Don’t Save the Cat! Snyder vs. Sorkin and the Marginalization of Creative Screenwriting

Don’t Save the Cat!  Snyder vs. Sorkin and the Marginalization of Creative Screenwriting
ImageChef-generated image.

“There are a zillion different ways to prepare beef. You can have filet mignon, Beef Wellington, flank steak…anything. But if you were to prepare beef the way the fewest people find objectionable…it would be a McDonald’s hamburger, every single time. I love McDonald’s hamburgers. I eat way too many of them. But if I were a chef, I wouldn’t want to make one for a living.”

-- Aaron Sorkin, from his screenwriting MasterClass

A friend of mine who has been thinking about writing a screenplay recently picked up Blake Snyder’s enormously popular and, arguably, industry-changing Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. As someone who has written only a few screenplays over several decades, none of which got further than a drawer or my computer desktop, I am anything but an expert on screenwriting or the best resources on the craft. Still, a part of me felt like rushing to my friend’s house, sprinting through his front door and – in slow-motion, action movie style – yelling, “Nooooo!” as I leapt to grab the book out of his hands.

To say I am not a fan of Save the Cat! is putting it mildly. But my friend, who had just started the book when we spoke, mentioned some aspects related to Snyder’s book that I didn’t recall from my original reading several years ago. Mainly, he was intrigued by Snyder’s unique groupings of many seemingly disparate story types into his own genre categories to show how very different movies can share the same basic structure.

My friend is a pretty smart fella and a lot more varied in his cultural intake than me, so I decided to re-read Save the Cat! I came to the same conclusion I had on first reading: the book is clever but so reductive in its approach to the writing process that it deserves to be denounced. Indeed, considering its wide acceptance as a valued resource among both aspiring and working screenwriters, it needs to be denounced and with vigor. So here I go.

First published in 2005, Save the Cat! was undeniably a game-changer. It’s an easy read, it has some basic truths about story and, most significantly, it has a formula – the key to its success and its damaging influence. It takes the time-tested breakdown of classic dramatic structure (taught, with some variances, by everyone from Aristotle to Robert McKee) and applies it within a rigid, simplified checklist: Snyder’s beat sheet. This is a list of vital elements in the script: opening image, turning points, backstory, revelations, climax, etc.

A beat sheet is not necessarily a bad idea in outlining your script. The problem with Save the Cat! is its emphasis on aligning your story not only with the same beats, but getting to them down to a specific page range. To be fair, writing a movie aimed at a commercial release is a much more restrictive form than writing a novel, and you need to pay attention to running time. (The very loose accepted equation is a page equals about a minute of screen time. This varies, of course, depending on how dialogue-heavy a script is.) If you haven’t reached your story’s first major turning point by twenty pages in, you probably have a serious structure problem for any movie running in the 90-minute to 2.5-hour range of a standard Hollywood release.

Snyder, though, was all about the formula and, frankly, playing to the most creatively unhealthy aspects of the “spec” (speculative, or non-commissioned and unsolicited) screenplay market. He was at his most insistent about the beat sheet page count for what he calls “Break Into Two,” or the moment in the script where a character does something that decisively moves the story into the second act.

“It happens on page 25,” he wrote. “I have been in many arguments. Why not page 28? What’s wrong with page 30? Don’t. Please. In a 110-page screenplay, it happens no later than 25.”

Snyder noted he would always turn to page 25 of a screenplay he was given to read to judge whether the writer knew what he or she was doing. It’s fair to conjecture that this practice mirrors those of many readers at agencies and production companies who can’t keep up with the mountain of submissions they receive. I wonder how many promising screenplays ended up in the dustbin after someone read only page 25?

To give credit to the late writer (he died in 2009 when he was only 51 from cardiac arrest), he was up front with his market-driven ambitions. From the book’s introduction:

“We, and hopefully you, are in the business of trying to pitch our wares to the majors, make a big sale, and appeal to the biggest possible audience. We want a hit – and a sequel if we can! Why play the game if you don't swing for the fence? And while I love the Indie world, I want to hit it out of the park in the world of the major studios. That's why this book is primarily for those who want to master the mainstream film market.”

Snyder was not a case of an unproven guru either. Though he only has credit on two produced screenplays – the poorly reviewed comedies Blank Check and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! (I haven’t seen either) – he made many sales in the spec script market for sums that made him wealthy well before Save the Cat! took off. When it came to making a sale, he knew his stuff.

His love of the “Indie world” is a little less certain. Snyder’s take on Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough film Memento reads like someone who is offended by any movie that goes outside the box:

“Existential dilemmas are what close on Saturday night, as the low-performing arthouse gem Memento proves. Gimmick or really dull movie? You decide.” Later, on the same page, Snyder adds, “Oh, and btw, screw Memento.”

That comment drew a lot of criticism from people who admired Memento, but Snyder politely doubled-down on his “keep it simple” mainstream marketing message in a reply to one such complaint. On the website that became the online companion to Save the Cat!, he wrote, “I think there is something terribly arrogant about many filmmakers who create movies to ‘make people think.’”

Even allowing for Snyder’s intended readership – people looking to break through in the safest, surest realms of the movie industry – that comment is dismaying, not just because he thinks challenging audiences is arrogant, but because he thinks “challenging” and “entertaining” can’t co-exist. What a depressing notion. I find Memento to be a tremendously entertaining movie…dark for sure, and complex in its narrative hook or “gimmick,” but yes, highly entertaining.

As someone who has long bristled at the separation of “art” and “entertainment,” I’m as bothered by Snyder’s offense at anything not easily digested by the audience as by any snobbish critic who thinks commercial entertainment cannot also be artful and meaningful.

Also, let’s take a closer look at Snyder’s description of Memento as “low-performing.” According to Box Office Mojo, the film ultimately made over $25 million in theaters and it cost about $9 million to make. That’s a hit. By any sane measure of economic success, that is a hit. What it was not was a blockbuster. Memento was a sleeper – the unexpected success story the industry used to value highly. These days, it’s an endangered species.

Memento opened strictly as an arthouse release on a total of 11 screens nationwide. Then the positive reviews rolled in, word-of-mouth was good, and week by week it opened in more theaters. It reached its peak number of screens (531) more than two months after it opened and was still in some theaters in September of 2000…six months after opening.

Now, compared to the hundreds of millions (sometimes billions globally) earned by today’s biggest blockbusters, those numbers might look like peanuts, but that’s because of the ever-growing, seemingly unstoppable focus on movies purely as financial entities. Weekly box office reports were once strictly reading material for industry insiders, but for years now they have been shoveled out to the public as entertainment “news.” This accountant’s view of the movie landscape is so ingrained in popular culture that we now have the depressing reality of a Fantasy Movie League, where players bet on B.O. tallies the way fantasy sports players bet on game results.

The Memento success story is a far healthier model for a theatrical run; one that gives a movie time to find its audience. It’s a model the business used to cultivate. Today, if a movie doesn’t have a big opening weekend, it’s usually dead by its second or third week.

Snyder defended his Memento remarks by noting Christopher Nolan went on to direct his Batman movies, so in his mind, the “gimmicky” arthouse movie was just a calling card for the writer-director to make his way into the blockbuster game. There’s a sliver of truth there, as Nolan has definitely shown he prefers to work on the mega-budget scale. As someone who feels much of his work post-Memento has become a bit bloated, I’m not the most passionate of his defenders, but in fact Nolan has clearly not gone the safe, unchallenging route as Snyder suggested.

Inception, a nearly $300 million blockbuster, is as labyrinthine in its plotting as Memento and ends on an ambiguous shot, leaving much to the audience’s interpretation. And his sci-fi epic Interstellar (which just edged into profitability domestically, but did plenty of business globally to supplement that) is nothing if not narratively ambitious. Snyder passed away before he saw those two films, but even the Batman films – and certainly The Prestige – had complexities that showed Nolan had not stopped trying to make people think.

Of course, Nolan is far removed from the spec screenplay market. So is Aaron Sorkin, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning writer of The Social Network and The West Wing. A hotshot emerging playwright in the mid-80s, the movie rights to his breakout play A Few Good Men were sold before the show even debuted on stage. In his MasterClass course on screenwriting, Sorkin acknowledges he has never had to really sell a screenplay. So he might seem like the wrong person to use to counter Snyder’s box office-centric approach to the spec market.

Here’s why he’s not.

What got Sorkin noticed in theatrical circles, and ultimately in Hollywood, was his distinctive voice as a writer, not his ability to churn out a beat sheet recipe. That voice comes, of course, largely from his smart and uniquely paced dialogue, not plotting, so a Save the Cat! apologist might say Sorkin still falls into line. But not really.

The spec screenplay market “rules” that Blake Snyder abided by include a general rule of “show it, don’t say it” – not a bad guideline for a visual medium (and Sorkin’s work is open to accusations of being more theatrical than cinematic). But within a mainstream film market so utterly married to so-called “realistic” dialogue, Sorkin’s emergence was a desperately needed reminder that even screenwriters can play with language. Movie dialogue can be theatrical, poetic, and yes, even reveal an essential turning point or character trait, despite Snyder’s insistence that “in a good movie, information doesn’t come out in dialogue.” Virtually all of Sorkin’s output argues otherwise. The published screenplay of Steve Jobs is 189 pages long, which by the minute-per-page equation would mean a three-hour movie. In fact, it runs a little over two hours. That’s a lot of talk and a lot of information conveyed by talk. Sorkin likes heavy dialogue, he writes it well, and his work stands out from the pack because of it.

I’m not positioning Sorkin as unassailable. I’m a fan, but the screwball pacing of his series Sports Night always seemed forced to me and I’ve grown to kind of hate A Few Good Men (though that may be due more to the overwrought performances than Sorkin’s script). What Sorkin accomplished, however, was showing an industry that has long devalued the writer that you can succeed by breaking out of the cookie-cutter mold.

He is also a screenwriter who has thrived without attaching himself to sequels or franchises – something Snyder encouraged his readers to aspire to. Again, I understand Save the Cat! was not written for those who have already secured a place in the industry and don’t have to try to be the needle found in several thousand haystacks of spec screenwriters.

But if more and more of those ambitious needles start to look and feel the same, aren’t they really just more hay?

It’s impossible to quantify the impact Snyder’s guidance has had on the industry. As he mentioned early on in his book, the industry’s aim to get “the same thing, only different” has been around almost as long as cinema itself, and the wave of “blockbusterism” so dominant now began taking shape decades before Save the Cat! was published. However, as a revealing 2013 Slate article pointed out, it’s easy to see that Snyder’s beat sheet is being followed by a huge number of writers, whether in the spec market or already working in the industry. Based on the familiar feel of so many movies, I don’t think the situation has improved in the last five years.

I’m not against formula pictures. Some of my all-time favorite films could be lumped into that category. The comfort of the familiar has always been part of the appeal of going to the movies. But these days, for almost any movie opening on more than 1,000 screens, that quality seems less a draw than a law and one Blake Snyder helped enforce.

It’s no wonder that high-end television has become a more creatively ambitious space than mainstream theatrical releases. The growth in competition between so many different networks, cable channels and streaming services has forced the check-writers to take more chances. They simply don’t have the same monolithic audience once enjoyed by the major broadcast networks. The mass audience is splintered, so content providers need to stand out. By contrast, the handful of studios ruling the wide-release theatrical market know they are almost guaranteed to continue to rake in profits so long as they keep churning out Star Wars sequels, Marvel superhero movies and other offerings of “same thing, only different." Of course, even as blockbusters regularly break box office records, overall theatrical attendance is dropping precipitously, so maybe multiplex chain owners will eventually find their survival actually depends on offering less of the same…if our stay-at-home, device-addicted culture doesn’t kill off the theatrical market first.

One thing I’m sure of is that most of the interesting, memorable, and yes, truly entertaining movies I’m seeing these days are not so concerned with the Snyder beat sheet. Of course, most of those movies live and die (more of the latter) in the margins of the theatrical market. It’s rare these days that a wide release truly excites me. A fair amount still divert me, but even their numbers are dwindling.

Viewing history with rose-colored glasses is always dangerous. I turned 50 this year and looking back at my birth year, you certainly see plenty of safe, commercial offerings that filled movie theaters: Disney’s The Love Bug drew in massive kiddie/family crowds; an aging John Wayne served up gung ho, red meat military kicks for the pro-war faction with The Green Berets.

But you know what the top-grossing film of 1968 was? Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a movie that doesn’t have a clear protagonist for at least its opening half-hour (arguably, it doesn’t have one at all). It begins with a long sequence with only grunting apes as characters and ends in an extended, purely experimental sensory experience with an utterly ambiguous ending. Yet, it was a big commercial hit.

Try fitting that movie into the Save the Cat! beat sheet!

Yes, 1968 was a very different time culturally and the industry was still trying to find its way in an effort to stave off TV’s growing threat to its business model, so more chances were being taken. And yes, once again, it must be noted we aren’t talking about a spec screenplay project here.

Still, it’s hard not to think we would have a much greater number of choices on the mainstream cinema menu if more screenwriters tried to veer just a little bit further away from the proven commodity. It wouldn’t take something as radical as 2001 to shake up the multiplex…just a few more colors on what feels more and more like a monochromatic palette.

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