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.
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 Terry 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 Edmister 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 Collins wrote, “A movie [that is] truly original will break convention and be something with no precedent.”
- B. Rosson Davis 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 Wilk 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:
- The films are successful because they are so original.
- 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 – 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 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 (especially if you think I’m on the wrong track) I hope you’ll let me know in the comments. Thanks!
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