The Real Reason Hollywood Makes Bad Movies – II


Stupid movie executives purchase bad screenplays, make them worse using Blake Snyder’s storytelling formula, and as a result Hollywood produces bad movies full of explosions instead of non-formulaic, original films like The King’s Speech…. Right?

Let me catch you up on the discussion of why Hollywood makes bad movies.

Is Blake Snyder To Blame For Bad Movies?

Recently, Slate movie critic Peter Suderman opined that screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat screenwriting method is partly responsible for “bad” movies coming out of Hollywood.

I responded that blaming Snyder’s method is like blaming a book about “how to write a business plan” for the failure of most small businesses.

Many of you agreed with me. Some of you did not. Overall, you made many interesting points in the comments, via email, and to me in-person.

I love the discussion—thank you to everyone who commented!

In this follow-up post I’d like to talk about the patterns in the comments and feedback I received and talk about some specific things you can do to make original material easier to sell.

Film Executives Are Often Number-Crunchers – True!

A widely-held belief is that executives are bean-counters who don’t understand (or really care about) story, e.g.:

  • Paul wrote, “The age of studio mavericks like Robert Evans is long gone, his ilk replaced by bankers/lawyers/analysts who have reduced the green-light process to one of best-possible-ROI-mathematics. Save the Cat is [a] hack [that executives use to] minimize risk and maximize their potential ROI, and as a result we’re suffering through a cinematic drought.”
  • Jim wrote, “The problem is that too-popular books, one-stop gurus, and structure guides are used as cheat sheets by non-writers to drive development [and] all they know about storytelling they got in a book or a weekend McKee course.”
  • Stephanie wrote, “If there is a finger to point, it might be at today’s young and/or inexperienced studio execs or even independent producers who are not all familiar with story structure, and who have taken Blake’s suggested structure as “the rule” of screenwriting as opposed to a tool that should help all of us get a clearer picture of what the audience expects.”

There is definitely a lot of truth in this point of view.

While “bean-counters” isn’t my favorite descriptor, many film executives are knowledgable about the business aspects of filmmaking. They do look at financial models and are “money-people.”

Like you, I wish that more of the “money-people” involved in making movies would take the time to learn more about story. I also believe that “story-people” should learn more about the business aspects of filmmaking.

Writers should try directing, directors should try acting, and everyone should try producing. It doesn’t take long to figure out that each aspect of the business requires expertise and deserves respect.

If more film executives had creative experience or training, I think this would help them to see the potential revenue in more original material.

However, executives – even if they are “money-people” – know a lot more about story than you might think.

Executives read a lot of scripts. They see a lot of movies. They meet with lots of professional writers. And with very rare exception, they work extremely hard, long hours. (I remember when an executive emailed me about a script three hours after she gave birth).

So an executive may be a “money-person.” He or she may be young, inexperienced, and using Blake Snyder’s checklists as a way of evaluating your work. But this is also a person who, in the last month, has likely:

  • Read at least thirty scripts
  • Considered lots of pitches
  • Watched a dozen movies
  • Met with some of the top screenwriters in the business

Part of the problem is that while an executive may have a good instinct for story, if a project isn’t pitched to them in a way that also makes sense to them from a business perspective, they are going to say “No.” It doesn’t mean they don’t get it—it means that you didn’t persuade them effectively.

Therefore, learn to pitch in the language executives understand.

I don’t mean talking about foreign pre-sales or the way you calculate the size of the potential audience. Instead, pay close attention to how you identify successful precedents and comparisons for your project. This is a way of talking about money without talking about money.

Film Executives Are Afraid of Originality – True!

I know that many of you feel strongly that film executives are biased against original work, e.g.:

  • Mike wrote, “You haven’t addressed the underlying point of Suderman’s article, which is that homogeneity is bad in fiction. It does a disservice to human ingenuity for everyone to work from the same formula.”
  • William wrote, “A movie [that is] truly original will break convention and be something with no precedent.”
  • B. Rosson wrote, “Studios shy away from risk and the making of highly imaginative, original films…. I wonder how producers convinced investors to make a film about a stuttering British King (The King’s Speech)? The script was NOT formula, nor Save the Cat structure.”

In broad strokes, I agree with this idea.

Film executives, in general, ARE biased against original work IF the way you pitch the story makes it seem extremely risky.

Often it’s appropriate for film executives to be scared of originality.

What? Did I just say that?

Yes. Writers value and emphasize originality. That’s important. The desire to do something original stimulates others to innovate, entertains audiences in new and challenging ways, and holds a mirror up to new aspects of our culture.

However, originality scares film executives for good reasons. Something that is 100% original has no precedent that proves it can work.


  • Investing your life savings in a stock that was billed as “totally original, unlike any financial product that’s ever been invented before.”
  • Driving your newborn baby in a car that was “original and ground-breaking in every respect.”

Of course, you wouldn’t invest your life savings in some new-fangled thing, and you wouldn’t drive your newborn around if you couldn’t be confident in the safety of the vehicle.

Original things are not safe. They are exciting because they are risky.

This is why, when an executive hears when you say, “This is a completely original, groundbreaking script unlike anything you’ve read before,” they hear:

WARNING: This has never worked previously. This could get you fired, ruin your reputation, and end your career. BEWARE.”

Therefore, learn to pitch your work by giving it a familiar context and using the right comparisons to demonstrate a successful precedent.

You can learn more about how to pitch and sell an original idea from David Simon’s pitch for The Wire. I think of The Wire as being one of the most original projects in any medium. But Simon didn’t emphasize the originality of the project. His pitch starts like this:

The Wire is a drama that… will be, in the strictest sense, a police procedural set in the drug culture of an American rust-belt city, a cops-and-players story that exists within the same vernacular as other television fare.”

Movies Used To Be Better Because They Were Original – False!

For some people, the movies used to be better, e.g.:

  • Michael wrote, “Why did the Hollywood Renaissance take the nation by storm in the 60s and 70s? They did it because the writers, directors, and producers took risks making the films they wanted to make, films that had messages and morals…. Hollywood needs to take risks on well-written stories [instead of an] endless parade of sequels, prequels, reboots, and over-milked gimmicks like 3D.”

A lot of people feel this way. They look at exceptional movies from the 60’s and 70’s and think:

  1. The films are successful because they are so original.
  2. Today’s films would be better if they were equally original.

There’s only one problem. This argument doesn’t take into account all of the movies from the 60’s and 70’s that were highly original and FAILED.

I don’t think I’ve ever used the words “logical fallacy” before, but this argument (that movies used to be better because they were more original) is a logical fallacy with a name: The Halo Effect.

The Halo Effect means that often what we believe has contributed to a movie’s performance are often attributions based on performance.

In other words, because the old movies we like are original and were successful, we assume that the originality caused the success. But the originality and the success are correlated, not causative. To determine causation, we would need to a) measure originality in way that has nothing to do with financial success and b) evaluate a large, random sample of the movies from the 60’s and 70’s.

Most People Agree – Blake Snyder’s Work Is Not The Problem

Most people got my point that the reason bad movies are made isn’t because of Snyder’s formula—it’s because movies are incredibly hard to make.

  • Bill Lae wrote, “Most cakes use the exact same core ingredients (otherwise they would not be cakes.) Is that why bad cakes are bad? Using Suderman’s [argument], his [own] essay sucks: “The reason op-eds, reviews, critiques, and essays these days stink is because they all follow the exact same formula: introduction/premise ending with thesis statement, body of arguments, and a conclusion. Voila. Crap! So formulaic; I was bored. SAVE THE EDITORIAL!”
  • CJG53 wrote, “There’s a name for this; it’s called STURGEON’S LAW. The late Science Fiction novelist and screenwriter, Theodore Sturgeon, was once asked back in the early ’50s why 90% of Science Fiction was ‘crud.’ His response: 90% of EVERYTHING is crud. Sturgeon wrote: ‘Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.’”
  • Colin Holmes wrote, “The other side of the coin would then be that since some movies are terrific, all the credit should go to Blake Snyder as well, right? STC is just a template, not a formula. If it was a formula and it worked, then every movie would be using it and every movie would be great.”

The King’s Speech Saves Two Cats

A number of people have brought up The King’s Speech (or a movie like it) that they believe represents a non-formula movie that has nothing to do with Save the Cat.


  • The story does fit into the Save the Cat model. Here’s one version of a beat sheet breakdown.
  • Bertie (The King) has a “save the cat” scene starting on page 13 of the script.
  • Lionel (the voice coach) also “saves a cat.” His “save the cat” is the whole movie.

Bertie is the cat, and Lionel is saving him. The whole film is one giant “Save The Cat.” That’s part of what makes it so compelling.

Blake Snyder Would Have Loved This Debate

Blake and I talked frequently when he was writing the Save The Cat series. I think he would be thrilled by how successful his books have become, how many writers he has helped, and how intensely people have been debating the value of his contribution (or lack thereof).

He knew what he was saying was going to ruffle feathers within the Hollywood community and he was okay with taking that risk as long as he was helping writers.

I feel the same way. I understand that as a former executive, you might assume that I am biased in favor of the executive’s position in this argument about why “bad” movies are made.

I am a former executive. I’m an also an executive who left her job and career to work with and help writers. Many of my friends are writers. My husband is a writer. I care about writers and am highly sympathetic to the writer’s position.

That’s why I want to explain what’s happening as clearly as possible so I can help you to make good decisions and achieve your goals.

Of course, whether you think I’m right or wrong, I hope you’ll let me know in the comments. Thanks!

. . . . . . . .

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  1. Back in the ‘early days’ you’d go to the movies to see two films (along with shorts, newsreels, etc.). The first film was known as a “B movie” which meant don’t expect anything great. And usually it lived up to its expectations. Then came the feature; some were great films, some good films, some stinkers, etc. So by definition, Hollywood was not expected to produce even 50 percent “good movies” but audiences were okay with this, at least until TV came along. I would guess that the overall percentage of crummy movies (subjective as that category may be) isn’t all that different today than it was in the 1940s. We just have to spend more to see them in theatres, our expectations are higher, the films cost a whole lot more money to make, the average moviegoer sees far less films in theaters today than back then, and from a writer’s point of view, the romantic notion of packing up your typewriter, hopping a train, and getting a job at a Hollywood studio is dead and buried. None of this is Blake Snyder’s fault. It’s not even Robert McKee’s fault. The comparison is just an exercise because we can’t go back to how things were, we can only try to figure out how to improve how things are. Thanks for these thought-provoking articles!

  2. It twas ever thus.

    Much as a few media companies dominate a lot of film production ( even so-called “indie” production ) today, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Theatrical Syndicate heavily influenced, dominated might not be too strong a word, what appeared on the American stage — mostly formulaic melodramas that did well at the box office. It took the rise of the Little Theatre movement to make a home for playwrights with intellectual, expressionistic, or naturalistic ambitions ( e.g. Eugene O’Neil, Clifford Odets ). New forms of distribution, digital technologies, a growing demand for content and more sophisticated audiences make such a movement in film possible today, but few or thinking in this way or are willing to organize; too few want to work on original business models to drive original content.

    As to why so many movies are so bad, I recommend David Mamet’s “Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business.” It contains the lost screen writing secrets of the Incas and a lot of other amusing observations besides.

    More at

  3. Great article Stephanie!
    Today I think there is much more good movies in Hollywood than bad but original movies are reduced in favor of those types of movies which are already proven to be sold. More original doesn’t mean better of course. This is the first time I heard about Blake Snyder and his book “Save the cat!” I see there may be theory about how most if not all of the Hollywood stories have been told and that’s a little bad for me to hear because I like to think that every story is unique, but on the other hand it helps writers to write more acceptable story for audience.

  4. Why does Hollywood makes “bad” movies?

    Easy… Because in Hollywood, as in all parts of the world… Money talks!

    If you have let’s say 10 million dollars in your personal account and you want to invest in making a movie that could get you ten times that amount in revenue (that sounds amazing, doesn’t it?)… And you have 2 scripts in your hand, and YOU are the decision maker because it’s YOUR own money on the line, and those 2 scripts are very different in story and structure.

    You have:
    1) A night without a moon – A thriller that goes backwards without you even noticing it until the end.
    Whoa, that’s very original, but wait, you have no idea how the audience is going to react to such an original story, and movies with that abstract editing don’t do so well in the box office. It may get an Official Selection in a film fest, but that’s it. You as the money person have all the right to think “That’s risky.”

    Then, you have:
    2) Drunk parents – A comedy about a couple of parents that get drunk in their daughter’s birthday.
    Now, you might think “That movie will suck. Same R-Rated movie with same structure, as always.” But wait, movies about drunk people do pretty good at the box office. Now, based on previous movie results… That movie might not be as good as the first thriller, but it has better chances of doing well at the box office because I’ve seen movies about drunk people and hangovers doing great at the box office.

    Because you want to earn money by making this movie, you will go with the safe bet, which is the same lame comedy. Why? Because people will not invest their money and time into a risky bet.

    Put yourself in the shoes of the executive, and not on your own shoes as the most original writer ever.
    Success in Hollywood is not originality. Success in Hollywood is money.

    PS: I’m not saying I’m in favor of this, I’m just saying it’s the way it is.


  5. Hi Stephanie,
    I’m glad I came across this post — really interesting. For one thing, I think it’s a little odd for people to give a single person all the blame for what an entire industry has been doing. That’s most likely their way of making Blake a scapegoat, being unable to accept the fact that sometimes people just make shitty movies. While Blake wrote some guidelines, he didn’t write all of these movies. However, in STC, he did have a really “strict” beat sheet, which was even specific about what happens on which page. If EVERYONE follows that exact formula, their movies are going to feel old and predictable. It’s a good book with great advice, but it isn’t the constitution, and the only person to blame here is whoever decided that STC is suddenly the one and only guide to screenplays.

  6. Stephanie, I must concur with the comments that Hollywood makes bad movies because people continue to pay to go and see them. The proof that that phenomenon occurs can be see in the prolific production of those naughty movies (the ‘P’ word goes in here). If people did not continue to pay to watch such movies then that industry would disappear faster than a centipede at a frog convention. In the same manner, remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, super heroes and incredible CGI ad nausea movies continue to be made by Hollywood because, in the end, people continue to pay to watch them. When a truly original movie is made the general audience fails to recognize and appreciate them with their wallets, thus, Hollywood doesn’t make them all that often.

    For example, the Wachowski’s movie Cloud Atlas was a highly original movie. But can one break that movie down into a Blake template? There are a few Blake beats that can be rendered out of that script but they don’t fall into the template cleanly or consistently. For instance, the seemingly heroine of the movie (Donna Bae), who endures persecution in all of her lives ends up getting executed in her last depicted life. She does not show up on the rescue ship in the end. The hero (Jim Sturgess) who has done everything altruistically in all of his lives gets his throat slit before the rescue ship arrives. But the sort-of hero (Tom Hanks) who has lived lives that preyed on the weak saves Halley Barry in his last depicted life and gets to go on the rescue ship in the end.

    How does any of this fit into Blake’s templates? Is that why the movie was not a box office hit, because it didn’t do things as how the general audience would have expected them to occur? Perhaps if the Jim Sturgess and Tom Hanks characters in their last respective lives were exchanged (Jim Sturgess saving Halley Barry and getting on the rescue ship and Tom Hanks getting his throat slit) might have produced a better response from the audience and the box office.

    Is this an example of why Hollywood doesn’t like truly original scripts and why we (as the viewing audience) are condemned to seeing one ‘bad’ movie after another?

    I know that the movie was not a box office success and many people came away not knowing what it was they just saw, but my wife and I loved it. We purchased the Blu-Ray as soon as it came out and have re-watched it about a dozen times over, picking up something new each time. But I know that we are not the norm (just ask any of our associates and they will tell you that we are not the norm :) ). Is this an example of a movie that is not a bad movie per-say but a movie that is too involved, too cerebral and/or too complex for the general populace (the ADD crowd that my wife and I sometimes like refer to as) to understand and appreciate?

    Perhaps there are two kinds of bad movies, those movies that are on the left hand side of the bell curve (the truly bad movies) and those movies that are on the right hand side of the bell curve (the movies that are so brilliant and original that people are lost and, therefore, classify them as bad… in other words, they are ‘too’ good).

    Does that make any sense?

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Mark. Perhaps you are cherry-picking examples to fit your narrative (as we all do)? Let’s look at the Oscar nominated movies from the last ten years. Are you seeing lots of bad movies in that group or are you seeing brave scripts and courageous artists who made them? It’s not that the Oscars are the only yardstick, but the point is that good movies are getting made and people do go and pay to see good movies. In my experience, people who say a movie is bad are not the audience for whom that movie is intended.

  7. I always thought the reason Hollywood keeps making terrible movies is because the public keeps paying to see them…

  8. Some people forget that one must learn the rules before one can break them. Save The Cat is not the reason movies are bad, and it absurd to think it is so. Breaking into the industry is the hardest part, and once you do so, you can truly break the boundaries and create “original” work because Exec’s trust you. You have to start somewhere, and learning the basics of story telling from Blake is a great place to do just that.

  9. You’d think an industry run by men and the virgin obsessed culture we live in that everyone would WANT to be first to produce an original idea! (That’s a joke, folks. You can laugh. It won’t hurt, I promise)

    Seriously though…SOMETHING had to be first once upon a time….

  10. I loved Blake. He took a chance and helped me with my first script sale. He didn’t really know me, but he went out of his way to help me out. I wrote an article about this last year when asked the opposite: “Following the “Save the Cat!” blueprint seems to be a sure-fire way of at least having a chance of getting your screenplay any sort of actual success.”

    One thing I should point out. This EXACT discussion about a paradigm ruining the stuff that Hollywood was pushing out was had a few years back, but then it was Hero’s Journey underfire and not Save the Cat.

    People look for scapegoats for what is wrong. I honestly think that the problem is the prevalence of media these days. People are consuming more media than ever in history so there is just so much more out there. No one can keep up and so stuff is rushed to market, not necessarily thought out or complete. It used to take years for major feature films to get completed, now its a year. They announce that a writer has been hired for a new property and 1 to 1.5 years later this huge tentpole is at theaters around the world.

    So, the real problem is consumers demanding more and more, cheaper and cheaper, faster and faster.

  11. Simple.. because SOME if not most,directors change the script or story that talented writers write. If I don’t see directed and written by I will give the movie a chance. But most movies I like are the movies that are “written and directed by” There is a good chance the director being that he or she wrote the script will not change the elements that will make the story great.The majority of Americans has no clue on who is Melissa Matheson? But I bet I know everyone knows Steven Spielberg. Ms Matheson wrote a great script and Mr Spielberg did an outstanding job on putting story on screen. Anyway Hollywood has gotten way from good basic story telling as they did in the era’s from the 40’s to the 70’s. You know in the 50’s there were no “how to write a screenplay’ books. Writers just knew how tell a story . Today it’s all about “agendas” and “special fx”. And still to the Hollywood execs that green light movies have no clue on what life is like outside of California. So they go on numbers because they have no life experiences to judge on whether a story is great or not.

  12. I think there are many reasons why Hollywood makes bad movies. Most of the reasons have already been mentioned here: too many cooks tinkering with the script, Hollywood wishing to hedge their bets by making “proven properties” with a “built in audience”, and executives who have little background in the creative side of moviemaking.

    I would also throw in devaluing the importance of the movie — just seeing it as advertising that will create a demand for the ancillary market – the toys, video games, action figures, etc. This is particularly true of children’s films.

    The last point I would make is refusal to make a project until the script is truly ready to go. Until “it’s a movie.” David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg worked years on a script until it was right. “The Age of Adaline” is a recent example of a movie that might have worked if more time had been spent on the script.

    We have had an interesting contrast in the past month. Two tentpole movies: the original “Tomorrowland” and the sequel/reboot “Jurassic World” released into theaters. “Tomorrowland” failed with Disney expected to write off $140 million. “Jurassic World” had the biggest opening ever.

    I liked “Tomorrowland” a lot until Act III arrived. Brad Bird obviously had a very big story to tell but, IMHO, he totally let the film collapse so he could push his message. The script also never reconciled the story’s two plot lines. It turned preachy (even as I agree with the message) and the climax had more to do with the subplot than with the main character played by Britt Robertson. If the film had been longer (a true 3 hour epic) or more time had been spent on the script it might have actually worked. The bad side is that the lesson learned by the studios is no more original tentpole movies.

    On the other hand, “Jurassic World” was in development for over a decade until they got it right. It shows in both the movie and its reception by the public.

  13. You answered the number one question in my mind after I receive feedback on my script saying in varying terms “Subject matter too controversial for Hollywood” when it’s a subject matter RELEVANT and ORIGINAL without being OFFENSIVE or INSENSITIVE. I, for one, sit here wondering why they keep do re-makes, sequels, and copycat films – and so many garbage films! So many films are just plain stupid as well, that I think Hollywood would be BEGGING for something meaningful and worth the price of the movie ticket! Very frustrating for a writer that doesn’t want to lose integrity or “water down” a script and settle for trash films. I guess the answer is to find other “break-through” movies that deal with a controversial subject matter that was successful – like American Sniper would be a recent example.

  14. I think one fairly simple reason for bad movies is that there are too many cooks. A script may start out fairly good, but then every investor or stakeholder (as the government likes to say) has to insert their 2 cents’ worth, and the good script disappears into a hodgepodge of irrelevant, discordant elements.

  15. Good article, Stephanie. You are a persuasive writer. I’m tempted to believe everything you say. But, it doesn’t quite ring true. In my life, I’ve worked with many people who work harder than Hollywood execs. Is reading screenplays and taking meetings really a tough job or just a boring occupation. Is it that hard to turn down 99% of pitched ideas and original scripts?

    C’mon, this is not hard labor. Teaching is hard. Farming is hard. Nursing is hard. What’s hard is convincing others to support a script you believe in. That takes brains and balls.

    But, according to most industry experts, it’s almost impossible to find a good script. That’s why everyone is working so hard to find that one in a hundred (more like two hundred) that might be a “maybe,” or the one in a thousand that deserves a “recommend.”

    Sorry, I don’t buy this line of thinking either. All scripts need work. That doesn’t make them bad; it means real work has to be done to make the story shine. And it is hard work, making shinola.

    More hard work is required to “fix” a script than to reject it. Fixing a script requires imagination. And intuition, And experimentation. If it was easy to fix a script, they wouldn’t need multiple rewrites.

    The fact is all scripts need rewrites. Figuring out which ones to rewrite is hard. Figuring out how to rewrite those scripts is even more difficult. What’s my point? My point is that all those rejected scripts are not beyond repair. In fact, most of them are no worse than most of the movies that actually get produced.

    But, it’s risky to say “maybe.” After all, it’s difficult to see a script’s potential unless you’re an expert rewrite guy. And it’s difficult to guess a story’s commercial potential unless you’re a west coast Einstein . How many demographic studies predicted people would be interested in a thriller about a neurotic ballerina or a drama about alcoholic ad executive?

    Belief is hard work. Fighting for a story you want to be made is hard work. Trying to give the audience something that they don’t even know they want is very hard. And rare as rain in Hollywood.

    • Thanks, FD. It’s true that farming and many other jobs are physically much more difficult than being an executive. But a common misconception is that executives and producers have cushy, easy jobs without stress and they don’t work hard. That’s not been my experience.

      In reality, executives are responsible for managing and coordinating the labor of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people and efficiently spending very large amounts of money (potentially hundreds of millions of dollars). Every time they give the “thumbs up” this represents a massive amount of work rapidly allocating resources and handling complex social politics – kind of like an advanced game of Tetris where a hundred pieces fall at a time. And each time they say “Yes,” they are risking their job (executives are fired frequently).

      While you are correct that all scripts need work, I disagree that it is the job of the executive to see the potential and figure out how to rewrite it. Though execs do sometimes do this, this is not the exec’s job – it’s the writer’s job. It’s the executive’s job to get a director, cast, and production team to all be available at the same time and to work for an amount of money that the studio approves. Then, to actually get the movie made and released in this constantly-evolving business — these are the crucial things that must happen behind the scenes for the screenwriter to see his or her idea come to life.

  16. I’m a marketing guy and pioneered habit-based marketing. I wrote a book on this a few years ago, basically updating marketing with neuroscience, and got numerous interesting projects in the process. A few years ago I was asked out to CA to sit in with a group of producers, writers, and directors and discuss how to fix Hollywood. My point to this group was that the business model was killing the movie experience. The studio gets most of the money from tickets sales inside the first couple of weeks. Movie sales fall dramatically in that time frame, meaning the theaters see little revenue from actual ticket sales. So they jack up the price of concessions and relentlessly expand their offerings. Back in the day (to indicate my advanced years) we planned on going to the movies and then looked to see what was playing. Now, because the experience is so expensive and the alternatives are so good, each movie is evaluated simply by whether it should be seen in theaters or wait for DVD/streaming, etc. The movies we feel we need to see in theaters are BIG and popular. (The price of movies are all the same, whether that’s a $200 million blockbuster or an indie movie with two people in a room made over a weekend.) In addition, global markets require a lowest common denominator story. This leads to many movies failing because they are trying to be HUGE like Iron Man, the Avengers, The Transformers, etc. Failures such as The Lone Ranger, Jupiter Rising, and John Carter all stem from this perceived need to create a movie you have to see in theaters. Because of this, some of the best storytelling has shifted from movies and onto cable TV and other distribution networks like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. And Hollywood’s and the theater owners’ response has been to try and figure out how to raise the prices on the remaining few seat occupied in the theater: 3D, IMAX, Real Digital, etc. etc. This creating a self-fulfilling death spiral of creativity out of the movies.

  17. I like Snyder’s book; there’s a lot more to it than structure. Adherence to his structure does limit how bad a movie can get. It still may stink, but it will at least follow a logical, coherent, readable pattern. Predictable? Not necessarily; you can actually use structure to fool the audience. But structure doesn’t guarantee any level of goodness, because it’s not the only thing that’s important.

    Why are movies bad? There are a quazillion reasons: CGI that sucks the audience connectedness out of the story; surplus themes; too thin a story; political correctness; too many characters; failure to surprise; mean spiritedness; unreal characters; repetitiousness; lack of “moments”; thematically unrelated subplots…

    I could go on, but I think you can generalize from there: lack of abbazabatude–qualities that keep the audience glued to their seat like a half-eaten Abba-Zaba. Some of these things are subtle–their absence is more sensed than recognized. Structure isn’t to blame for their omission.

  18. It is obvious that ‘Hollywood’ will not spend money on the subjects that they would in the mid 60’s through the seventies. They just go for the big weekend opening payoffs. I’m so sick of super heroes and comic crap! These films can ‘make’ the whole year for a studio. Even FX guys I know in the biz are sick of them. Hollywood doesn’t nurture the interesting stories of the 5-15 million dollar movies as much as they should. Consequently they have ‘dumbed down’ the average viewer. This viscous cycle perpetuates the problem.

  19. Our movies were always like torches leading our society to bright future. Every movie must cultivate good manners, encourage patriotism, ignite a passion for love, fill up a gap in knowledge and so on… For that every movie supposed to show the best human characters with their ability to fight successfully with all obstacles and even sacrifice in everything even with their life. What we have now is a distortional society, vulgarism with the worsens influence on our youth. I have a book that is “noble and good for a movie” said one of the editors of The Jewish Journal Danielle Berrin Sofia Gelman

  20. Great article, Stephanie. I love Blake’s books. They are very helpful but a framework not meant to be a mandatory ‘fill in the blank’ type exercise. Last summer I went to a writer’s conference and many agents/execs did groan when talking about Blake’s formula – as in “PLEASE don’t try to follow all his beats exactly – if I see one more script with the protagonist giving a homeless guy money on page 5 to show he’s a great guy, I’m going to scream.” (I don’t remember the page number for this, but you get my point).

    What I don’t see mentioned above and what I have heard stated at conferences by agents/producers, is that when they’re doing their ‘bean counting’ as you say, they think about the star they can attach. So let’s say Will Ferrell is going to sign on to do a comedy and they need to pay him $10 million dollars. Lousy script or not, their ROI is going to be at least $30 million because Will Ferrell is …Will Ferrell. And he draws a crowd, including myself. If it’s a great comedy with a great script, their ROI just goes up because people will flock to it. Thanks for the interesting read and discussion. I enjoy your articles and appreciate you telling it like it is ;)

  21. I’m sorry, but Hollywood puts out the movies that people pay to see. If they are bad movies (and I certainly think that most movies are pretty bad), it’s because executives have been told by the market that those are the movies people want to see. Sequelitis exists because people, whether they admit it or not, like familiar things. Studio execs like sequels because they have an established brand.

    Another point – people seem to be conflating “original” with “new”. Not the same thing at all. In fact, in the current film medium, unless we start seeing a huge influence from non-western cultures, I doubt we are going to see anything truly original in Hollywood films. If someone takes top 100 grossing films from the last 5 years, you will probably find 6, maybe 7, basic plotlines. THe plotlines are all the same. The characters are new, but that doesn’t mean they are “original” either. Because, again, film tends to operate on characters that are essentially archetypes. 90 minutes isn’t enough to establish a completely new character type for most writers. And by the time a writer gets good enough to do it, they are probably more like Harlan Ellison than not – the most important thing is getting paid, not making a statement.

  22. I think we are putting the cart before the horse, it starts with writers. If we as writers start to take ourselves serious by saying the end is now, we are no longer going to pander to the executives then they will have nowhere to go but to take what we are putting on the table.

    If we dont do that we will cry until scripts start to write themselvelves and maybe they can complain on our behalf or even resist the craving of the executives.

    In conclusion I think we need to take this further and debate what is original when it comes to writting as this has been raised on several occasion by different people. I am finalising my first script named The Fourth Symbol, I have brainstormed this with my friends who all said this is original but when I ask what is original the response differ and are contradictory

  23. Hello, Most successful Hollywood script writers are very good writers, but this pervasive idea that scripts should be written in 3 acts is destructive to good script writing. I saw THE SECRET SERVICE recently, it had 2 stories going, 1st the trainee trying to enter into the service and 2nd the main character is out to nab and destroy the bad guy. One of the two stories would have worked better than the finished two stories. With the 3-act structure, a new story, inserted into the ongoing story, comes out of left field. Most often these insertions play no role in the ongoing story. Script writing has always and will always be about one single aim that the lead character has. All the stopping and starting throughout the motion picture confuses the spectator. Shakespeare wrote his plays without acts. It was one scene followed by another scene, even the epilogues were part of the none-stop story. One story from start to finish would make most Hollywood films better. For example, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, is about a man with one goal in mind, that is to unite the Arab tribes. The film spends its entire time with that one goal in mind, to unite the Arab tribes. Today writers will insert a goal that Lawrence is homesick and wants to go home to Britain. Then the film will show Lawrence in Britain with a new act that he wants to become a general in the British army. Then a new act will be inserted that Lawrence, now, wants to go to Japan and become a diplomat. Then, for the finale, the story will come back to Lawrence wanting to unite the Arab tribes.

  24. Hi Stephanie,

    Let me ask you the obverse side of the question: If many studio movies suck donkey balls (I can’t believe you said that – you are so funny!), and the reason is because good, original scripts that might make awesome movies aren’t pitched properly, are you saying that the donkey ball movies were properly pitched? And in that case, why do producers/studio execs use what they think are predictive indicia, when those indicia regularly result in dogs? I’m not asking this because I know the answer; I’m asking because I would like to know: why can’t producers see that copying another successful idea isn’t necessarily going to make a blockbuster? Why can’t they see that cookie cutter movies will eventually bore the audience? Are they just hoping that it’s not *their* cookie cutter that tips the scales? [For instance, isn’t it fair to say the audience had an appetite for just so many bromance movies, and they’re now “full” but every one up until GET HARD made out ok?] Isn’t it true that sometimes a movie comes along at the right time and strikes a nerve with audiences and that plays a huge part in the success? It seems like everyone is running around trying to find something to rely on that is a safe bet in a business where even the safest bet can end up a turkey.

    And why does the pitch have to harken to recent hits that were similar? It seems like many movies are made from older TV shows or movies from 20-30 yrs ago that find an audience. Couldn’t it be true that the audience has been a while without a certain kind of movie, and now might be ready for something like that again (updated, of course)?

    These are just questions. I don’t pretend to have any answers. As a writer, I’m learning that certain elements are necessary – they’re basic storytelling elements and elevate stories and their chances of success. Clearly it’s wise to pay attention to that, but at some point, it stops being fun if you feel you have to put in all kinds of developments that don’t necessarily feel right, just because they fulfill STC or Truby’s 22 points, or some other guru’s roadmap. It’s a tough line to walk sometimes, I think.


    • Good questions, Rob.

      First, while it’s true that a lot of studio movies aren’t “good” by the standards that we, as professional creatives, might apply, they are “good” from the POV of the executive’s bottom line. The bottom line, in this case, is that movies based on already successful properties such as sequels, books, old franchises, have the advantage of a built-in audience and provide cover for the exec in the event that the movie isn’t good.

      On the latter point, if we accept as axiomatic that movies are hard to make, and that therefore that many, if not most, of a studio’s slate will not be terrific movies, then it follows logically that execs should prepare for this scenario. This means that an exec has to be ready to explain why they risked $100M on this movie, and a good answer is that it’s based on an already successful property with built-in marketing potential.

      Regarding this advantage of the built-in audience, keep in mind that the cost to market the movie can vary widely, but a very basic estimate is about 50% of the cost of making the movie. So for a studio movie which averages north of $100M, the marketing costs are approximately $50M. But marketing is easier and costs go down when there’s a built-in audience who doesn’t need to be educated on the milieu and who the characters are.

      While it’s true that many big blockbuster films are disappointing to more sophisticated audiences, there is a strength in the simplicity of the good guys fighting the bad guys amidst a lot of exploding things, namely that this can be appeciated by foreign as well as domestic audiences, and pre-selling these movies to foreign distributors can pay for the cost to make and market the movie in the first place.

      Finally, and most importantly, we have to make adjustments to how we pitch our projects and understand that there is a difference between the story, the project itself, and the pitch for the project. These are related but different things. For example, as writers, we know the value of originality, but “original” is a code word to execs because it means “this has never worked before.” To be fair, this is true.

      For more on this point, see how David Simon pitched The Wire – because he didn’t emphasize the originality at all. He promoted the classic elements of the police procedural. That’s how the pros do it – make something orignal and beautiful, but when pitching it, emphasize the elements that make it marketable and sellable.

  25. I believe a lot of what’s going on has to do with intellectual capacity, (ie) attention span, and everyone is to blame. Also the writers strike brought all this reality TV that people consume like a greasy hamburger. Even though its not that good for you, it taste great on the way down. Why? Because people have been condition to accept crap, junk quick TV dinner films or reality series. Plus they want to go on a roller coaster ride(ie) explosions, car chases (ect) Executives want what works and that’s the bottom line, the profit and if society wants fast food then fast food they’ll get as long as it brings a profit. Also this country has gone upside down in its moral decay, not religious or political, but moral decay. No one cares if a character has a great arc in his quest to achieve his goal, or if it can teach some to reflect on their lives in which a character has brought something that an audience can relate to. Society is on a downward spiral and Hollywood reflect that trend. We’re all to blame. The FIX is to increase the attention span of people in society. From mothers and fathers to school teachers and political leaders, this country has to come back to its senses. The quick fix, the miracle pill and everything that invites instant gratification must be dealt with on all levels of society. People need to relax and enjoy the moment, possibly learn something from it and ponder it if possible, then attention span will increase and better film dealing with interesting subject matter will be made and fill the soul of the viewer with something that last weeks after the viewing.

    • I am truly counting on that, “people need to relax and enjoy the moment.” It is this, ‘enlightenment’ that I firmly stand by to show for my audience. Hope, light in the darkest of times. That moment, even if it is for a minute, that truly shuts off ALL the worries of the world and to just, let it all converge into finally put it into perspective. It is a concept I feel one may only explain it through a video camera for its message extends beyond the physical realm.

      -Student/junior year Communications student/filmmaker

  26. Bad movies are the product of the corporate mind, and way of thinking vs the creative mind. Corporate thinking goes, if this product was our biggest seller in 2014, and flew off the shelves. Then lets create the same product, with minor or indeterminable variations, and stock the shelves with it in 2015. For sure, we should duplicate our success, right?

    The creative mind thinks, “after that rousing success, what can I do that will really blow their minds! and make an impact, artistically and financially – it’s worth the risk? Don’t you think so L.B.?”

    “As long as it has 20 belly laughs, 20 innuendos, and no nudity. And tell Clark to put on an undershirt, what’s he trying to do – ruin my movie!”

    Sorry, I couldn’t help myself… ;)

  27. I am a teacher in a nursing program (writing my screenplay whenever I am not here!) I lectured my students earleir today about several specific procedures and provided them with parameters for each. Basically, a step-by-step guide that allows for choices within each skill set.

    When they left, I found this discussion in my email and love it! It reminded me of exatly what I was sharing with my own students just moments ago… Parameters. What works. Still room for choice (or self-expression in a screen writing arena) but the bones must be there. Of course, in healthcare we have certain rules that must never be broken so that we don’t hurt our patients, but a writer’s audience (and financial backer) must be considered as well.

    Blake Snyder didn’t create the accepted structure, but did a fabulous job of poiniting out what parameters are in place. What works. What’s proven. And unless you are Tarantino, or a working writer with contacts and a great reputation, it’s probably best to prove yourself within the industry parameters, before you dare to suggest that a studio spend 20 million on your special, unique idea that has never worked in the past.

    I think that creative types will always have different paradigms– that ‘s part of our charm (right?!) That backwards or upside down script should be written if you need to write it. I just wouldn’t lead with it. When I pitch, I want to be able to concisely and succinctly answer the questions that I KNOW they are going to ask!

    Love the article(s) and the always respectful way you handle reader comments. Thanks!

  28. I like your example about originality that in a financial product or in a car would be scary but it doesn’t really carry over to films precisely because there is so much precedent of such films working. Surely a reasonably knowledgeable executive would be aware of this. Would be aware that such films frequently become star renaissance vehicles, win awards precisely because they are fresh and original, and often make money. Formulaic films often fail, do they not? Therefore it shouldn’t be that much of a leap for an executive. Keep costs down? Fine. But dismiss them out of hand? Short-sighted.
    I’m sure we could all fill in our nominees for such films but I’ll settle for Tarantino’s early films , Guy Ritchie’s early films, Night of the Living Dead…..Look at a Paranormal Activity; is today’s executive really going to dismiss a premise like that out of hand? Surely not. (I know, don’t call me Shirley.)

  29. I read most comments about this article, and whether Hollywood is putting out many remakes, horror movies, thriller-dillers, and nonsensical romances, the bottom line is that it also has spawned a lot of carbon copy actors and actresses they like to call “box office attractions.”

    One must be willing to respect the way movies were made in the early days–including silent movies. “Originality”, which now seems to be a bad word, connected with a “fear worse than death”, is actually what the “old timers” thrived, survived and succeeded in bringing forth. This type of product actually brought people to the theaters and created much innovation in story content as well as attracting memorable and unique main and supportive character actors. Now, I glance at the several Hollywood online newsletters I receive (Just to stay “in the know”), and to be truthful, even the actors look like carbon copies of one another. It seems that the only one that stands out is Kim Kardashian–And no one knows exactly whether her derriere and decollete are synthetic or not! (Only Kanye knows for sure!). So with “fake” movies, the Hollywood producers have also spawned “fake actors.”

    The natural, deep and “original” actors that drew me to the theaters during the 50’s through the 80’s are all disappearing, getting old, or dying. lately, I’ve read about the “new (carbon copy) faces”, and they all seem to be addicted to “fast lives” and drugs in one way or another. Am I supposed to look up to these people that are living double or triple lives? Am I supposed to admire and laud upon actors and actresses who wear “fake” faces, “fake” boobs and “fake” bottoms? Am I apposed to applaud these people? Sorry folks, not me!

    Bottom line is that Hollywood has to grow up from funding and conditioning the public with films that are coming from the lowest common denominator. Films that exploit the lower three chakras, films that give permission for violence, murder, perversion and distorted values! If THIS is what audiences are gravitating towards, then it’s also a bigger problem of one society mirroring another, and going absolutely nowhere! George Lucas said recently, and I quote: “Hollywood movies are a circus instead of substance.” That’s putting it mildly!

  30. Hello, M. Palmer, thank you for this opportunity. You teach us a lot about what to do and how to avoid common
    mistakes. I live in Germany guys, so i can’t say that much about Hollywood. But i think what we all have in common
    is the affinity loving for cinema that we breath every day. I love the Thriller and horror genre and to be honest: still i don’t watch lots of films in that category, because to me, it’s a waste of time. I hate films where they jump straight to the action moments or bloody guts through the entire film.
    I think it’s more compelling if you take time in investing in the characters and the back story before you come up with
    the horror or action stuff. I love movies
    where you figure out what’s going on like inception or shutter island which are really deep and low-key. But it’s a pity that it’s all about making money. I think it’s always important to concentrate on
    the audience and ask yourself if you would like to see what you cooked up.
    That’s my opinion and sorry for my english

  31. I LOVE what you say about the necessity of being cautious around “totally original” ideas. I think the car example is a perfect metaphor. Yeah, that car might be super exciting and very pretty to look at. But let’s do some market testing to make sure it doesn’t explode on impact.

  32. Hi Stephanie! There are so many possibilities here as we revisit this topic again, perhaps movies are shot too quickly and probably edited too quickly also?
    Alex Katsanos

  33. Great article, and excellent comments as well. Hope I can contribute to the discussion without being repetitive.

    Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. But I think some filmmakers set out in circumstances that make for bad movies. Whenever there are non-creative parameters set on a movie before there is a decent story, the movie is going to suck. It’s used as payback to a star who has done well for a studio. A hot director wants to try a new genre. A franchise being kept alive even though there’s no organic story left in it. That kind of thing. If I hear of a project that has been greenlit and cast before there is a script, I cringe. It’s going to suck.

    Another thing that happens is that a writer can be so skilled that the prose (for lack of a better descriptor) of a screenplay can be so engaging that flaws in the actual story are masked. The funny or enigmatic character descriptions, the asides in the action sequences — done well, these keep the reader turning the page, but those things don’t make it to the screen. If the level of storytelling doesn’t match the craft in the writing, then the “good” screenplay gets left on the page, and isn’t a solid framework for cinematic translation. Result: bad movie. I’m thinking particularly of some screenplays/movies from the early and mid-2000’s, when it was popular to do the Shane Black thing; or more recently, scripts like Liz Merriweather’s immensely readable ‘F**kbuddies,’ which made either the highly forgettable Justin Timberlake movie or the highly forgettable Ashton Kutcher movie.

    One last comment. I don’t think that ‘indie’ movies are bad for the same reasons that studio movies are. From my perspective, many (and maybe most) indie movies fail because the writer/director/hyphenate got the opportunity to make the movie before s/he learned to “kill their babies.” Which isn’t a problem for studio execs, since (I hear) they eat their young.

    Thanks again for consistently helpful posts.

  34. I love Blake Snyder’s book. I feel he has made a huge contribution to the development of writers and art of script-writing. However, I don’t hold his book as being the “bible” for screen-writing. I think as a writer it is necessary to know about the standards, but you ultimately learn rules so you can learn when it’s appropriate to break them and how to restructure them to fit your unique style. To me, establishing a voice should be a writer’s main focus. A good idea is a good idea no matter what formula you follow.

    Hollywood does make a lot of awful movies. For a long time, I thought it was because most Hollywood executives are corrupt and just want to feed the public junk. At the same time, I thought they’re just going along with what seems to work, and that’s due to the public who continues paying to see the same “crappy” movies. Everyone, from the top down is under some kind of pressure. Executives don’t want to take risks on a fresh idea or new talent. The creator is constantly being asked to compromise the integrity of his/her work in one form or another. The actors have to settle for playing the parts being written and the audience has to settle for whatever’s being put in the theater. In regards to Hollywood executives, they can do more to be open-minded and hands-on with the creators and worry less about taking a risk. Making movies is all about risks. Plenty movies have been made and did not break even in the box office. So Hollywood has lost money making the movies they thought would do well. Most of their fear would dissipate if they take the time to understand the story and are actually involved in the creation of the film from beginning to end. As for the creator, it’s all about HOW you pitch. Regardless if the idea is original or not, the pitch has to be concise and it has to be relatable — to someone…anyone. Also, writers have to be able to show, not tell, why their idea works and how it can be set apart from projects similar to it. This, too, will eliminate the possibility of their story being viewed as a risky undertaking. It can do them some good to learn a little about the business-side of film-making as well. At the end of the day it should be about creating a film/tv show that has universal appeal no matter how fanciful or different the vision/approach. If everyone is on board with the development of a film/tv show and there’s a basic level of understanding in all areas involved, less bad films would be made. Let’s face it, a few will always slip through the cracks!
    Thanks, for another insightful article, Stephanie.

  35. I didn’t know there was a script-writing formula. But I will take issue with your analogy. Business plans are tailored to the business which should be unique to the situation. Unless, of course, it’s a franchise. Even then, the plans change. Getting formulaic about the writing promotes staleness. Today’s movies are stale carbons of old formulas and concepts. In fact, I’ve seen the same story lines in different movies. Even that makes me feel cheated. Hollywood is burying itself. I agree with the bean-counter analogy. That right there is a guaranty of staleness. Other story lines are absurd, (like Revenge and Pretty Little Liars), because they create very, very unrealistic scenarios, ( like blacking out cities, a security-less billionaire’s mansion where friend and foe alike wander at will, entire cities and schools all getting e-mails at the same time, cameras all over people watching on their phones, cameras that have no receivers for their signals, I might add. The list goes on. These scripts are totally insulting even if they are fiction. Oh, the camera in the hospital thingy on Revenge. I could just go on and on. Most of the cast on both shows have roles that make them out to be total sociopaths. This is what the bean counters approve? A lot of scripts are so predictable, I figure out 9.5 tenths of the movie in the first 10 minutes, like ‘Nonstop’. Movies today are corporate creations rife with propaganda. The originality isn’t even remotely there. Let’s take the movie about a ‘sex tape.’ That’s about 10 years out of time. What’s up with that? So, they do take chances…bad ones. A painter may spend hours painting and spend a great amount on supplies. They are taking 100 percent risk. That’s what it’s all about. 50 years of Marvel comics? Really?? Re-boots and re-dones is right. There are no original writers, formula or no formula. Most of their ideas are stolen.

  36. Hollywood films today are execrable. There hasn’t been a great film made in decades. I watch mostly films from the 30s and 40s, because they knew how. Hollywood is a disaster. Stupid, mindless formulaic crap we have seen a thousand times before. Unwatchable. Last decent film I saw was Happy Texas.

    “The Fountain” was so bad it may have been the worst film of all time.
    “Running with Scissors”…I wanted to go up to the projection booth and pull the plug!

    I have quit attending films, as it is a complete fucking waste of my very precious time!

  37. Your blog post is packed chock full of Truthiness, and I could not agree more.

    The quality of TV and movies today is far, far better than 20 or 30 years ago. Fire up youtube and watch two minutes of The A Team, Knight Rider, Dallas, The Six Million Dollar Man or anything else we think of as being classic. They’re unwatchable today, at least without a Costco-size stockpile of tequila and a double-injection of hipster irony.

    Same with the 007 films. Just watched the boxed set, 50 years worth of Bond, and my God, the first Sean Connery ones we think of as classic are sloppy stinkers, while even the worst Timothy Dalton 007 film was decent.

    Blake Snyder and others haven’t killed Hollywood–they’ve made it better. Nicholas Cage and Sylvester Stallone, fine, you could make a case for those two guys being responsible for repeatedly trying to crash the Entire Movie Bus into a ditch. But we won’t let them, not when beautiful stuff like Breaking Bad is still being created.

  38. Thanks for your article. While I believe that knowing how to pitch a story is important and necessary, there are a couple of things worth noting. First, how many execs today have read the classics or even pop culture novels? Not having a concept of literature makes it hard to appreciate a screenplay even if you understand the nuts and bolts. Second, execs are under pressure in a hierarchy that no longer is entertainment based. The interests and priorities of faceless conglomerates are different from stand alone entertainment companies. Third, the art of small talk and schmooze is disappearing. Writers are so bent on getting bought or optioned they forget to first make friends. Execs want to do business with writers/persons they like. You have to take general meetings and learn how to develop verbal relationships with people before trying to sell them. These issues are what I address in my lectures and on my website at

  39. Thanks for your article. While I believe that knowing how to pitch a story is important and necessary, there are a couple of things worth noting. First, how many execs today have read the classics or even po culture novels? Not having a concept of literature makes it hard to appreciate a screenplay even if you understand the nuts and bolts. Second, execs are under pressure in a hierarchy that no longer is entertainment based. The interests and priorities of faceless conglomerates are different from stand alone entertainment companies. Third, the art of small talk and schmooze is disappearing. Writers are so bent on getting bought or optioned they forget to first make friends. Execs want to do business with writers/persons they like. You have to take general meetings and learn how to develop verbal relationships with people before trying to sell them. These issues are what I address in my lectures and on my website at

  40. I’d like to comment on the alternatives to the current Hollywood model.

    My former home-country, Finland, uses public financing for up to about 70 % of the film budget for most Finnish language projects.

    What that has led to, is that most movie scripts in Finland are done to please just a handful of bureaucrats (and as a result, the greenlighted scripts are downright awful).

    And film financing has become a form of social income support for the artists.

    Once the filmmakers get the grant from the public entity, it doesn’t even matter if anybody sees the movie and horrible projects get repeated year after year under different titles.

    Contrast that to the Hollywood model, where scripts and projects have to be justified on all levels based on the end customer (the moviegoer) in mind.

    If people don’t come to see a type of a movie, those won’t get made anymore in Hollywood. If people flock to see a genre, it blooms very rapidly.

    The Snyder / McGee / Hauge schools of script analysis are popular because they work. People pay year after year for movies based on these models.

  41. Thank you Stephanie for including a section about film executives. It’s often not clear that the executive is the primary creative person in the project. By setting the financial goals, funding, and schedule, he or she shapes the creative decisions thereafter. Those decisions must be made in the material world and work within the physical and temporal limits of that world. All art is shaped this way. An important and exciting aspect of the creative process is figuring out how to do that. A good executive producer understands this and makes it happen.

  42. Hi Stephanie,

    Great article as always. Everyone has to remember it’s called show business for a reason. It’s a business and nothing more. Business sole purpose is to make profits for its owner(s), not to create jobs, etc. It’s all about the money. With that said, you have executives that must play the game just like ever other player on the field. When an executive looks at a project to green light he/she ask one question the means the world to them. “Will this get me fired?”. Remember these men and women have worked their butts off, most of them, to get to that position, such as studio chief, SVP of Development, etc. They have to answer to the the next person above them and for the top guy/gal they answer to the board. If they green light a hand full of projects that end up bombing then their job goes bye bye. That means the multi-million dollar salary, performance bonuses, company cars, jets and lets not forget the power and respect that goes with top jobs in Hollywood. All of that is gone with one or a few simple mistakes.

    This behavior breeds assembly line development and production. Executives don’t hate originality, they love it as much as we do, the question is can they sell it and keep their job. Movie studios are no longer self running companies, they are owned by large corporations. This means they are a line item on the summary sheet. Back in the day a $50 million profit for a self run studio was a great year and all were happy. Now, $50 million profit on a summary sheet next to other line items such as electronics, appliances, theme parks, etc. can be a very small thing. As an executive if you are not showing value in your division you can be fired. It’s all fear based.

    Lastly we as consumers are the ultimate deciding factor. This year we have complained more than any year that we are tired of dudes running around in capes yet we all rushed out to see them. So what does Hollywood do, order up more of the same. YA books are the craze now since Hunger Games and Twilight made so much money. Yet this year most of them bombed as we voted to not go see them.

    Bottom line, vote with your dollars and Hollywood will be forced to make what movies you want them to make. Better yet support the emerging crowd funding trend that is allowing professional filmmakers to make indie films for specialized audiences without having to rely on the studio system.

  43. Stephanie,

    As a first-time producer and 1st AD of a micro-budget indie I really appreciate your comments because, to a great degree, every single film takes a huge risk. The money people risk their capital which could arguably be better spent elsewhere, the creative people risk their egos praying that someone “gets it” and remembers them — and the production staff hopes that they can pay next months rent.

    These huge risks always require a bit of a hard heart because the financial payoffs aren’t always there and the blistering reviews can sometimes be soul destroying. To expect that a film will turn a profit is only one of the ways the participants can be rewarded, but it’s the one that makes other attempts possible (not to mention buying groceries etc). When has this not been true?

    Probably part of what’s driving the blandness of films today is the international markets. Big budget action flicks transcend language barriers and foreign governments aren’t interested in political commentary and other deep issues.

    In terms of what makes it though, what’s true in film is what’s true in life: Aim small, miss small. Spielberg didn’t succeed by accident.

    Learn everything you can, hone your craft to laser-beam intensity, over-prepare, try to insure that your work maintains it’s “voice” and isn’t watered down by well-intentioned (but uninformed) suggestions, be a nice person and have fun because no one wants to works with asses, believe in yourself and your friends creativity, risk your *own* capital and pull from the utmost depths of your well of determination because you’re going to need it.

    Sometimes that actually works.

    Have a better one…

  44. Great Post Stephanie! Love it! Give ’em hell. :D

    When someone tells me they have an “original idea that’s never been done before” I immediately don’t want to hear it. LOL! I find it a bit arrogant and somewhat naive. Hopefully every story has some originality. And every story has some familiarity. Sometimes I wonder if “original” should be replaced with “self-indulgent”.

    I also think there’s too many variables to compare movies today to the 60’s and 70’s. For example, There were almost as many films released in Jan 2011 as there were in the whole year of 1970. Never mind the available platforms now. Besides, stories cater to the times. Perhaps people who prefer the “oldies” also preferred that time? Just sayin’. I generally much prefer today’s movies. It’s all subjective.

    Anyway, your post had me nodding my head the whole read. Thanks for sharing it on Stage 32 as well! :D

  45. Hollywood does seem very worried about money and fearful of owning new media. What is Hollywood ran a youtube channel showing awesome teasers? that’s a guaranteed income stream and loss leader right there. Channels could cobble together some great webseries based on edited-down versions of great series like Boardwalk or breaking bad or mad men. Few people have the time to watch the oroginals cause they’re all t home working on their computers. To actually tempt someone to go a theatre and park their car and spend good money – you got to have some something so special story wise or with such dazzling special effects people can’t resist. The old models are dead: theatres and studios no longer have monopoly on content. Get with the program.

  46. Yeah I totally agree with this. Movies are bad because they are hard to make. It’s a business and business has a high failure rate. Business start ups are a creative effort where you can have a great brand, great team, be fully capitalized, and a great location and still only survive six months. If there was a sure thing formula everyone would do it and no business would ever close it’s doors. I think too many people have been lulled into the romantic notion that Hollywood has created about itself that movies are ‘magic’ and that because someone is an artist you should just give them whatever they want to make their art. That’s absurd. This is a business where the goal is not to just make a movie but to make a second one. Creating a business is just as much an art form as telling a story and in some ways a more noble one because a business actually employs people and puts food on their table. A movie may not be a ‘success’ but if it gave a couple of hundred people a job for two or three years and can possibly make a return on its investors money so they can do it again then I say make all the crappy movies they want. Maybe they’ll get lucky and strike gold and make a lot of people rich. Until then though at least one can hopefully keep a lot of people employed with their terrible movies. That seems noble to me. I’d rather see people try and fail then sit around and do nothing.

    I think the point about the 90% rule is key. Failure and success are born from the same beginnings. Emerson wrote a great poem that describes this perfectly. If nature can’t even get it right 99 times out of 100 why do we think we can?

    “Nature makes fifty poor melons for one that is good, and shakes down a tree full of gnarled, wormy, unripe crabs, before you can find a dozen dessert apples; and she scatters nations of naked Indians and nations of clothed Christians, with two or three good heads among them. Nature works very hard, and only hits the white once in a million throws. In mankind she is contented if she yields one master in a century. The more difficulty there is in creating good men, the more they are used when they come.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

  47. “Writers should try directing, directors should try acting, and everyone should try producing.”

    Seriously? Where’s my coat with the fuzzy collar? Where’s my megaphone and my monocle? Where’s a jillion dollars to try even one of those things? Or are we talking a new RPG? I like the concept.

  48. I may not read your blog writings often but as a screenplay and script writer only dreaming of a future in film, everything you bring up is always informative and leaves me with more questions I should be asking.

    Considering that one shouldn’t pitch a movie with the direct comparisons like “Jaws In Space” (although that clearly worked)… are there any tips as to how one can make comparisons to successful films when describing their script to anyone who will listen?

    An example I have for my 3-movie epic masterpiece would be “300 (Zach Synder movie) meets Enter The Dragon”. How could I describe something like this in 3 sentences or as few as possible? Thanks for all your work.

  49. What makes a movie a good movie is not the structure of the writing, the economics and cost, or the experience of the executives. What makes a good movie is the audience – what they like, what they come to the theater to see. It is the psychology, the nervous system of the brains watching the movies. Harry Cohen, the former head of Columbia Studios who green lit Frank Capra’s movies had a rule of thumb (actually a rule of butt). If, while watching a movie, he begins to wiggle in his seat, the movie is bad. Why? As long as his mind was locked into the story, he was unaware of his body. But when his butt began to wiggle, his lock with the story had been broken. Something was wrong with it. Think of Old Yeller, the Disney movie of the 1950s. Did you cry when Old Yeller had to be killed by the boy? Did you cry because the dog was going to die, or was it because he got rabies for his valiant, unselfish sacrifice? And so, it was pitiful and unfair that Old Yeller had to die. It was this conflict that made me cry, and after all these years I still remember the movie. A good movie moves us. It dives deep into our soul, and wrings our emotions – whether tears or laughter. Save The Cat simply understand that the audience must be pleased, and pleased within a limited time from of 120 minutes.

  50. The sad truth is there is no single reason why movies today, in proportion, are so much worse than years ago. There are many reasons, one of which is money. With more money invested, the studios feel the need to round out the edges, or voice of a film to reach the largest possible audience. The LCD (lowest common denominator ) or Leno factor, as it is often called. Comedy is more broad, drama more telegraphed, and just blah. While everyone says “No one sets out to make a bad movie,” the problem is they set out less and less to make a good movie. By compromised choices made in aiming for the first goal above.
    The studios are out of the quality film business, because they don’t move the stock price like billion dollar Marvel picture, leaving it to the independents…and thank God for that. The saddest thing tho, is they don’t even give a shit.

    • Hi Ken, Although I appreciate that everyone has their own opinion and experiences on this, my personal experience is that the execs I know all care very deeply about making good movies that will hit a particular market favorably (maybe not all markets, or not your market). I’ve worked in the industry for 20+ years, I’ve been around big budget visual effects films for a while, and I guarantee you, everyone is hoping it’s going to be good when it comes out. There’s too much work that goes into these films to ever think that people don’t care about that. You’ve made some grand sweeping statements that don’t take into account personal taste, the love of movies people in the business have, and the hope that everyone will be proud of what they’ve slaved over. And the disappointment when it doesn’t work. My two cents.

  51. Wonderful article Stephanie. Balanced and extremely helpful. I also think that some of the problem relates to the pressure of the current model of distribution and box office demands. The changing modes of consumer access to films and TV just may allow for a wider variety of stories reaching audiences that may not have considered a trip to the cinema but will make a trip to the internet.
    Even so, we writers should always shoot for great story and structure – it just makes for the best cinematic experience for our audiences – whatever the medium. Engage me and take me away . . .

  52. A wonderful essay and thanks for sharing it. Much good to know here; except I think a true logician could rip apart all the logical fallacies posing as logic related to the save the cat issue. STC is a wonderful guideline on how to make a safe, entertaining and in the end, “B” movie; (write what you know… And the wonderful Mr. Snyder did, rest his soul.)

    which truth be known, B movies are more often made than not and sought more to make than not.

    you have to walk out on a wire to make a great movie that also might become a blockbuster. it requires more of everything from everybody; and it requires a great script or idea, unless it has to do with superheroes or some such.

    STC is a fine rule book on how not to write, if you are wishing to write a truly great script. so… it is necessary reading.


  54. “WARNING: This has never worked previously. This could get you fired, ruin your reputation, and end your career. BEWARE.”

    An insightful and amazing quote that answers perhaps the most common criticism about this present movie era, which is a “lack of originality.” Original things no matter how well-applauded and well-received, after, they are successful; they all started out as huge risks, and movies are no different.

    Movies required a high investment meaning dozens of people, from executives,to producers, to directors, actors, and to writers take an enormous risk, of their careers and livelihoods, to make a film, in the mere hope that it will be successful. An enormous risk that has a high probability of failure, even under the best of circumstances, and the risk is even higher if the movie is from an “original idea.”

    Such a risk, is too high for many, which is the why the majority of filmmakers and their investors, decide to use an established and successful work that already has a large audience, to begin with, before they adapt the work into a film. It’s a safer bet that has a higher chance of success, than an original but unproven idea does because it would mostly likely be a successful film than a failure.

    These are the main factors in why “originality” is pass aside because of the high risk of failure, and your quote sums it up the best.

  55. Screenwriters and film makers in general are in the entertainment business, and to acknowledge this fact is to ask the question, “What is it that entertains us and why?” The crisis facing the industry has less to do with “formula vs. non-formula” approaches to story as much as it reflects a precipitous decline in cultural literacy. Granted, whether as original stories or adaptations, scripts have seldom if ever qualified as great works of literature. And yet it’s disturbing to realize that the primary target for the big-budget blockbusters is a single male, 24 years of age, with a fixation on comic books and a worldview more appropriate to an 11-year old.

  56. I think my friend and colleague Phillip Mottaz said it best. It was something like — “I have an adult relationship with SAVE THE CAT.” It’s not the Bible and it’s not a plague on Western civilization. The best thing to come out of it (for me) — and a lot of books of its ilk — is an interesting and useful vocabulary for discussing common screenwriting issues. Without a specific language associated with specific problems, story element, techniques, etcetera, a lot of critical analysis could easily sound like most of the nonsense critiques on DANCING WITH THE STARS.

    • Your comment made me laugh, Adam. I think the Dancing with the Stars critiques seem poetic in comparison to some other shows. I love the expression, “I have an adult relationship with Save The Cat.”

      • I’m sure you’re right on the DANCING WITH THE STARS critiques. I’ve heard some pretty poetic analysis on the random channel surf, but I’ve never really watched any of those shows in their entirety. There could actually be a “double mumbo jumbo” equivalent in dance and I would be totally oblivious.

  57. I especially like what you have to say about (if I may call it such) the need for cross-pollination of jobs in filmmaking.

    Writers who have not seriously spent time watching actors work on their craft don’t understand that many actors will be attracted by even small parts if the character itself is interesting. That’s why some major actors may show up in what turns out to be an otherwise poor picture — they wanted to play THAT character. If the writer doesn’t realize this side of acting, he won’t always make sure that even minor supporting characters are interesting.

    But also the matter of production concerns is another factor that writers should learn more about. I was recently approached by someone with a story idea for a science-fiction tinted feature film. It was obvious that this would be low-budget, but I liked the idea. So I asked what would we “have” in terms of locations and sets that he wanted to see in the film. I don’t think it occurred to him before-hand. But for me, knowing what can be done gave me some things to run with (“Oh goody, we can blow up a warehouse!”). But knowing the production limits helps me shape the story to make the best, most exciting use of the resources we will have, instead of trying to write something that will throw the whole budget out of whack.

    I would rather write a script that can make a low budget feel exciting and moving and terrific than one which reads epic and spectacular and would cost more than a moon-landing mission to produce.

  58. Hollywood may make bad movies, but you’ve never made a bad blog entry. Thanks for another great post!

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