Book Review: Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat
If you haven’t heard (and I almost envy you if that’s the case), that newBatman vs. Superman movie’s coming out. Since obody’s showered me with free sneak preview passes or anything, I’m not gonna be covering it today. Although by the sound of the reviews, Batman vs. Superman is expectedly terrible. So, there ya go.
Instead of talking about how badly WB is treating its DC IP (acronyms!), I’m gonna cover something a little more general. What makes a bad movie? What makes a good movie? While there aren’t any easy answers for these questions, you can at least get a some clues from Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat.
I stumbled across Save The Cat in the local library a few days ago. I vaguely remembered hearing about the book in passing, so I figured I’d give it a shot, despite the fact that I’m certainly not writing any spec scripts, or even anything more ambitious than a terrible Mass Effect/My Little Pony Crossover. (I kid. Mostly). Still, given the success of the book, and the way more and more big tentpole Hollywood blockbusters seem to be hitting the same beats, I figured I’d give it a shot.
On a tangent, Save The Cat has been out for over a decade now, and Snyder himself died in 2009. It always bums me out whenever I discover I’m reading the work of a recently deceased author, no matter how good or bad their book might be.
Save The Cat does a lot of things. Its biggest claim to fame is establishing “the Board,” a formula for movies to follow, without deviation. It’s a point by point, page by page breakdown of what a good movie script “should” look like. Which is why, ultimately, you can probably sit down and predict what’s going to happen in a modern movie before it, y’know, happens. Without reading the online spoilers, at least. And to tell the truth, a lot of the beats and structure of “The Board” are the legitimate foundations to build a story upon.
There’s a big but here. See, Snyder absolutely loves his system. That’s why he wrote a book about it, you know. The problem is, he is absolutely, hilariously disdainful of any “indie” movie that might deviate from his formula. On top of that, Snyder makes a big deal about making up his own genres to classify movies … only to (perhaps begrudgingly) list ‘superhero’ as one of them. Which, given what every summer movie slate will look like until the end of time, is somewhat amusing.
He calls out Memento in particular, asking the reader just how much the movie made. Seeing as of how Memento was by no means a huge blockbuster, I can give him that. But at the same time, when you compare the numbers with Miss Congeniality, a movie Snyder lauds, I noticed something interesting. As per Wikipedia:
Budget: $9 million
Box Office: $39.7 million
Budget: $45 million
Box office: $212.7 million
Obviously, Miss Congeniality made a lot more money. However, if you look at things in terms of percentages, Memento made nearly four times its budget, vs. Miss Congeniality’s five. Still lower numbers, but I’d say it’s pretty respectable for a small-scale movie with a pretty crazy premise. And to be fair, Snyder also comes down hard on bigger-budget Hollywood fiascos, like Signs.
Save The Cat is a mercenary book. Snyder pays brief lip service to the magic of movies, but it all comes down to cranking out something that’s easily digested, and therefore marketable. Fair enough. Still, I couldn’t help but think while reading “so this is why Hollywood’s insane.” If not the cause, Save The Cat is certainly a symptom of whatever you feel like complaining about in Hollywood on a given day. Probably my favorite part of the movie was towards the end, in which Snyder relates a couple of crazy stories about hustling through Los Angeles to get his spec scripts sold.
Spec script is the key term, here. See, while Snyder notes he’s written and sold some 13 screenplays, only two of them were actually made into movies. Y’see, the way the spec system works, Studios buy up scripts (sometimes for exorbitant amounts of money, in Snyder’s case) … and then wind up not producing them for whatever convoluted Hollywood reason. And here’s the two movies Snyder has actually had produced.
Not exactly Oscar material. Heck, not exactly childhood nostalgia material. I suppose all the guys who wrote the screenplays to the, y’know, good movies were too busy writing Oscar material than to bother with a “how to” book. Not to mention the fact that Snyder’s dad was a TV producer, so the guy already had an ‘in’ with Hollywood. Still, before I get too cynical, I can’t help but credit Snyder for having a lot of hustle in getting various important Hollywood people to buy his stuff (even if he didn’t care what happened afterward).
So yeah. Having read Save the Cat, I don’t see myself writing any amazing screenplays anytime soon. Still, once you get past the borderline-annoying tone, there are some choice bits of wisdom about story structure to be mined out of there that could, with a little tweaking, be applied to pretty much any narrative. And heck, if nothing else, Snyder’s “Board” can be an interesting way to view the increasing interchangeability of big Hollywood blockbusters.
Then again, my netflix queue is full of cartoons and random kung fu movies, so what do I know?