Slate’s “Save the Cat” article screws the pooch

Coincidence…or CONSPIRACY?!

So I’ve seen this article from Slate making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter: what purports to be a scathing expose on the secret underground book which is single-handedly responsible for the downfall of Hollywood and the homogenous nature of all major studio releases being put out today.

Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat”.

From the Slate article:

When Snyder published his book in 2005, it was as if an explosion ripped through Hollywood. The book offered something previous screenplay guru tomes didn’t. Instead of a broad overview of how a screen story fits together, his book broke down the three-act structure into a detailed “beat sheet”: 15 key story “beats”—pivotal events that have to happen—and then gave each of those beats a name and a screenplay page number. Given that each page of a screenplay is expected to equal a minute of film, this makes Snyder’s guide essentially a minute-to-minute movie formula.

Now if you’re a screenwriter, chances are you’re familiar with Snyder’s book, and are laughing already.  The gist of this article–that “Save the Cat” is some kind of Hollywood bible–is so naive and ill-informed it’s laughable.

“Save the Cat” is not some cult manifesto.  There are no Hollywood executives thumping “Save the Cat” on their desks.  It’s a Screenwriting 101 book — the kind of thing students and hobbyist writers buy when they first start dabbling in screenwriting.  It didn’t invent the three-act structure, and it has not had a single goddamn effect on the film industry, because there are thousands of other books exactly like it.  It’s basically “Screenwriting for Dummies”.  Saying “Save the Cat” is responsible for the decline of the film industry is like saying “On Writing” is responsible for the decline of Western literature.  It’s ridiculous.

Hell, Snyder didn’t even invent the term ‘beat sheet’!  His book didn’t even popularize the concept.  “Beat” is screenwriting slang; it’s been around since the 20’s, and “beat sheet” is just another way of referring to a “treatment” (a 1-2 page walk-through of a film’s plot).  What the hell is Peter Suderman smoking?

Here’s a much better article about what’s actually happening in Hollywood.

And here’s director Steven Soderbergh saying much the same thing.

And here’s George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg offering their take.

The gist of it is this: Hollywood is no longer interested in small features.  They’re only interested in tentpole, established-franchise, series-launching, all-quarters-hitting, focus-tested-to-hell-and-back family blockbusters, with budgets in the hundreds of millionss.  That’s why superhero movies have become the new staple.  They’re all blockbusters, and they all aim to launch franchises.

The only thing that gets approved outside of these tentpole movies (without having a name like Spielberg or Tarantino attached) are the Tuesday-night films that come and go like farts on the wind: Katherine Heigl formula rom-coms, comedian-vehicles like Grown-Ups 2, movies about dancing hip-hop teenagers…etceteraetceteraetcetera.  Studios are gambling huge amounts of money on about one blockbuster every season, and it’s leading to a paucity in original artistic content which hour-long television, NON-NETWORK-PRODUCED television, and videogames are only-too-happy to fill.

I don’t normally have much interest in playing the blog-about-blog “here’s my opinion on why your opinion is wrong” game, but in this case, I felt obligated.  This article is misinformed and comes from a place of complete ignorance.  Peter Suderman has no idea what the hell he’s talking about, and it shows.

The idea that someone could think Blake Snyder capable of single-handedly destroying filmmaking is so stupid it’s almost baffling.  I mean, if someone wanted to make the argument that Syd Field were ruining screenwriting, I could maybe, maybe understand that.  I wouldn’t agree with it, but I could sympathize with someone making the argument.

But Blake Snyder?

The guy who wrote “Blank Check” and “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot”?  

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How could anybody ascribe that any kind of importance or influence?

But I understand why the article is getting passed around so much.  It’s nice to feel superior.  It’s like, “A-ha!  I knew movies were getting crappy.  Finally somebody with a website validates my opinion!”  It’s also nice to be able to pin an economically-driven industry trend on a single exaggerated bugbear.  “Goddamn you, Blake Snyder!  You and your soulless beat-sheets have ruined us!”

Gimme a break.


Brandon Carbaugh is a screenwriter, author, editor, and ghostwriter.  Join the mailing list to receive free crap, and notifications when he publishes something.

  • Fantastic article. For me, I think the most surprising thing about ‘the BS2’ is people’s willingness to accept it. I clicked on this blog fully expecting an angry defence of how Snyder is a genius who’s made storytelling accessible for everyone and how Suderman is just a pseudo-intellectual nitpicker.

  • John

    Thank you. Good grief, I’ve heard enough from the Snyder cult about how awesome he is and blah blah blah. All he did was recycle ideas you can find in books that have been out 20-30 years or more. The most hilarious thing was his section where he ripped Memento and Chris Nolan for not making any money. Who’s laughing now, Blank Check?

  • Hi Brandon. I enjoyed your rebuttal of the Slate article and I wanted to share mine with you:

    • Well put. I don’t think people realize how detached screenwriters (and even the script) really are from the film-making process. As you said, there are THOUSANDS of people involved in making a movie, and only about 3-10 of them have anything to do with the script, and all it takes is a handful of the others working on any other area of the film to produce A Bad Movie.

      And it’s also very important that you pointed out how a good script != a good movie, and vice versa. There are some truly great movies that came from totally average scripts (Rocky) and there are PHENOMENAL scripts which went on to become TERRIBLE movies (Watchmen comes to mind).

      Kurosawa said it best: “With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. But with a bad script, one can’t possibly make a good film.”

  • Martin

    Thanks for debunking the Slate article, but the NYT one is the same, if not worse. I’m afraid singling them out specifically encourages them to keep at it, since we are sending people to click on their articles.
    As to what ‘happened to Hollywood’, it is simple: New technology makes filmmaking, and film streaming to your home, easier and cheaper. The whole model therefore changes. That’s all.

  • François Ghislain

    Hi, I think your article sheds new light on the subject, but it is not a very good counterpoint to the original article. Here’s the structure of your reply:

    “This article from Slate blames Save the cat for bad movies. He is wrong because I think there are other actors at play.”

    You do nothing whatsoever to refute the points discussed in the original article.

    The original article does give plenty of examples of several movies using the same strategies and plot devices to advance the narrative and introducing these devices at the same time in the movie. These examples are numerous and legitimate: all these movies do indeed share a similar plot and their characters face similar obstacles, which they overcome in a similar manner. This lack of originality is hurting the industry.

    Please, refure these points before introducing your own, otherwise your reply seems lazy and poorly researched.

    • All the author of that article does is point out similarities between a few bad movies. I could do that, too. We could probably stretch the description until ANY bad movie could be said to fit that formula. For that matter, we could do the same for any good one. Story structure is funny and subjective that way. Ask any writer: once you knot it, you start seeing it (and looking for it, and superimposing it) everywhere.

      But the article does nothing to prove that Save the Cat had anything to do with any of them.

      He’s making a claim: that Save the Cat is single-handedly ruining film-making. That Save the Cat “swept through the industry” like wildfire, and that brainwashed executives are using it as their personal filmmaking bible. He has the burden of proving that claim. I don’t have the burden of DISPROVING him; you can’t prove a negative. That’s basic journalism. All my post says is, that article is nothing but empty suppositions.

      If Slate finds a screenwriter who they can quote as saying, “Yeah, I tried to write a good screenplay and all these executives kept throwing Save the Cat at me and telling me I better fall in line,” or an executive who says, “We believe Save the Cat is the blueprint for a hit movie,” that’s a story. If Slate can find a group of actors and directors who will attest to how, around the time the book was published, their friends and colleagues were blindsided and brainwashed, and their whole career was upended — THAT’S a story.

      The things I say in MY article come directly from a New York Times article, which DOES have direct quotes and anecdotes from writers and executives in the film industry.

      See Stephanie Palmer there, above you? Go read her blog post. It’s excellent. And, oh yeah — she’s a former MGM executive.

      • François Ghislain

        Are you aware of how argumentative essays work? Because it seems that you are not. Here, let me give you some hints:
        “Definition: In this kind of essay, we not only give information but also present an argument with the PROS (supporting ideas) and CONS (opposing ideas) of an argumentative issue.”
        “Organization: All argumentative topics have PROs and CONs. Before starting writing, it is imperative to make a list of these ideas and choose the most suitable ones among them for supporting and refuting.”
        Sample Pattern:
        Thesis statement:
        CON idea 1 —–> Refutation
        CON idea 2 —–> Refutation
        CON idea 3 —–> Refutation
        You can find more info in the interwebs.
        People who write should be aware there are structures for argumentative texts, and that just saying: “Bohoo, he’s SO wrong you guys, amirrite?”, is lazy.
        As you can see, the burden of disproving him DOES fall on you, otherwise your piece adds nothing to the debate, I am left to come to the conclusion that you cannot refute any point Suderman claims. You may not be aware of this, but proving negatives had been done for a couple of millenia. Time to catch up.
        The author says the devices and timing of several movies match those described in Save the cat to the slightest detail, it’s all there in his text, if you bother to read it. Saying “Hmmm yeah, no, it doesn’t FEEL right”, is just lame, mate.
        Also, are you aware of what ‘deduce’ or ‘infer’ mean? You don’t need someone to come out and spill the conclusion to you, you look at the data and draw your conclusions.
        And I agree, Stephanie Palmer’s text is worth reading. Everyone knows MGM NEVER made a bad movie.
        Please: you cannot throw names at me and claim they agree with you, and thus you are right.

        • Everyone knows MGM NEVER made a bad movie.

          If you had actually read her article, you’d have seen she mentions that in the very second paragraph, champ 😉

          • François Ghislain

            Hah! She does! Look at that! Well, you cannot expect me to read entire articles before I make uninformed, passive-aggressive comments. It’s bad trollish form.
            Actually, my point is: if executives and movie directors (looking at you, George Lucas) actually knew why they are making bad movies, they’d find a way of NOT doing bad movies, right? I’d like to assume that doing bad movies is not in their best interests. Naive, I know, but there you go. If they don’t know (and Stephanie Palmer acknowledges this, champ), then perhaps they shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Suderman, is all I’m saying.
            I mean, seriously: watching (big, Hollywood) movies lately feels like a constant state of deja vu. The we-won moment followed by the all-is-lost moment is in every bloody movie. Stop that and move on, script writers (or script-writing Turing machine) and movie directors, you are not fooling anyone!
            However, I agree with some of your points: Suderman’s article may be a tad hyperbolic and narrow-minded, and what’s on the script may be far removed from what actually makes the cut in the movie.
            The problem is probably multi-layered and may involve several factors, most of which have probably little to do with the script.

            There, I said it. Friends?

          • Well said 🙂

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