In a recent article in Slate, Peter Suderman complains about Hollywood movies and how they’ve become more formulaic and, as a result, worse. His argument is that Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat structure is part of the problem. Suderman’s article is well-written, and his perspective is shared by many. But, in my opinion, he’s putting the blame in the wrong place.
As a former studio executive with MGM who has worked on lots of movies, some which turned out better than expected and some which turned out worse, I understand where Suderman is coming from. My favorite criticism of the studio system can be found in Writing Movies For Fun And Profit, by screenwriters Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (Night at the Museum). Chapter 10 is entitled: “Why Does Almost Every Studio Movie Suck Donkey Balls?”
Why DO so many studio movies suck donkey balls? It turns out to be the same reason so many independent movies suck donkey balls. It’s the reason most TV and most novels suck donkey balls. And it’s why Slate, and Suderman, gets it wrong with their criticism of Blake Snyder.
Background: Who Is Blake Snyder?
For those of you who haven’t read the Slate article, let me catch you up. Suderman characterizes Snyder’s work as “essentially a minute-to-minute movie formula.” And he admits that “Snyder would almost certainly dispute this characterization, [saying] that [the Save The Cat] beat sheet is a structure, not a formula, one based in time-tested screen-story principles. It’s a way of making a product that’s likely to work—not a fill-in-the-blanks method of screenwriting.”
Then Suderman goes on to state his own theme, namely:
Maybe that’s what Snyder intended. But that’s not how it turned out. In practice, Snyder’s beat sheet has taken over Hollywood screenwriting. Movies big and small stick closely to his beats and page counts. Intentionally or not, it’s become a formula—a formula that threatens the world of original screenwriting as we know it…. Is overreliance on Snyder’s story formula killing movies?
I’m fine with calling Snyder’s structure a formula. I’ll grant Suderman that right away. But let’s acknowledge that nothing is going to kill the world of original screenwriting.
Nothing Will Kill The Need To Tell Stories Well
Story didn’t die when silent movies displaced novels, when “talkies” were invented, or when TV took market share from movies. Story didn’t die when cave paintings were replaced by cuneiform, though Suderman’s argument would remain largely the same:
Is overreliance on the new text-based cuneiform killing our ability to tell stories in pictures? A buffalo used to be painted by hand and every buffalo was subtly different. Now “buffalo” is just something anyone can stamp into clay. Is this new “cuneiform formula” killing stories?
Snyder’s work, his Save the Cat structure, his formula, isn’t that different from the three-act structure touted by story-gurus like Robert McKee and Syd Field. For that matter, it isn’t that different from the hero’s journey as described by the comparative mythology expert Joseph Campbell.
What’s different isn’t what he says—it’s the way he says it. Snyder is much more direct, simple, and accessible when he says that you have to hit the “Break Into 2” on page 25. This clarity takes some of the mystique of storytelling away. It makes it easier for more people to understand. And this is what renders Snyder’s approach vulnerable to Suderman’s argument.
On the surface, Suderman’s argument goes something like this:
- Movies are bad.
- Movies are being written using the Save The Cat formula.
- Therefore, the formula is partly to blame for bad movies.
This is simply not true. The truth is:
Movies are bad because they are incredibly hard to make.
A Movie Is Like A Small Business
You may have heard that most small businesses fail. This is because it’s not easy to run a successful business. Movies are no different. A movie is a small business, just with an enormous budget, complex staffing requirements, and a short time-frame.
Let’s take a typical studio movie as an example. The average cost to make and market a studio film is more than $106M, which gets spent over approximately two years, and pays for literally thousands of people to plan the production, shoot the film, edit the results, and market the movie around the world.
This is hard to do. This why so many movies are bad.
Although… the “bad movies” are different for everyone.
Everyone Dislikes (Certain) Movies
Right now, all over the world, groups of people are talking about how bad the movies are these days. They’re just complaining about different movies.
- Intellectuals decry the latest cartoon superhero blockbuster sequel.
- Frat guys can’t believe how many “chick flicks” there are.
- Grandmothers wish there was less violence and swearing.
- My father-in-law will only watch Masterpiece Theater.
I’m not saying that all the movies you think are bad are actually great and you just don’t get it. My point is that preferences vary, and Hollywood makes products for an extremely wide variety of preferences.
Save The Cat is only the blueprint for a SCRIPT. And, say it with me:
The SCRIPT is not the MOVIE.
The Script Is Not The Movie
Blaming Save The Cat for bad movies is like blaming the guy who wrote “How To Write A Business Plan” for the failure of most small businesses. I can hear the version of Suderman’s argument now:
Is overreliance on the new “business plan formula” killing our ability to start small businesses? People used to just push a cart down the street and sell their wares. Now a plan has to go on paper before anyone can do anything. Is this new “business plan formula” killing business?
Save the Cat is just another way of looking at the same underlying story structure that the psychologist Carl Jung would say is in everyone’s unconscious, that Campbell would say is in every culture’s stories, that Field and McKee described in a less formulaic, more intellectual way.
In my opinion, that issue of Snyder’s less intellectual, straightforward style is the argument within Suderman’s argument, and why a lot of smart people—screenwriters included—agree with Suderman.
Because Suderman’s argument could also be viewed like this:
- Save the Cat has a straightforward approach to writing.
- This makes it easier for average people to write movies.
- Movies are bad.
- Therefore, the problem is allowing average people to write.
Of course, the problem is that no one knows how to make a hit movie or even a good movie. If people in Hollywood knew how to make excellent movies, that’s all anyone would make.
Writers with tremendous intellects—geniuses, even—have written scripts that turned into “bad” movies. Just ask two-time Oscar-winner William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, The Princess Bride). I’m choosing him because few writers are as accomplished or respected, and he’d be the first to admit that he’s written some scripts that, for one reason or another, were disappointing movies (e.g., Memoirs of an Invisible Man).
I suspect that this issue of intelligence is what’s really going on for Suderman and the writers I know who agree with him. Movies made for a wide audience often don’t meet the standards of smarter people like Suderman. And it can feel frustrating to care about movies and to see that, for example, Taken 2 made $376M and Haywire only made $33M. But this has nothing to do with Blake Snyder.
So the next time you see a “bad” movie, don’t blame Blake Snyder. Remember that the script is not the movie, and that movies are incredibly hard to make.
Then, cherish the great movies that you love even more.
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- Save the Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, by Blake Snyder
- Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter’s Guide To Every Story Ever Told, by Blake Snyder
- Save the Cat!® Strikes Back: More Trouble For Screenwriters to Get Into … And Out Of, by Blake Snyder
- Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, by Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant
- Screenplay: The Foundations Of Screenwriting, by Syd Field
- Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee