Blake Snyder And The Real Reason Hollywood Makes Bad Movies

Blake Snyder (1957-2009) was a screenwriter and a screenwriting teacher who wrote some of the most popular books about screenwriting. And some people think those books are the reason Hollywood makes bad movies.

Blake Snyder – Background

Blake Snyder’s produced credits include Blank Check and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, but he is best known for his Save The Cat! screenwriting book series.

Blake Snyder author of Save The Cat screenwriting book series

What you need to know about the Save the Cat! books is that they rely on a genre and story structure system largely invented by Blake Snyder. This structure has made it easier for many new writers to understand how to write a screenplay. It has also has helped many executives learn how to speak a dialect of “writer.”

Now, let’s talk about why Hollywood makes bad movies – and if it is Blake Snyder’s fault.

Blake Snyder – To Blame For Bad Movies?

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.

The Argument Against 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:

  1. Movies are bad.
  2. Movies are being written using the Save The Cat formula.
  3. 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:

  1. Save the Cat has a straightforward approach to writing.
  2. This makes it easier for average people to write movies.
  3. Movies are bad.
  4. 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.

Relevant Resources

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Discussion About Blake Snyder And The Real Reason Hollywood Makes Bad Movies

  1. Stephanie Spicer

    I feel more and more that the thing that separates good movies from bad is the level of thought put into them, the degree to which the writer (and director, actors, etc.) reached into their own experience and were willing to take the time and the effort to express that in a truthful way. You can take two movies that have the exact same structure and one can feel superficial, contrived, and cliche, while the other makes you feel, helps you understand something about yourself, teaches you something that goes far beyond the trite Sunday school lessons that are being peddled all over the place. Because there is dependence on structure and basic ingredients, I think there is a tendency to believe that if you just have all the elements in place, you’re safe, you’re on the right track–it’s worked before so it can work again and be successful and make money. But that’s not necessarily true. Allow me to say right here that I DON’T believe a movie always has to conform to the same structure. I do think that when you shake up the format you can introduce a terror–a good kind of terror, the terror we recognize from real life when we don’t know what’s going to happen, whether someone we love is going to die or get better, etc. But whether we stick to formulas or not, the fact remains that you cannot emulate greatness by simply copying a form. There may have been deep thought and many years of hard work built on failure that went into crafting a particular artifice, and it was that history, not the form of the artifice, that made it touch something deep within the psyche of the audience. I watched a terrible movie yesterday that followed “the structure” so voraciously that it made no sense at all. It was like, “Oh, we need some conflict here because this is a point where the story has to pivot,” so some conflict was invented which was absolutely artificial and made no sense in the context of the story. Then there were shots that basically copied the best shots of the prequel, but there were too many of them, and again they felt contrived, as if the producers were thinking, “The audience liked this in the first one–let’s give them a whole lot more of the same thing.” In place of the subtlety of exploring human reaction to current events and relational conflict found in the first film, they threw in some very big social issues which were just barely relevant to the time and place, and made the reactions of the characters so basic, and the bad guys’ behavior so predictably bad, and the good guys’ behavior so perfectly politically correct according to the time the film was made and NOT the time it was set. That is bad filmmaking. It felt like it was made in a rush to ride the wave of success of the first film, without any of the craftsmanship that went into making it. Even a child can tell how lame it is. Whether you follow a formula or not, you will not make great movies unless you’re willing to look deeper than the surface of yourself, your characters, the setting, the structure… or the prequel. 😉

  2. Lee

    For me Save the Cat is like the formula or structure of any product, but like any product once you become a pro a the basic structure you can manipulate and transform into other more intriguing designs.

    Take a Car’s formula: 4 Wheels, 5 Doors, Top Speed Limit of say 125kmh, 5 seats, and an external colour.

    Now as a new car maker you will use this rules to understand why they exist in the first place, why 4 wheels or 5 doors and so you make tweaks to the tried and tested formula and one that sits well with the public, and even sticking to this formula we have a huge amount of variety when it comes to a choice of car and they can even be catered for a specific buyer from family to boy racer.

    Now, you are an expert you understand the formula the structure so now you can play, you may add a wheel, faster engine, no roof, but you know how to manipulate the formula and create wild outcomes think the concept car, and how they break all the rules, but still wow the audience.

    That’s how I see it. Starting out you need to show execs that you understand story structure, the formula (Like it or not there is one and you must know it) then once established, once proven then you can try something new.

    This is maybe where there is a slight problem, that perhaps established writers are afraid of taking to risk to be the architect behind a crazy redesign of the story formula and stick to what works.

    Again, sad or not, non-formulaic movies are made and they are normally independents that never make the money or resonant with an wide audience and people may say that is unfair, but movies are a business and can’t afford to invest in products that don’t make a return.

  3. What's Your Origin Story? – reel life

    […] than $106M, which is spent over on average two years, and literally pays thousands of people to plan the production, shoot the film, edit the results, and market the movie around the world. That’s a LOT of money and a HUGE risk for any one […]

  4. christina ferguson

    Can you please take bad words off of movies i like watching movies but we do not need movies that have bad language in them

  5. Jeff

    This is the strangest article I ever read…we are supposed to feel sorry for film executives, who have to make back back 200mil on their 100mil movie? Stop making 100mil movies…go back to the movies that didnt need digital animation and big budgets. If the films were more character focused you wouldnt need films about dinosaurs and killer robots.

    Many films suck because:

    1) the camera doesnt stay on a character for more than 2 seconds in many films…is the editor on coke? This “lipstick TV commercial approach” prevents the viewer from thinking or understanding anything, much less empathizing w the characters, whom I dimly recall as being important to liking any story, namely do we care what happens to the people we are watching for the next 90-240 mins.

    2) the script takes no chances and complex characters are avoided, rather we have stock characters with stock problems, usually stemming from a drug bust gone wrong or a father who didn’t accept them…cheap Freudianism standing in for genuine character development,

    3) politics? social or environmental problems? run away! do not discuss for fear of offending business interests…

    4) digital animation – need I say more?

    5) films largely designed by and for 13 year old boys…and men who mentally, are still 13 years old boys.

    6) your stock protagonist in these pictures owns a giant house and new car…poor people, on the other hand, are usually criminal, stupid and/or speak with southern accents.

    7) problems in these films are usually solved by guns…and then we wonder why gun deaths are so common here? Really? Worse than bad, these films actually kill.

    I could go on…

  6. John

    The real problem o Save The Cat or McKee or any other of the screenwriting books that peddle formulas lies not in the writers (good writers know there’s no formula), it lies with the executives. they all use them as the bible and little by little erode any well written screenplay that may not follow the formula structure into these generic pieces of non-film. Executives don’t embrues new/different/unique, they embrace safety and reliability, that’s how they keep their jobs. They now ask about act breaks and ll is lost points…it’s totally bogus. There are no acts!! Just look up on how long it took to make Forrest Gump or Pulp Fiction (two very non-formula fills). Both those screenplays were rejected by almost everyone in Hollywood. Each story needs a unique structure, and Save the Cat or any other formula are nothing more that a rear mirror view of what worked on some films.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      A lot of people agree with you, but in my experience, this is not the case. Forrest Gump and Pulp fiction do follow screenplay structure, it’s just that the structure is unconventionally applied (i.e., multiple storylines interweaving, but each does follow classic story structure in many ways). The thing to understand is that story structure is a timeless thing – yes, the ways of describing that structure can change, but whether you’re looking at Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, McKee’s Story, or Snyder’s Save The Cat, they’re all describing the same thing.