(Screenwriting Gurus – Part 2)
During the 1980s when I came from France to Hollywood to work on a screenplay based on the two novels by Mexican author Irma Salinas y Rocha, I got to know quite a few others like myself who were throwing their hats in the screen writing ring. I seemed more successful than most because I actually had a paying job. Granted I had no real experience at writing screenplays but I was doing the best I could to come up with a reasonable facsimile of one.
During this time I ran into at least two dozen people dreaming of screenplay writing careers. Several have gone on to have screenplays produced but two of them succeeded brilliantly in the entertainment industry. I can’t say that I was a friend of theirs. I was like more of an acquaintance.
The two who found unlimited success were Steven Zaillian and Blake Snyder.
I met Steve via a friend, videographer Tom Drew, about the same time I was working for Irma. When we first met, he had not done anything substantial but that all changed when he met John Schlesinger. This famed director hired him to write the film The Falcon and The Snowman. This resulted in a very successful motion picture. Steve went on to write Schindler’s List, for which he won an Academy Award. He has written many, many successful films, among them The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gangs of New York, and Mission: Impossible. His father was a news announcer. To my knowledge, Steve has never entered the guru business. He is a very good screenwriter and a very nice guy.
Blake Snyder had a brief but truly successful run in Hollywood. Unfortunately he died unexpectedly in 2009 at the age of 51 of a pulmonary embolism. I met him at a writers’ symposium put on by the Beverly Hills Library in the 1980s at about the same time I met Steve. I saw him a couple of more times after that. He was witty, charming, always laughing and easy to know. He managed later on to sell two scripts: Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot for half a million dollars and Blank Check for a million dollars. Both did not get on well at the box office. Stop was voted Worst Screenplay of 1992 by the Golden Raspberry Awards and Blank Check did not wow the critics.
Blake’s father was a producer of children’s shows on TV and hired his son as an actor for several years. Blake after his two films, entered the guru business with a flourish in 2005 upon the publication of his book Save the Cat ! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. People went crazy over this book. He wrote two more as follow ups to his guru principles. They were just as successful. He gave lectures, held workshops all over the world and online, and digitized all of his ideas onto disks, which were for sale. He was even contemplating a Save The Cat University shortly before his death.
He was literally The Cat’s Meow. But why? He was the first guru ever to tell you exactly how to write every minute of your screenplay. All screenplays, he proclaimed, consisted of a hero’s journey. First of all though, you must have your hero do something nice, like save a cat from up in a tree. That way the audience will like your main guy. Then you are supposed to divide your screenplay into 40 Beats, which are then divided into four parts called The Board.
Blake became the king of the cookie cutter, write by numbers way of creating screenplays. He tells you exactly what should be happening on every page of your script. He also changed the genres of screenwriting. Instead of Romantic Comedy, Epic, Murder mystery, Biography and so forth as we had always known them, he named his categories Monster in the hose, Golden Fleece, Buddy Love and others.
Hollywood ate it up. Here they could take his course and not have to worry if they were writing a classic. They would merely conjure up one via the Snyder cookbook. Just follow the recipe. To add validity to his theories, he wrote a second book even though his first book touted that you would need no more screenwriting books. This second book was called Save the cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter’s Guide to Every Story Ever Told (2007). In this book he broke down all the classic movies according to his method so you could just pick a classic you liked and bake one identical to it yourself.
Everything seemed to go absolutely fabulous for Blake and his disciples until all the big mega movies started to all look and sound alike—and tank at the box office. So what happened and is happening as I write this? Producers have added a footnote to Blake’s revelations which was stated and practiced by the great Hollywood producer, Joseph E. Levine: You can fool all the people all the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough.
It’s all not working though. In the last month or so, six of Blake’s protégés have released mammoth, hero chugging, gigantic budgeted, super humongous films overloaded with hype and advertising budgets. They have all failed at the box office.
The Lone Ranger cost 225 million dollars to make and goodness knows how much more for publicity and hype yet the film took a big nosedive at the box office. It should have been a classic according to the Cat’s way of doing things. But disaster struck. Ranger became an instant dud instead of an instant classic even though its Beats and Board were right on target.
What happened to the art in cinema? It became a High School science project for greedy, wanna-be money moguls—kids who obviously played too much Monopoly when they were young. They all grew up wanting to own Boardwalk and Park Place with hotels on them. They learned to avoid Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues like the plague.
There you have the state of the screenwriting business at the moment.
Q: What could possibly come next?
A: You’ll just have to wait for the following week’s blog and see. In the meantime, best to you and good writing.