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The Book That Is Making All Movies the Same 384

Posted by samzenpus
from the who-needs-a-story-when-we-have-math? dept.
Bruce66423 writes "This Slate story explains how a 2005 book has led to all Hollywood movies following the same structure — to a depressing extent. From the article: '...Summer movies are often described as formulaic. But what few people know is that there is actually a formula—one that lays out, on a page-by-page basis, exactly what should happen when in a screenplay. It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster. The formula didn’t come from a mad scientist. Instead it came from a screenplay guidebook, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. In the book, author Blake Snyder, a successful spec screenwriter who became an influential screenplay guru, preaches a variant on the basic three-act structure that has dominated blockbuster filmmaking since the late 1970s.' I've always known we could be manipulated — but this provides a segment by segment, almost minute by minute, guide how to do it."
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The Book That Is Making All Movies the Same

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  • Novels, too (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Roblimo (357) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:23AM (#44351153) Homepage Journal

    Read a recent best-seller thriller or crime novel. It follows the same formula.

    Sad, isn't it?

  • by Xaedalus (1192463) <> on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:30AM (#44351233)
    I'm part of an award-winning writer's group, and several of the members swear by this book. They follow it meticulously--and it isn't even the first to do this. The Warrior's Journey describes how Disney and Pixar created all their big masterpieces, and then takes that technique and applies it to novel writing. And then there's the Nora Roberts/James Patterson formulaic ghost-writers, plus the Harlequin series, any of Dan Brown's books; heck 90% of the entire fiction market follows a formula similar to Save The Cat. Formulaic writing is nothing new. Authors and screenwriters follow this like it's a religion--they cling to to the formula because they fervently believe it's the best chance they have of getting their work published. Fortunately, there are two mitigating factors that I've found: 1) a good idea is a good idea and even a plot-writing formula won't ruin it; and 2) good writing is good writing.
  • As you like it (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:31AM (#44351247)

    Me, I tired of "hollywood formula" a long, long time ago. Have been to a few art house films, but nothing mainstream. This is more or less proof I haven't missed anything interesting.

    And superheroes? Please. I like comics well enough, but European ones (guess where I'm from) where each one isn't a verbatim copy of the previous or the next one, where the action isn't entirely formulaic, where the story is at least halfway believable, and so on.

    But if you want to spend on re-doings of re-imaginings of re-boots of regurgitated old tripe... you keep on going, kid.

  • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gl4ss (559668) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:38AM (#44351345) Homepage Journal

    No wonder most movies seem like derivative things you can predict what will happen ... because they apparently are.

    Still, keep making the superhero movies, and I'll keep going. =)

    it's just not this book though.

    the writing schools have been teaching this same classic shit for decades. if you draw storylines(up's and downs of "mood" plotted on a x/y axis where x is time) you'll see patterns with classic movies, plays and books.

    it's actually at the point that if you're going to do something new that's going to be classic you might be better off on purpose veering off from it.. but a lot of stuff done like that is shit, too.


  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:45AM (#44351429)

    I'm a big fan of the Writing Excuses podcast, and they talk about story structures all the time. There's a good reason that story structures are followed - they can make for compelling stories. It's like saying that engineering best practices are often followed. Yeah, because it results in working machines! You can break the rules if you work hard at it, but it will always be iffy whether the product will actually be better for it.

  • Netflix (Score:4, Interesting)

    by tepples (727027) <tepples@ g m a i l . com> on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:46AM (#44351439) Homepage Journal

    Unless you have a collection of older films

    I thought one of the selling points of Netflix and foreign counterparts was older films.

  • by tlhIngan (30335) <slashdot.worf@net> on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:47AM (#44351447)

    Good luck getting funding for a unique motion picture when the studios not only know what makes a profitable film, they can prove it. And because the average moviegoer could not care less, this is not going to change until the sun burns out. What makes matters worse is that each successive generation grows up watching these movies and will never know that there used to be something better -- which makes this approach even more profitable.

    Depends on the motivation of the movie-goer.

    Movies are just an entertainment medium - a way to escape life for a couple of hours. Depending on how you do it, you can see a standard summer blockbuster that'll give you visuals and effects that you won't see elsewhere outside of movies, or an artsy thought-provoking movie.

    Fact is, most people go for shiny and don't want to think - the movie becomes a basic 2 hour vacation from the ills of life they don't want to think about (which is one reason we have entertainment).

    That, and I'm sure a ton of people just hated English class when they read literature and had all the fun sucked out of books through critical thought and analysis, leaving people less willing to see "better" because it brings back days when they had to look for deeper meanings and such.

    There will always be the classics - and then, like now, a bunch of crap was made. We're seeing the survivor effect - the ones we call classics today people remember. They just forgot that at the time, there was a ton of crap as well. The proportions of crap vs. good haven't changed, it's just the crap got forgotten and the good lasted. Movie theatres played more than Gone With the Wind in the past, after all.

  • by bjdevil66 (583941) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:58AM (#44351545)

    Great summary! I'd like to add one more step.

    4b) Humiliation/Realization. Something happens that humbles one or more of the main characters into realizing just how stupid the Conflict in #3 really was. Optionally, there's a montage of regret set to sappy music (Pretty Woman), really pounding their regret home.

  • by fermion (181285) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:59AM (#44351555) Homepage Journal
    Creating within a structure can be liberating. That is why students are given the five paragraph essay, with initially very strict guidelines on the type of content and number of sentences.Of course as creative individuals we are supposed to move beyond these structures. The problem is that moving beyond these structures involves violating peoples expectations, which means that commercial success can be jeopardized. Or getting back to school, we are trained to stay within a structure so that we get good grades.

    So the challenge is meet commercial expectations while expanding it slightly so not to be too repetitive. I would argue that the six flops of this summer were a victim of over dependence on the structure and the Hollywood star system which lead to bad writing and production. By blaming the structure we blame the car and not the driver. If Dispicable Me 2 can be the #1 film, them repeatedly giving people the same drivel is not the problem. It just has to be fancied up drivel that is well managed and well executed, just like anything else.

  • Re:No wonder ... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jellomizer (103300) on Monday July 22, 2013 @12:05PM (#44351617)

    Ah the criticism of "derivative" the most derived criticism of all, in essence it says I liked it, but I needed to find something wrong to make me look intelligent and cultured. Because only stupid people actually like anything. Intelligent and Cultured people will must be depressed and hate everything.

    Big hit movies will not be thought provoking, you need to go to the indie theaters for that, but if you wan't to pay $12 bucks for a two hour show. it better have big special effects and large explosions so all your senses go into overdrive, that is why you go to them.

    Movies haven't really changed that much over time. However you will probably see the golden age of movies are from the period you are 8-18. As you are now old enough to see a PG movie and know what is going on, and this is your first time seeing the normal formula, so it is new and exciting. After that decade is over, you see the pattern over and over again, the special effects are less interesting.

  • by Rinikusu (28164) on Monday July 22, 2013 @12:28PM (#44351923)

    This is true and it's not unique to "Save The Cat!" (which I have read and enjoyed). However, as other screenwriters have pointed out, it's not the only way to tell or sell a story, but almost all of your favorite movies, if you bother to sit down and ruin your movie experience by going "meta"*, follow a structure that can be teased out of it. The reality is, no one really wants to watch 2.5 hour movies anymore (god forbid you ever read about film history and see how early film makers were trying to make 5 and 6+ hour movie epics... Fortunately for us, those are TV series these days) for the most part. And if you want to talk formulaic, watch TV shows, especially crime dramas. They've been doing this for decades and have it down to an art. And we love every minute of it.

    I like Lennon & Garant's break-down of movie story structure: Put a guy in a tree, throw some rocks at him, throw some bigger rocks at him, get him down from the tree. That's basically it in a nutshell. Now, the nitty gritty of STC gets into how to make those 4 steps at least somewhat interesting (no one is gonna watch a movie where the protagonist just gets his way every step of the way for the most part.. Even Ferris Bueller (unless you ascribe to the notion that Cameron was the real protagonist and Ferris was the catalyst) had issues to overcome, etc. Or stuff like "Memento" or even "Pulp Fiction", they've all got discernable structures, they just move them around.

    *Take some film courses at your local community college, if offered. Pay attention to the cinematography methods classes,etc. Pretty soon you'll see you can't just "watch" a movie; instead you'll be focusing on shots, or framing, or sound design, or story beats, etc. It really sucks if you just want to turn off and watch a movie and be entertained.

  • by udippel (562132) on Monday July 22, 2013 @12:48PM (#44352165)

    "Mon dernier souffle" - 'My last breath' in English.
    He explains what he 'learned' while being on a sponsorship in Hollywood. He wrote this story around 1980. He had but acquired one item on top of what he had already known and done before he arrived: Setting up a geneology of all American movies. One night someone dropped in and told him of a new movie with a totally unexpected, novel and revolutionary line. He wanted to hear of the first minutes, and then he said, he'd be able to construct the rest. And that actually worked!
    Actually, Bunuel was a trainee of Charly Chaplin in the thirties. I always consider it the wrong way round in who should have been the person to be the supervisor. ;-)

  • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AmiMoJo (196126) * <mojo AT world3 DOT net> on Monday July 22, 2013 @01:11PM (#44352425) Homepage

    There was an interesting debate about this on BBC radio last week. Writers and directors are moving to TV because they can't get interesting stuff made in Hollywood any more. They said that even the likes of Speilberg, who you might think would have pretty much a blank cheque these days, was complaining about it. On the other hand it's good for TV.

  • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by curunir (98273) * on Monday July 22, 2013 @01:28PM (#44352639) Homepage Journal

    The Star Trek reboot suffers from the same phenomenon that most of the recent reboots have. The first movie ends up being good because they get to explore the formative events that turn the characters from something normal into something resembling the iconic characters we know. It's also able to exploit the information we know about where the characters end up for jokes and introductions. But the first movie has to develop those characters nearly completely or they won't be formed enough for the first movie to complete its story arc, so the second film is left with an almost fully-formed character who doesn't have much room for growth.

    Sometimes the movie will try to invent character growth that never existed in the original and sometimes Hollywood just amps up the special effects, but it almost always produces a movie that's much less interesting than the first. The only example I can think of off the top of my head where the second movie was great was the Dark Knight series. But that was due, for the most part, to an amazing performance by the villain. But, other than that anomaly, most follow-ups to hero films (I'm including Star Trek in the hero category since it's very similar once you consider the entire crew as the hero) just don't have any direction they can head that will be as interesting as the first movie.

  • Re:TV Show Formula (Score:4, Interesting)

    by icebike (68054) on Monday July 22, 2013 @01:48PM (#44352875)

    Pretty much spot on, except the Commercial Bit actually looks more like this:

    Ask bunch of suggestive questions to hook audience,
    show preview snippets of what's after the commercial
    show 5 commercials
    3 minutes of review of what happened in the last 5 minute segment
    5 more minutes of new material

    Rinse, repeat.

  • Re:Novels, too (Score:4, Interesting)

    by firex726 (1188453) on Monday July 22, 2013 @01:51PM (#44352911)

    Also in music look up Four Chord songs.

  • by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Monday July 22, 2013 @02:21PM (#44353289)

    You don't KNOW what's going to happen in them. Seriously- there is no "chekov's" gun in Bollywood films. You may see 3 guns on the wall and only 1 of them will be used. You may have an entire subplot which is just interesting but doesn't mean go anywhere.

    It's fantastic. When I go to a hollywood film- I can often guess the ending within the first 30 minutes. And it LOWERS the value I place on hollywood films by a couple bucks. I might pay 9-10 bucks to see a genuinely interesting surprising film. But only about 6 to 7 bucks for a mildly entertaining predictable film with a manipulative soundtrack (they tell you how to feel about the actions taken basically-- making the same action "good" or "bad" based on the accompanying soundtrack.)

    I noticed several years ago that R rated films which are not "sex" films (like betty blue) have their first nude scene at 40 minutes into the movie (sometimes 39, sometimes 41 but you get the idea). Probably sets unrealistic expectations for dating people.

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