Ed Driscoll

The Film Remains the Same

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It’s not just that 200-million dollar Hollywood blockbusters these days are limited to franchises such as superhero movies, James Bond and other action flicks, and sci-fi such as Star Trek, and when Disney starts cranking out the next round of sequels, Star Wars. But as Peter Suderman notes at Slate, within those already limited genres, their plotting is even more limited:

If you’ve gone to the movies recently, you may have felt a strangely familiar feeling: You’ve seen this movie before. Not this exact movie, but some of these exact story beats: the hero dressed down by his mentor in the first 15 minutes (Star Trek Into Darkness, Battleship); the villain who gets caught on purpose (The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Skyfall, Star Trek Into Darkness); the moment of hopelessness and disarray a half-hour before the movie ends (Olympus Has Fallen, Oblivion, 21 Jump Street, Fast & Furious 6).

It’s not déjà vu. 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.

Read the whole thing. As far back as 44 years ago, Stanley Kubrick told an interviewer that “The problem with movies is that since the talkies, the film industry has historically been conservative and word-oriented. The three-act play has been the model. It’s time to abandon the conventional view of the movie as an extension of the three-act play.” I wonder what he would think of how rigid and sclerotic Hollywood structuring has become; check out the page that Suderman wrote to accompany his Slate article, laying out the formula in step-by-step fashion.

Occasionally a film deviates from that structure, such as most of Kubrick’s post-Strangelove efforts, and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, with their circular plotting.  But as Suderman notes, when there’s $200 mil or more on the line, Hollywood has a formula, and it’s going to run it into the groundand it essentially has.

Meanwhile, a very different director bemoans another Hollywood formula:

“I hate 3-D,” moaned Alfonso Cuarón yesterday at Comic-Con. “The black and whites, they suck. It takes away the color, and it takes away the resolution.” So why did Cuarón shoot his next movie, the Sandra Bullock–starring space epic Gravity, in 3-D?

Oooh, I know! I know! And so does Hollywood producer Lynda Obst, who touches upon 3D in her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood:

At first 3D was thought to be the savior of the business, the technological breakthrough that would compensate for the DVD disaster. But it was overused, slapped on pictures that weren’t shot in 3D. Some insiders were investors, which complicated matters so much that at one point a famous mogul-investor suggested to Paramount and Scorsese that they release The Departed in 3D.

It was such the rage that every movie that was being made in the wake of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, the medium’s first two blockbusters, was going to be in 3D. But the onslaught of lousy conversions gave the process a black eye and exhausted the sophisticated young audience in the United States, and many very young kids in the domestic family audience rejected it as well.

But in emerging markets, 3D is another story. In China and Russia, they Just Can’t Get Enough. The studios soon faced a puzzle in the wildly divergent appetites for 3D domestically and internationally. In the United States the appetite is diminishing from over-saturation; in the critical international audience, it is crack. Now it is necessary to make two versions of films, both 3D and 2D, so the 3D doesn’t keep the U.S. audience away.

Perhaps because I hate putting cardboard glasses on top of my real glasses, personally, I truly loathe 3D, and always try to avoid it at the movies if at all possible. But then, I’ve tried to avoid a lot of Hollywood’s current product, particularly since I’ve seen it all before: