Hollywood's Boys-Only Formula

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One thing that they don't warn you about, before you marry a movie critic, is that you will basically never again see a movie in the theater. Your spouse will be seeing tons of movies at odd times like 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, when you are usually expected to be working. So when you finally get around to wanting to watch something, your most reliable movie-going partner is often uninterested.

This is less of a drawback than it once was, however, because there are fewer and fewer movies that I want to see. Oh, don't get me wrong: I like robot cars blowing up scary dinosaur aliens controlled by rogue North Korean agents in the pay of pharmaceutical companies who want to kill everyone on earth so that they can use them to test their new revivifying drug. But not every weekend. Occasionally I'd like to see something with no flames in it at all, something which maybe has a few women who do something other than look alternatively mournful and sexy in clothing that is 30 percent too tight for whatever it is they are supposed to be doing. Unfortunately, there aren't so many of those movies around any more.

Do you have that same weary feeling? The Official Blog Spouse explains why Hollywood drama seems so formulaic these days: because there actually is a formula.

"Screenplay gurus like Syd Field and Robert McKee touted the essential virtues of three-act structure for decades. For Field and McKee, three-act structure is more of an organizing principle -- a way of understanding the shape of a story. Field's Story Paradigm, for example, has just a handful of general elements attached to broad page ranges.

"Field and McKee offered the screenwriter's equivalent of cooking tips from your grandmother -- general tips and tricks to guide your process. Snyder, on the other hand, offers a detailed recipe with step-by-step instructions.

"Each of the 15 beats is attached to a specific page number or set of pages. And Snyder makes it clear that each of these moments is a must-have in a well-structured screenplay. The page counts don't need to be followed strictly, Snyder says, but it's important to get the proportions fairly close. You can see the complete beat sheet, with page numbers and a summary of each beat, in a sidebar here."

Yes, Hollywood hacks have been talking about formula pieces forever: George Lucas has said that "Star Wars" is basically Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey -- a structure that Campbell himself distilled from several thousand years worth of stories. The elements of a great story are predictable -- someone we like, or at least sympathize with, should have some sort of problem that needs solving. The difference is the slavish adherence to page numbers and reductive formulations that can easily be explained and recognized ... unfortunately, by the audience as well as the producers who buy these films.

This formulaic approach has combined with another incredibly annoying trend, at least for anyone who isn't an adolescent male: the dependence of studios on blockbuster movie franchises aimed at the most reliable segment of moviegoers: guys between the ages of 14 and 25. The thinking seems to be that they pick the movie, because women will go to see "Independence Day" with their boyfriend, but guys won't let their girlfriends drag them to "Terms of Endearment." And after 25, they start having kids and are more likely to pop a DVD in than hire a babysitter. So pretty much every big-budget film is aimed at young men.

As I say, I don't begrudge them their blockbusters; I like explosions too. But collectively, their tastes are ... limited. Who wants to see a woman with a personality, and a life outside the film's hero? Not them! Who wants to see a female hero? Definitely not them! Who wants to explore anything at all other than the challenges of being a maverick who is phenomenally attractive to hot ladies, and also pursued by malign forces that would like to explode him, pronto? Dude, c'mon.

In recent times, this has gotten even worse, because Hollywood is no longer focused on American guys; now it also wants to attract all the international guys, too. Thus when they remade "Red Dawn," they had the U.S. invaded by ... North Korea, a tiny country with no navy to speak of ... and also, no international box office for Hollywood.

Again, I'm not sad that Hollywood is after international box office; it's a small world, after all. The problem is that maximizing global distribution means stripping out anything that doesn't translate ... like, verbal subtlety, or culture-specific issues. All humor must be slapstick. All plots must be ... the hero's journey.

I watch movies from decades past, like "Chariots of Fire" or the "Killing Fields" or "Sophie's Choice," and I'm struck that few of them could ever be made now; they're both too slow, and too subtle. (Note: none of these movies is particularly subtle.) For that matter, as the Official Blog Spouse points out, "Jurassic Park" might not get made now; there's almost no action in the first hour, and it definitely doesn't conform to Blake Snyder's formula. Steven Spielberg recently told a film school class that "Lincoln" was "this close" to premiering on HBO. If Steven Spielberg can't get a movie made because he's insufficiently formulaic, Hollywood has an enormous problem.

And Hollywood's problem is our problem. I want to want to go see movies again. Unfortunately, Hollywood doesn't seem particularly to want me in the theater.

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