Michael Wiese, 2005, 195 pages, ISBN 978-1932907001
If you feel that most Hollywood movies these days all feel the same, well, you may have a point: As a recent Slate article explained, writing for blockbuster movies has become a highly structured process and many writers are following the “beat sheet” as explained in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!
Hollywood, as you may guess, hasn’t waited until recently to codify script-writing. Syd Field’s classic Screenwriting has been telling budding screenwriters what to do since the late seventies (Dared by a friend to “do better”, I wrote two screenplays in the mid-nineties faithfully following Field’s formula), and Robert McKee has been giving his story seminar since the early eighties, leading to a massive book version of his theory, Story, in 1997. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: in addition to stacks of how-to manuals on bookstore shelves, screenplay-writing seminars are nearly everywhere in Hollywood. Most of them champion strong structure, admonish writers to show rather than tell, emphasise the importance of sympathetic characters and try to impress upon novices the importance of theme.
But Blake Snyder’s book manages to stand out even in a saturated environment. For one thing, Snyder (unlike Field or McKee) was a working Hollywood screenwriter prior to his death in 2009. His filmed output is admittedly meager (a largely-forgotten 1994 kid’s comedy called Blank Check, and the widely-derided 1992 Sylvester Stallone vehicle Stop! Or my Mom Will Shoot!) but Snyder reliably sold his own original scripts to studios during the nineties “spec craze”. Not coincidentally, Save the Cat! is focused on a single thing: writing a script that sells. Everything else is secondary.
It also means that everything else is slave to the “write to sell” mantra. In Snyder’s world, there are no surer arbitrators of taste than studio checks and box-office numbers. Save the Cat! memorably goads idealistic cinephiles by dismissing Memento out of hand –the oh-so-wonderful writing gimmick of the film being irrelevant given how little money the film made. (Of course, savvy cinephiles will be prompt to point out that Memento not only made a profitable twenty-five million dollars out of a nine million production budget, but also it led writer Christopher Nolan to a career that now includes four movies having grossed more than two hundred million dollars. But, you know: that’s the art of trolling film nerds.) Snyder, writing from his perspective inside the red-carpeted ivory towers of Hollywood, has little use for art when structure and cute epigrams can do the job.
Still, it’s easy to be sucked into Save the Cat!‘s focused charm. Snyder writes using more recent examples than either Field or McKee (in a strange coincidence, it even discusses an in-development film, Ride Along, that finally debuted on screens at the same time I was reading the book, nearly ten years after publication), and can rely on a long personal history within Hollywood to give anecdotes and glimpses at the writer’s life. It’s redundant to say that it’s written to sell itself: even non-screenwriters who just want to learn more about the business of writing movies will be entertained by the entire book.
For those cinephiles not yet ready to let go of the same story-driven idealism that led to oddballs such as Memento, it’s worth wondering if Snyder’s book represents a distillation of all that is wrong with Hollywood. The Slate article mentioned above amply demonstrates what contemporary filmgoers already know: blockbuster screenwriting has become even more formulaic as of late, and Snyder’s “beat sheet”, which specifies the script page on which twists and turns should occur (don’t worry, it’s not new: Field’s theory pretty much had the same prescriptions for acts) is an easy way to sell a story to risk-averse studio executives.
But as a movie reviewer, I’m not completely outraged by the thought that nearly everyone in Hollywood is using the methods suggested by Blake and others. For one thing, originality is overrated: execution is what matters, and the modern blockbuster is often far more interesting for its action-driven set-pieces than for its overall plot. For another, the structure found in Save the Cat! is a reliable way to ensure at least a minimal level of quality.
Oh, stop laughing: the beat-sheet structure provides a structural safety net for screenwriters, and while it may process every single premise into a conveyor-belt of similitude, it often prevents far worse material from making it on-screen. I may not share the current craze for all things adapted-from-comic-books, but the truth is that nerd-favorite properties cost a lot of money to film, and if banging out a script according to Blake Snyder’s beat sheet is the way to green-light risky prospects, then we’re better off with competent scripts for actual movies rather than perfect scripts for non-existent films. Furthermore, one suspects that conventional success finances artistic risk-taking. Directors use the profits of a franchise entry to get a green-light for their passion projects, studios take the profits from one comics-adapted blockbuster to finance those mid-budgeted original screenplay. The Dark Knight directly leads to Inception, and we get two awesome films out of the deal.
So it is that despite Snyder’s monomaniacal drive to sell, I’m not quite ready to dismiss his methods out of hand: Save the Cat! offers a revealing look beyond the scenes of Tinseltown, and I got quite a kick out of it as a film reviewer… even though for a while I may be a touch too competent at spotting the story beats as I see movies unspool. But the magic of movies are that they work even if you know everything about how they were made. So it is that if Hollywood wants to use story scaffolding such as Save the Cat!, then let them knock themselves out: I’ll be waiting to see if the result is worth the trouble no matter the path it took to get there.