hot to do anything else here
posted by The Whelk at 10:50 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


That being said, I am totally using the Beat Sheet while writing the next campaign for my RPG group!

You ought to look at "Hamlet's Hit Points," by Robin Laws
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:51 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think part of the deal with horror is that fans don't really want familiar characters, settings, or other IP; then it wouldn't be scary. Also, clever screenwriters know how to write scripts that can be produced for six- or low seven-figure budgets. And finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that most low-budget horror flicks are abysmally bad.
posted by Mister_A at 10:52 AM on July 19, 2013


I don't even know how such software would even work, unless you just tell it how many minutes you want your film to be at the beginning, then it lays out that number of pages with BEAT X GOES HERE stamped on some of them.

You could have a sidebar with a form, with fields like “Protagonist: Sex: [ ] Age: [ ] Relationship status: [ ]", and so on for sanity checks. Different studios could even add their own mandatory markers (like one for a scene with kids and a big shaggy dog watching the heroes set off to save the world, or a mechanical spider, or the protagonist's Dark Night Of The Soul involving him going to a junkyard and blowing away cars with a bazooka). The editor UI would have a pool of draggable markers in the sidebar, with labels like “Setup” and “Dark Night Of The Soul”, which the scriptwriter has to drop onto positions in the text. The preliminary UI could do a sanity check (i.e., protagonist.sex == 'M' && protagonist.age in (16 .. 25) && protagonist.ethnicity == 'American' && !isminority(protagonist) && (isminority(sidekick) || isminority(buddy)) && ... ) and also make sure that all markers have been dragged onto the script and are in the correct order before allowing the script to be submitted for human checking.

The overall workflow would work sort of like Apple App Store validation.
posted by acb at 10:52 AM on July 19, 2013


Whoa! What about a story about a haunted app? Not a brown note, but a literally haunted, ghosty, spooky, spirit-infested haunted app? And it makes people make questionable purchases?
posted by Mister_A at 10:54 AM on July 19, 2013


As far as the titular conceit in Save the Cat that the protagonist should do something early on that demonstrates he is a likable guy... that idea was described in much less hacky terms by William Goldman years before in Adventures in the Screen Trade. In it, he describes working on Harper (starring Paul Newman) and being told they needed a sequence to roll under the titles. He ended up writing a bit where Harper wakes up disheveled, goes to make coffee and finds he is out of filters. He digs the previous day's filter from the trash, scrapes out the grounds and reuses it. When he tastes the result, he grimaces. Goldman noted that the scene was a big hit with audiences because it gave them a reason early on to consider Harper a likable, relatable guy.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:55 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


We pan to a beautiful woman: platinum blond with a huge rack.

Wow, this one sentence breaks EVERY rule of how not to write a screenplay.
posted by Sara C. at 10:56 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I should get back to said script cause it's half done and it's too hot to do anything else here

I wrote my one and only screenplay last August in an air conditioned cafe/bar/bike repair shop. I highly recommend this as a way to get through the dog days. The best part was that I gave myself a September 1 deadline to finish, and then I went off on a five day ultimate Labor Day Weekend bender to celebrate. Possibly the best August of my life.
posted by Sara C. at 10:58 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mister_A: All that is true. Also, horror fans will watch just about anything.
posted by Sara C. at 10:59 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, if you haven't read that Bay thing, Sara C, please do. That parody is comedy gold.
BRUCE: We hack the internet.
GENERAL: No one's ever hacked the internet before... but which one of the internets do we hack?
BRUCE: All of them.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:59 AM on July 19, 2013


I've seen that How To Make Screenplay type software on sale that's basically a glorified wizard, I doubt anyone seriously uses it.
posted by Artw at 11:00 AM on July 19, 2013


Although I'm now intrigued by a haunted app screenplay (well..maybe a supernatural episode, wait stop it john one thing at a time)
posted by The Whelk at 11:01 AM on July 19, 2013


No, but Final Draft is just about de rigeur.
posted by Mister_A at 11:01 AM on July 19, 2013


It might be fun, in a Mad Libs sort of way. But then I think what would be more fun would be to use it to write short plays that you could stage with your friends, as a party game. Sort of like Mad Libs meets Charades meets Cards Of Inhumanity or whatever that shit's called.
posted by Sara C. at 11:02 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Would be hard to do 100 pages on a haunted app but it would make a good Regular Show or something like that.
posted by Mister_A at 11:02 AM on July 19, 2013


He's already done haunted cell phones. Maybe a haunted app story is going to be one of Takashi Miike's 10 movies he makes this year.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:02 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm having good look with Scrivener even though it has like 30,00 geegawks I DON'T FREAKING NEED.
posted by The Whelk at 11:02 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually, Celtx (the free screenwriting software) is pretty cool.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:03 AM on July 19, 2013


I can't make Celtx work on Mac. Maybe it's PC only and I am a dumb, but I gave it a whirl for like 30 secs and moved on.
posted by Mister_A at 11:04 AM on July 19, 2013




Would be hard to do 100 pages on a haunted app but it would make a good Regular Show or something like that.


Supernatural scripts are about 50-60 pages give or take
posted by The Whelk at 11:04 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, who's gonna write the Save the Cat adaptation of MeFi. Maybe Matthowie staring at a screen of cat scans opens…
posted by klangklangston at 11:07 AM on July 19, 2013


OK now I get it- Supernatural, not just supernatural. Reading comp/contextual clue fail.
posted by Mister_A at 11:07 AM on July 19, 2013


The haunted app thing sounds like it came from Premise Beach.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:09 AM on July 19, 2013


Kurt Vonnegut beat you to it: the shapes of stories. I don't think he sees it as a bad thing, though.

FWIW I use Vonnegut-esque graphs to deconstruct pre-existing things and compare them to my current writing projects. It's a really useful tool to see, for instance, how many BIG REVERSALS need to happen in a 43 minute episode of TV (and how that connects to act breaks), or whether the stakes my characters are facing are big enough.

That said, my main weakness as a writer is conflict and stakes and twisty-turny plot stuff. If I could just write montages where cute people high-five each other and give dogs belly rubs, that would be fine by me. And my graphs are really just shorthand for "your script needs to be this exciting". I don't really see how you could use it to get a script to hew to a formula, a la big studio blockbusters.
posted by Sara C. at 11:10 AM on July 19, 2013


Just thinking about A Field In England - a micro-budget UK indie freak out of a folk horror flick which is one of the best films I've seen in recent years and restored my faith in cinema and how, thank god, there is still non-formula cinema out there... but then thinking horror of horrors that perhaps even that confirms to Save The Cat... it's certainly got the opening / closing image thing. However I suspect that many stories can be laid over the gurus' various formulae... it's just that they have a lot going on in addition - actual plots with cause and effect, proper character arcs etc
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:12 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


So, who's gonna write the Save the Cat adaptation of MeFi.

Sorkin. One of the things I most respect about him is that he can turn a story about a guy who stares at a computer screen all day into a thrilling tale of betrayal and greed.

I mean, he does it by getting everyone to just talk REALLY fast. But still.
posted by Sara C. at 11:12 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another oldie but goodie: Ken Levine's approximation of an Aaron Sorkin baseball script.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:13 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


So this is why I've been so dissatisfied with movies lately, all those damn screenwriters have been cribbing from the same book! And it's not even Screenplay!

I am SO SICK of this style of storytelling. It's turned movies into 90-minute episodes of Scooby-Doo, where you can see what's coming by the necessary beats of the plot. It is atrocious.

I'm glad to see articles like this. I respect screenwriting, but listening to screenwriters pronounce edicts about their craft often drives me up the wall.

Same here. And game designers tend to do the same thing. I wonder if big game development studios have their own versions of Save The Cat they make their project leads read.
posted by JHarris at 11:19 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Loosely related, at least in terms of horror specs still being a thing... what's the over/under on opening weekend for The Conjuring? $45MM?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:21 AM on July 19, 2013


One hundred people read the book. Ninety people learn how to leverage the book's teachings. Eighty people actually do so, for one or more screenplays. Forty people write something that isn't an outright disaster. Twenty people write something that isn't half-bad. Ten people write something that might actually be compelling with some changes. Five people write something that's good enough to get past the readers. One person gets far enough that the movie might actually get made, or at least go into pre-production.

Now do it again, but this time start with one hundred and one people, one of whom does not read the book. That one person still has to write one or more screenplays, and have it be good enough to get past the readers. The readers' job is much, much easier if the screenplay follows the book formula, because the book formula is so pervasive that they're used to picking a screenplay up, flipping to page x then page y then page z to get a gist of the story. That one person -- even if a terrific writer -- is going to have a hell of a time getting past the reader as an outlier.

In that way, books like this may be helpful for aspiring screenwriters, but they're also poisoning the well for anyone who doesn't follow their teachings. As long as the ones going their own way are few and far between compared to devotees of the book, it'll be hard to break in on talent alone (although coming in with a family name or a recommendation or whatnot is always a talented writer's best bet anyway.)
posted by davejay at 11:21 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Scooby Doo is actually pretty good these days.
posted by Artw at 11:23 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Tell you what I'd do if I were a producer: I'd collect spec horror scripts, turn out 4 or 6 movies a year from them at $1MM to $5MM each, bury the losers, promote the snot of the winners, book them on weak dates against wobbly Hollywood releases. That;s pretty much what James Wan's company already does.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:28 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's turned movies into 90-minute episodes of Scooby-Doo

Jesus, 90 minutes if you're lucky! Most of the terrible stuff based on toys and comics from 20 years ago is inexplicably 2 and a half hours long.
posted by codacorolla at 11:30 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Apparently that is so it ties up screens and screws over other films.
posted by Artw at 11:33 AM on July 19, 2013


Just in case you thought Hollywood adaptations couldn't get any dumber after Battleship: Candyland, starring Adam Sandler.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:33 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


NO, that can't be real. And let me tell you - Battleship? FIrst, it's not even Liam Neeson's worst movie. Second, where were the giant white pegs landing near the ship, followed by a huge red 'mother peg' that lands right on it?
posted by Mister_A at 11:37 AM on July 19, 2013


That one person -- even if a terrific writer -- is going to have a hell of a time getting past the reader as an outlier.

That's not really the case.

Or if it is the case, the issue isn't so much with "you didn't read this one book" but "this material is interesting but not really producible."

Unfortunately, Hollywood studios are really only interested in material that will fit into their existing business model and make money in specific well-understood ways. This is likely part of the reason so many movies suck, but it really has nothing at all to do with this one particular book. It's the nature of the risk involved and the fact that Hollywood is run by huge media corporations.

The only way to produce truly unique material is to do it outside this system. And then, the only way to have a sustainable career at all as a writer, producer, or director, is to leverage unique films made outside the system into work within the system.

*Which is much more about not writing camera angles into your scene descriptions and not describing characters in terms of their bra size than it is about the Inciting Incident and Second Act Midpoint Reversal and the like.
posted by Sara C. at 11:43 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Whip pan to Sara C.

Say what?
posted by Mister_A at 11:46 AM on July 19, 2013


(you leave that stuff out, that's the director's decision. Ideally characters should be described in short, character-trait based ways.)
posted by The Whelk at 11:50 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


How is it controversial that Hollywood studios are gigantic media conglomerates that only want to produce things that fit neatly into their usual way of doing things?

I mean, once a decade or so you get a movie, or a cluster of movies, that change the studios' Usual Way Of Doing Things.

Which I actually think we're ripe for, and can only hope that said development swings things back in a good direction rather than being, like, Universal buys Kickstarter.

But if you're just a schlub submitting work through the gauntlet of readers and assistants and slush piles, there's a very strong chance that your script is not the one movie of the next decade that's going to change everything. That's not a very worthwhile way of approaching screenwriting.
posted by Sara C. at 11:52 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


>Pacific Rim bored the snot out of me.
You should go to the doctor, something is clearly wrong with you. Hurry, I'm worried about you!


BLAST HARDCHEESE. PUNCH SIDEIRON. BIG MCLARGEHUGE.
posted by JHarris at 11:53 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mister_A (wryly)
Why should I take your word for it, Whelk?
posted by Mister_A at 11:54 AM on July 19, 2013


Apparently that is so it ties up screens and screws over other films.

It wouldn't surprise me if this was true, but where did you get it from?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:54 AM on July 19, 2013


THat's a great and awful idea! Put out junk to steal viewers! I don't know if it works but it would make a terrific...





blog post! A haunted blog post!
posted by Mister_A at 11:55 AM on July 19, 2013


I am shocked, shocked to hear that formulaic movies are created from a formula.
posted by Spatch at 12:00 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was told that by someone in film studies - the movie length thing, no other reference for it tho.

As for stage directions, I

(pans over to desk full of TV scripts)

Have done a lot of research, and been involved in production as a few things before (director, editor, boom mike holder..)

The only scripts that contain a lot of notes and directions tend to be written by Writer/Directors or are animated scripts - cause animation is so carefully worked out at every stage (cause you can't go and re-drawing on the fly)
posted by The Whelk at 12:02 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Scooby Doo is actually pretty good these days.

Mystery Incorporated is terrific. The original is what I was talking about. But, you know, derail derelle etc.
posted by JHarris at 12:02 PM on July 19, 2013


"There's An App For That"
posted by The Whelk at 12:04 PM on July 19, 2013


(wryly)

Parentheticals are another no-no in terms of getting things past readers. Apparently it's OK to use maybe one or two in your whole script, if what you're trying to get across can be expressed in no other way.

FWIW all of these things are used all the time among established writers. They're especially common in TV where the writers are producers collaborating with the directors, who they hire on an episode-by-episode basis and who typically are allowed less creative license with the material.

But if you're a new writer speccing to break into features? No camera directions, no parentheticals, and always keep your scene description less than three lines on the page. And never EVER write something that's more than about 110 pages long.
posted by Sara C. at 12:05 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Never write scene descriptions in the first person plural, either.
posted by Sara C. at 12:06 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


third person present tense!
posted by The Whelk at 12:07 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


We should write a book about this stuff.
posted by Mister_A at 12:08 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


We ROCKET ZOOM in on Sara C, laying out the laws of screenwriting.

SMASH CUT to her fingers typing furiously on a keyboard.

EXTREME CLOSEUP of her furrowed brow as she concentrates hard on what she's typing, recalling painfully the memory of the plane crash she was in when she was nine years old.
SARA C
(agonizing)
This shit just frustrates me, okay?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:08 PM on July 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


The book is also haunted.
posted by Mister_A at 12:08 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


FADE IN:

CLOSE-UP: the ruggedly handsome, sweat-slick face of our hero, THE WHELK. His cold steel blue eyes wide with shock as he reads off his laptop:


WHELK (reading off the screen)

Fade In, close up ..the ruggedly handsome, sweat-slick face of our hero, The Whelk. His cold steel blue eyes wide with shock as he reads off his laptop.
posted by The Whelk at 12:12 PM on July 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


From the article:
In Save the Cat!, he stresses that his beat sheet is a structure, not a formula, one based in time-tested screen-story principles. It’s a way of making a product that’s likely to work—not a fill-in-the-blanks method of screenwriting.
From Adaptation, the best movie about screenwriting, and one of the best movies ever:
Charlie Kaufman: There are no rules, Donald. And anyone who says there are is just, you know...
Donald Kaufman: Not rules, principles. McKee writes that a rule says you *must* do it this way. A principle says, this *works* and has through all remembered time.
posted by The Deej at 12:15 PM on July 19, 2013


actually that second direction there is totally unnecessary
posted by The Whelk at 12:19 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I mean, some of the Snyder/McKee/Fields type books also lay out the Newb Mistakes To Avoid stuff, too. That's why I'm not willing to discount the entire genre out of hand. And why I think that, to an extent, it's good for new screenwriters to read these things.

I have to say, out of the vast majority of unproduced spec screenplays I've seen, the problem is not that it's cookie cutter garbage cribbed straight from Steal The Cat. The problem is that it's in Times New Roman* and formatted like a novel. Or that it's 200 pages long. Or that every page has a "We see", "a WHIP PAN", and multiple parentheticals. Or that it commits one of a dozen stupid screenplay cliches, like opening the story with the protagonist waking up in the morning. Or that it introduces a dozen unnecessary characters in the first scene. Or that it takes 50 pages to get to the beginning of the story.

In a certain sense, I totally see the market for a book like Save The Cat, because at the very least, it's a handy resource for people who are telling perfectly good stories, but need to turn those stories into screenplays that won't get laughed out of the CAA mailroom.

Of course, the real problem is what happens when someone who has tons of potential uses Save The Cat to figure out how to package their screenplay appropriately, and then falls headlong into an industry where you're discouraged from ever trying to innovate. You definitely aren't going to get any interesting films that way.

It's not lost on me that the main screenwriting podcast is hosted by a guy who wrote a few really interesting movies 15-20 years ago and now works on mega-budget studio adaptations, and I think (????) the guy who wrote The Hangover and now just churns out Hangover sequels? Either that or he's not the guy who wrote The Hangover, but a guy who has only ever churned out Hangover sequels.

*Fun Fact: The Coen brothers' scripts are all in Times New Roman. Basically because they can, I imagine.
posted by Sara C. at 12:20 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


they also edit all their own movies under pseudonyms again, presumably because they can.
posted by The Whelk at 12:22 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


A principle says, this *works* and has through all remembered time.

Not to debate with a fictional character, but... except when it doesn't. Movies fail for all kinds of reasons. When is one of those reasons going to be attributed to the stupid predictability of the structure?

*Fun Fact: The Coen brothers' scripts are all in Times New Roman.

Um, what does it matter what font it's in? So long as it isn't the Hate Font, shouldn't the author have more important things on his mind? TNR isn't the prettiest font, but it does a fine job of encoding words into tangible form.
posted by JHarris at 12:26 PM on July 19, 2013


Fonts are standardized because you shoot a number of pages a day and the font and formatting has to conform to the rough rules so people know how much they have to shoot that day.
posted by The Whelk at 12:27 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


(I:E you know pretty much how long a page of dialogue in Courier 10pt is going to translate to time on screen - if everyone is using different fonts and formats, that changes)
posted by The Whelk at 12:28 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I imagine it helps, too, if someone else wants to rewrite a part of your script. They don't have to play Guess What Font This Jagoff Used.
posted by bleep-blop at 12:37 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


A lot of the conventions of script formatting are to make it easier for people to understand what they're looking at. A screenplay is much more like a blueprint for a movie than it is like a novel or a poem.

As long as you're doing everything on your own, or based on pre-existing relationships, it's not important to make your blueprint look like every other blueprint.

But if you're a nobody, and you want to convince someone with more power than you to turn your blueprint into a movie, to the tune of millions of dollars? Better make it look like a blueprint.
posted by Sara C. at 12:37 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also: Do not enclose anthrax with your script.
posted by Mister_A at 12:43 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Or glitter.
posted by The Whelk at 12:43 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I thought glitter was OK? When did that change?
posted by Mister_A at 12:44 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


When that balding guy kept sending out all those headshots.
posted by The Whelk at 12:54 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, the tales I could tell you of people's quirky headshot mailings... And I've never even worked in casting. I can only imagine what they get.
posted by Sara C. at 1:00 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I included both the S&M torture dungeon shot AND the tweedy professor shot to showcase my range.
posted by The Whelk at 1:03 PM on July 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Doing this is so much more fun than doing my real job.
posted by Mister_A at 1:12 PM on July 19, 2013


"All the writers ficking off to television if they want to do anything interesting "
Because TV is more of a writer/producers' medium. Episodic tv pays well, is more compatible with family life (which is why women tend to work in TV rather than feature films) and because writers have more control over their product.
" I haven't seen it, so I couldn't say." Which would be a problem when discussing episodic TV of the last 10 years, to pick a random amount of time.
And "If I could just write montages where cute people high-five each other and give dogs belly rubs"

Those sequences usually show up in scripts as "To be staged by director".
posted by Ideefixe at 1:31 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Life rarely hands you perfect experiments with a control group and everything, but I have seen the first season of two different shows called House of Cards: one is four episodes long and one, thirteen.

Compare and contrast with both versions of Shameless: One is kind of a big sloppy mess that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, none of the characters are particularly well-defined except in the most superficial terms, and there's nary an arc to speak of; the other has a rhythm and a logic, characters are nailed down and have very clear motivations and roles to play in furthering the plot, and each season has a definite beginning/middle/end. I like the original, but the American version is a vast improvement.

There are a lot of American series that could stand to be cut back considerably (each season of Dexter, for example, always seems a few episodes too long), but sometimes it's nice to have time to get to know characters. Game of Thrones could use a longer season to that end; I've watched the whole thing so far and still, every episode, I have at least one Wait, who is this guy again? moment.

I guess the lesson of the above is that a large ensemble is better served by a longer season. For something like Peep Show or Extras, though, where the arc is tied to just two people, a short season is probably best.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:38 PM on July 19, 2013


It's been changing, though, even in the US. I've been rewatching DS9, which didn't strike me as particularly drawn-out when I first watched it, and now I just keep thinking "jesus christ these seasons are LONG." Because now I'm used to cable shows that are like 10 to 12 episodes a season and it's wonderful! I hope this trend continues.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:41 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have at least one Wait, who is this guy again? moment.

Yes! Yes! so much Yes!!!

And then The Guy Next To Me on the sofa sighs loudly, hits pause, and explains who it is.
posted by MoxieProxy at 1:48 PM on July 19, 2013


Bryan Fuller has said that he's a big believer in the 13 episode season size and will keep Hannibal to that model for the length of its run.

Which, since he's Bryan Fuller, could end ignominiously at any second. But still.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:48 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


What do Academy Award-winning directors Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher and Ang Lee have in common? None of their films have grossed as much as Dennis Dugan's, the visionary behind the Adam Sandler vehicles: Grown Ups, Grown Ups 2, Big Daddy and Jack and Jill.

Save the Cat!? Save the scat.
posted by wensink at 1:57 PM on July 19, 2013


What do Academy Award-winning directors Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher and Ang Lee have in common? None of their films have grossed as much as Dennis Dugan's, the visionary behind the Adam Sandler vehicles: Grown Ups, Grown Ups 2, Big Daddy and Jack and Jill.

I was thinking "man I have literally never met a soul who would go see those movies" and then I remembered, no, there's my dad's friend from work. We went to her place and got a pizza and it came with a free DVD. Catwoman with Halle Berry. We all watched it and at the end my whole family was like "what the CHRIST" and she said "What? I liked it!" Like... no, it didn't make any sense really, but it had fights and danger and drama and hot people traipsing around and, if you aren't bothered by a total lack of plot or the lack of technical filmmaking mastery on display, then it IS a great movie. My family watches movies for plot, she watches movies for spectacle and she's up front about it. She won't watch black-and-white movies because she finds them slow and boring. Fireworks don't have a plot and they're still awesome to behold, so why should a movie have one?

And, of course, she's a great woman and my family loves her. We're just different.

I forget sometimes that not everyone is just like me, especially on the internet where you have the illusion that, since you're talking to people from all over the world, obviously they must represent a wide variety of viewpoints.

A big part of me wants to be like "fuck anyone who likes those movies" but, they're all human beings with reasons for liking what they like, you know?
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:08 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


What do Academy Award-winning directors Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher and Ang Lee have in common? None of their films have grossed as much as Dennis Dugan's, the visionary behind the Adam Sandler vehicles: Grown Ups, Grown Ups 2, Big Daddy and Jack and Jill.

Going by wikipedia, Shutter Island ($295 million) and The Departed ($290 million) both seem to have made more money than any of his films (Grown Ups seems to be his highest grossing film at $271 million).

Life of Pi made over $600 million.

Benjamin Button and Seven made $330 million each.

Clint Eastwood's highest grossing film is Gran Torino, which made 269 million dollars, so I'll give you that one, just about.
posted by dng at 2:24 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Movies are dead, have been for a while...What was the last *great* movie you saw that was like damn.

@mrgrimm Just scanning my own top 10 lists of the last three years, there are some truly *great* movies to be seen: Mud, The Hunt, Leviathan, The Master, Searching for Sugar Man, The Kid with a Bike, The Grey, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter, Of Gods and Men, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, etc.

Sure, the quality of dramatic television has improved over the last decade, but not necessarily at the expense of quality cinema.
posted by wensink at 2:27 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


@dng Indiewire didn't publish their methodology in the story I linked to, but I'd guess they were citing domestic box office gross figures for the theatrical runs.

Will happily avoid dinner plans and do some digging on BoxOfficeMojo, though.
posted by wensink at 2:36 PM on July 19, 2013


Adam Sandler films are illegal outside of North America.
posted by dng at 2:39 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


A big part of me wants to be like "fuck anyone who likes those movies" but, they're all human beings with reasons for liking what they like, you know?

Baby Jesus said we should help the afflicted.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:40 PM on July 19, 2013


I can't claim any insight as to why someone would voluntarily watch an Adam Sandler film. Probably best to ignore it and pretend it isn't happening.
posted by Artw at 2:41 PM on July 19, 2013


I am 100% sure Adam Sandler had a magic lamp wish backfire on him: oh, you want to make movies! Then why not make movies FOREVER BUWAHAHAHA!
posted by The Whelk at 2:42 PM on July 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


"But... But... I wanted to make meaningful movies! Like the one PT Anderson makes!"
"Sure... Here is Punch Drunk Love... THE CRUELEST JOKE OF ALL."
posted by Artw at 2:46 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Whe should edit each others scripts is the message I'm getting from this thread.
posted by The Whelk at 2:48 PM on July 19, 2013


( also someone hire me, I can both write and read lines, I promise to be less gigantic on camera then I usually am.)
posted by The Whelk at 2:55 PM on July 19, 2013


This is precisely why I get so excited when things like "Upstream Color" happen. Mainstream movies are formulaic, sure, but that makes the experimental folks among us get more experimental, which is thrilling.

This is weird to me because, while many parts of Upstream Color were daring and exciting, most of the events in the third act seemed to happen specifically because of poorly justified movie logic, i.e. for no other reason than to cap off the narrative in an unmistakable way. It has about the clunkiest Chekhov's gun I've ever seen.
posted by speicus at 2:55 PM on July 19, 2013


The bookending of theme...bringing it up at the beginning, then referencing it explicitly at the end, is the most obvious and egregious of the Save the Cat tropes. You can predict, about 11 minutes in, what the ending lines of the film are going to be, because they're almost always a mirror image of whatever that stated theme is.

Desperate Housewives does this very explicitly through the use of their narrator. OK, it's not film, but when the narrator says 'and in a few days, one of them would be DEAD', you know there'll be a plane crash/siege/random killing in order to conveniently close a plot hole. I enjoy this in the context of the programme because they aren't afraid of being a campy soap, but if it was a film? I'd be complaining about how dumb it all was.
posted by mippy at 2:56 PM on July 19, 2013


On the other hand, Breaking Bad season 2.
posted by Artw at 3:13 PM on July 19, 2013


It always surprises me to see Snyder's book being taken seriously. He has exactly two (co-)screenwriting credits, and they're both godawful.

Well, to be fair, he's dead.
posted by averageamateur at 3:15 PM on July 19, 2013


If he'd been a successful working writer, he wouldn't have written the book. I know a very successful script doctor who's never actually had anything of her own produced, but that's not really the point--she gets hired because of a specific need and her specific skill.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:49 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, Breaking Bad season 2.

Ugh, I thought that was such a clumsy and meaningless way to close that season. It came literally out of the blue and isn't connected to anything that has happened since, unlike all the other big events in the show, which form a cohesive narrative. In my opinion it's the low point of the whole series and I don't really get why everyone seems to dig it. I read somewhere that they only had the vaguest of ideas how they were going to close the season when they started shooting the first episodes, and I really think it shows.
posted by painquale at 3:58 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Or if it is the case, the issue isn't so much with "you didn't read this one book" but "this material is interesting but not really producible."

Sorry, I should clarify: I meant "reader" as in script reader for the studios reading incoming screenplays, not books that studio readers review for potential.
posted by davejay at 4:16 PM on July 19, 2013


Yes, that's what I assumed you meant. 99% of what readers get is unproduceable under the current business model of the studio system. It's not about "aaaaah, no Inciting Incident on page 15!", it's about "sorry this is not something we are interested in making".

Though, again, it's a fantasy that the "studios" employ "readers" to go through "incoming screenplays". The spec sale market is dead, and most "readers" at this point are working for production companies and agencies, evaluating material for whether they're interested in producing it or repping the writer. I put reader in quotes there because most readers are either not people doing that as their full time job (it typically falls to interns and assistants), or freelancers reading for all sorts of people on a part-time basis.

The whole notion of studios having a room full of professional script readers who read unsolicited material and honestly evaluate it as to whether to produce a given script is, I don't know, maybe something out of the 1930s?
posted by Sara C. at 4:21 PM on July 19, 2013


On the Breaking Bad issue, yeah, sorry, Breaking Bad is plotted along totally mainstream Butts In Seats/Eyeballs On Screens/Don't Touch That Dial approaches. It's actually not that controversial a show in terms of how the plots and season arcs are structured.

I mean, it's controversial to have a show about a regular guy who becomes a monster through cooking meth, and a lot of the things the show has depicted have been controversial.

But certainly there's nothing "experimental" or "innovative" about the way the stories are structured. It's the same basic idea that goes all the way back to old school network cop shows and westerns.

You could probably write a TV version of Save The Cat by looking at Breaking Bad as a case study on how to structure a plot for a one-hour drama series.
posted by Sara C. at 4:27 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]



The whole notion of studios having a room full of professional script readers who read unsolicited material and honestly evaluate it as to whether to produce a given script is, I don't know, maybe something out of the 1930s?


Just like most things I like, sigh.
posted by The Whelk at 4:31 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


You could probably write a TV version of Save The Cat

Are there any books on TV writing that you would recommend?
posted by MoxieProxy at 4:45 PM on July 19, 2013


No, in fact I would like to know the same thing. I've skimmed a few in Barnes & Noble, and there's some helpful stuff (especially about, like, how to think about pilots, how networks work, what the upfronts are, etc), but I've never seen anything that is as big a deal as Save The Cat. Definitely nothing that compelled me to spend $24.95 on the book.

I also feel like a lot of books about the TV business are outdated easily, since things have changed so much over the last few years. For instance the current wisdom is that there's no point in writing spec episodes of currently-on-air TV shows (except for in certain cases), but that people want to see more original stuff now.

The cable landscape is also, in my experience, not well reflected in TV writing books. They mostly still seem to assume that everyone is trying to pitch cop, doctor, and law firm shows to the Big 4. Which I think is valuable information to read about (those shows are still the big money-making shows, and for a drama writer I think being able to write an episode of a procedural is probably a good skill to have). But I know a ton of people who have gotten meetings at Comedy Central based on YouTube stuff, which is just like not even remotely contemplated in the TV writing books I've flipped through.
posted by Sara C. at 4:59 PM on July 19, 2013


TV has changed too quickly, too much for any currently published book to be useful.
posted by The Whelk at 5:00 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


( which is why I'm doing the old fashioned " spec a long lasting show" both as practice and exercise and cause I know these particular shows are both reasonably open to spec scripts and I've got a good handle on the tone. But it's not what I'd recommend someone do)
posted by The Whelk at 5:02 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


( also I like making sam and dean do things )
posted by The Whelk at 5:16 PM on July 19, 2013


Spec scripts are useful for the big network "new writer" fellowships. They also might be a good thing to throw into the pile for getting an agent.

You have next to no chance of actually selling a spec episode of a TV show. It's beyond the feature spec market sucking -- that's just not how it works.

Supposedly, when you spec, it's not for the benefit of the show you're writing an episode of. It's for the benefit of other shows that are kind of like that. For instance if you spec Girls, your agent could show that to The New Girl, and The Mindy Project, and Two Broke Girls, and the like.

The old way of doing it which is mostly obsolete now is that your agent would submit a packet around town during staffing season, and said packet would consist mostly of specs of currently-on-the-air TV series with possibly some original material or other works as a supplement. Now nobody wants to see the specs anymore and it's the other way around: they want original material and will accept specs as a supplement.

Of course, in the 80's, shows really did accept material on spec. I think Ron Moore sold a spec episode to Star Trek:TNG that launched his career. Jane Espenson got story credit on an episode of, I think, DS9 thanks to a spec she pitched them (though DS9 was famously open to unsolicited material). Which goes to show how much things change in TV and why the hard-copy books about how to write for TV are so worthless.
posted by Sara C. at 5:26 PM on July 19, 2013


My apologies for the potential derail. And my apologies for linking to a poorly sourced and confusing post from Indiewire. (See above.)

To clarify, since 2007, Dennis Dugan, the cinematic custodian of Adam Sandler's comic gifts, has outgrossed Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher and Ang Lee at the box office. The distressing math, via BoxOfficeMojo:

Dugan
Total Gross: $993 million ($614 Dom | $379 Intl)
2013-2007: 6 films released
Average Budget: $80.6 million
Grown Ups 2*: $62 million ($60 Dom | $2 Intl)
That's My Boy: $58 million ($37 Dom | $21 Intl)
Jack and Jill: $150 million ($74 Dom | $76 Intl)
Grown Ups: $171 million ($162 Dom | $109 Intl)
You Don't Mess with the Zohan: $200 million ($100 Dom | $100 Intl)
I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry: $187 million ($121 Dom | $66 Intl)

*released July 12, 2013

Lee
Total Gross: $864 million ($220 Dom | $644 Intl)
2013-2007: 3 films released
Average Budget: $55 million
Life of Pi: $609 million ($125 Dom | $484 Intl)
Taking Woodstock: $10 million ($7 Dom | $3 Intl)
Lust, Caution: $67 million ($5 Dom | $62 Intl)

Scorsese

Total Gross: $770 million ($334 Dom | $436 Intl)
2013-2007: 3 films released
Average Budget: $113.3 million
Hugo: $186 million ($74 Dom | $112 Intl)
Shutter Island: $295 million ($128 Dom | $167 Intl)
The Departed: $289 million ($132 Dom | $157 Intl)

Eastwood
Total Gross: $694 million ($334 Dom | $436 Intl)
2013-2007: 5 films released
Average Budget: $46.6 million
J. Edgar: $84 million ($37 Dom | $47 Intl)
Hereafter: $105 million ($33 Dom | $72 Intl)
Invictus: $122 million ($37 Dom | $85 Intl)
Gran Torino: $270 million ($148 Dom | $122 Intl)
Changeling: $113 million ($36 Dom | $77 Intl)

Fincher
Total Gross: $677 million ($361 Dom | $316 Intl)
2013-2007: 4 films released
Average Budget: $86.25 million
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: $233 million ($103 Dom | $130 Intl)
Social Network: $225 million ($97 Dom | $128 Intl)
Curious Case of Benjamin Button: $334 million ($128 Dom | $206 Intl)
Zodiac: $85 million ($33 Dom | $52 Intl)
posted by wensink at 5:28 PM on July 19, 2013


For those interested in how TV changed, Brett Martin will be reading from Difficult Men in LA tonight.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:32 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you're interested in writing for TV, The Nerdist Writers Panel on The Nerdist podcast channel is awesome. Many of the finest writers in TV recorded live in panels, answering questions, telling stories, etc. Plenty of current writers, from stars like Jane Espenson and Vince Gilligan and a healthy dose if young people on their first or second gig.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 5:57 PM on July 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, the Nerdist Writer's Panel podcast is great!

In fact, I need to get caught up with that. I let it fall by the wayside for a bit, but I really should go back to it.
posted by Sara C. at 6:04 PM on July 19, 2013


Which, since he's Bryan Fuller, could end ignominiously at any second. But still.

This is the part where I confess that I can never keep Bryan Fuller, Bryan Singer and Brian Grazer separate in my head. One produces middlebrow dramas with Ron Howard, one has made several good superhero flicks, and one has made several quirky TV comedies with female leads and supernatural elements, but if the lives of loved ones hung in the balance I could not draw lines from name to career highlights for these three guys.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:56 PM on July 19, 2013


I’m still trying to get over that Dennis Dugan is a big time director. He was a TV actor I really liked for some reason when I was a kid, but forgot about.
posted by bongo_x at 9:13 PM on July 19, 2013


Has 'The Elements of Style' been examined yet?
posted by breadbox at 11:12 PM on July 19, 2013


Several of the X-Files episodes were specs... that's how Vince 'Breaking Bad' Gilligan got his break
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:41 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wonder what the beats for the bad guys look like.

p 1-10. Boring part about your nemesis's stupid, worthless, empty existence. Sometimes you get a scene here that shows how awesome you are, though, because this is an exciting movie about you and your deeds, not a day in the life of your idiot nemesis.

p 12. Minor slip-up in plan accidentally gives nemesis something to live for. Oops.

p 12-25. Nemesis, being weak and foolish, tries to go back to boring life, but unluckily cannot. This is often portrayed as being your fault.

p 25-30. The glory of your plan starts to be revealed as you implement it through your hard work, careful planning, and ruthless sense of purpose. Meanwhile, Nemesis gets stupidly lucky, discovers ridiculous special powers and happens to meet the only person in the world who could help them. It's all enough to make one sick.

p 30. This can be the start of a boring part about the nemesis's pathetic friends. Don't let it happen! This is where you should get some screen time. If you don't, you may see the nemesis start to accrue cool allies, love interests, pets, helper robots, etc., while you remain in the background. Get yourself in there! One buddy, one love interest/mentor, no more. (Decide whose face you want to lick now.) Do whatever you can to hang around. You could let yourself get caught. You could lock the nemesis in with you somewhere. If you set up a bus death trap with the hero on it, put yourself on that bus too, by gosh. You don't want to be tied up in bureaucratic BS while the nemesis's muppet pals and sidekicks each get a line, do you? Maximize your presence. Don't be a Voldemort.

p 30-55. This is where your amazing plan is kicking into gear and your nemesis's people finally manage to get their shit together and pose a threat. This is where you show off how powerful, intelligent, skilled, and resourceful you are while your nemesis manages to not actually completely suck. Your plan's many layers and contingencies are revealed, and you adapt brilliantly to every wrinkle.

p 55. The fools get lucky and achieve a minor victory. Or so they believe! Any victory feels like a lot to them. Let them think they've beat you for a little bit, it's not a big deal and will last about 2 seconds.

p 55-75. You're still pretty awesome here. You just get to do your thing. Some people are tempted to abandon their plan now and make this all about killing the nemesis and pals, but you probably should keep an even keel and save that for later. Work that into your overall plan, that's the best advice. (Some of you are way ahead of this guide and have already been using the nemesis unwittingly to further your plans.)

p 75 Highest point of awesomeness, really. Probably you just blew something up and it was pretty satisfying. There is kind of embarrassing angle here though, because it's easy to forget that you didn't actually kill the nemesis.

p 75-85. Nemesis is defeated. You should be able to win right here but there's often some dumb reason you can't. The final step always takes longer than you think.

p 85. Nemesis's lucky bullshit kicks in again. They're back with full hit points. It sucks.

p 85-110. They call this Act III, but they're sort of out of ideas and there's barely any plot left. The nemesis is now kind of unfairly on equal terms with you. (As if! Don't buy into this framing and embarrass yourself with a, "You and I, we're the same," speech.) Things get pretty chaotic in the last big dumb action sequences, try to stay calm and clever. Don't have an emotional breakdown, don't just flail around stupidly when your control panel stops working—unless that's your thing. The only hard and fast rule is: be true to yourself. You can't win, but you can go out in style. Give a good final speech. Get that face-lick in. Reveal that severed head. Unleash your favorite henchman if you haven't already. You're going to lose, yes, but this is the part where you show who you really are.

p 110. Annoyingly, the nemesis is shown to be basically the same dumbshit as when this all started.
posted by bleep-blop at 8:33 AM on July 20, 2013 [11 favorites]


Sometimes I feel like I'd like to try writing for some media thing, maybe TV. Then I read threads like this about how convoluted the process has become, and alternatively how formulaic the results end up being. It zaps all my enthusiasm for learning about it, and sends me right back to the programming editor.
posted by JHarris at 3:53 AM on July 21, 2013


how convoluted the process has become

It's always been convoluted and formulaic.

Well, there have been brief periods where it wasn't formulaic (I'm specifically thinking of 70's New Hollywood and maybe the spec sale boom of the 90s), but it's always been convoluted.
posted by Sara C. at 10:03 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


FWIW most of this "here is my book about screenwriting" is the dying gasp of that spec sale boom. There used to be a time when a smart and vaguely creative person could write a screenplay in almost any genre and potentially sell it for A Shitload of money. So this whole market sprung up trying to help people who were less smart and less creative get in on it in a Get Rich Quick sort of way. Things like Save The Cat are the "buy my series of CDs about how to flip houses" of Hollywood.
posted by Sara C. at 10:05 AM on July 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


It is worth noting, perhaps, that the author of Save the Cat died in 2009.
posted by JHarris at 7:25 PM on July 21, 2013


Sara C. I mean, some of the Snyder/McKee/Fields type books also lay out the Newb Mistakes To Avoid stuff, too. That's why I'm not willing to discount the entire genre out of hand.

I haven't read the book, but this conversation reminds me a lot of the discussion we had around the typical chord progressions in pop music. Specifically this thought:
If you choose to break from the guidelines you should be really sure that you know better than so many successful predecessors.
posted by Popular Ethics at 2:35 PM on July 29, 2013


Nuke the Cat - because I apparently did not hate the world enough.
posted by Artw at 8:32 AM on August 5, 2013


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