Left In An Empty Theater




Photo by hotblack at Morguefile.com

I began my childhood movie experience with the 1997 rerelease of Star Wars, which was perhaps the best possible foot to start my moviegoing experience on. Of course, this paved the way for a steady diet of Disney movies and Saturday morning cartoons.


I like movies. Stanley Kubrick is one of my favorite directors of all time. I’ve had great experiences with movies as an artistic medium and I absolutely love interpreting film.

But today, I barely trek out to the theater. The last movie I saw was “Sausage Party” back in the summer. I am on hiatus from movies for months at a time. I’m not alone on this, many of my friends now find that their entertainment needs are better served by services like Netflix.

This is reflected in the low box office sales of 2016, though perhaps the winter might offer a boost in the totals.

One could claim that these are not representative cases, but the data proves otherwise. If one looks at the box office sales of movies as a whole in 2016, the picture painted is pretty bleak. Both Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas have predicted an “implosion” of the Hollywood system.

Worth Two Thumbs Down

Only time will tell if those will bear out. However, I can outline my own issues with the way Hollywood currently works. I am going to keep this related to broad trends and not personal preferences.

My most recent frustration was when I learned that “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was going to be a five movie series. That basically killed all possible interest for me. This “franchising” of movies is becoming increasingly common. The interests behind this are clearly economic since you have a built-in audience that has a high probability of remaining loyal to the franchise. In the above example, we have legions of Harry Potter fans that will definitely see the movie.

The problem I have with the ubiquity of this model is that now I have to commit to film franchises like long term relationships. While I am not opposed to telling a longform story over a series of films in its entirety, I often question whether or not you need multiple films to tell those stories. While epic yarns like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are benefited by the fact that we get multiple films to watch the conflicts and characters develop,other film franchises make me want to shout “Get on with it!” at the screen,because things are padded out so much that I feel like a significant portion of my time has been wasted.

James Cameron has gotten multiple sequels to Avatar greenlit. I have no absolutely no idea how that’s going to look, even if my personal stance on the film is taken out of the picture. The film itself felt fairly self-contained, which was likely how Cameron originally intended it. But either Cameron or the studio (or possibly both) decided that multiple sequels were in order.

We also have the usual moviegoing gripe of the endless onslaught of sequels, prequels, and remakes. On occasion, this can be handled incredibly well such as the case of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. However, in a more cynical gambit, this can be used to make a low-effort sequel to a mediocre first film because they can be produced for less money and still attract an audience.

Another specific issue is genre saturation. Right now, the most obvious example is superhero movies. As a whole, I have sworn off of superhero movies and made an exception when I saw “Deadpool”. Marketable superheroes, as it turns out, are finite resources. After the A-list superheroes were used up, executives turned to more obscure superheroes less familiar with the moviegoing public. Once the B-list is used up, then we’ll go to the C-list. The discussion of a possible Captain Planet movie leads me to believe that we have gotten to that point. Did anyone even ask for a Captain Planet movie?

Thanks to a Cat

Yet, all these gripes pale in comparison to my main complaint. On the side, I write fiction and I am currently planning on writing my next novel for NaNoWriMo, should circumstances permit it. Before then, I dabbled in screenwriting.

There’s often discussion of “formula” writing, but the public at large does not a full grasp on the extent of this problem. Perhaps you’ve observed that movies are starting to feel more and similar than they were before. Certainly, story structure has been discussed since Aristotle wrote “Poetics” and Joseph Campbell devised the Hero’s Journey.

Syd Field and Robert McKee were helpful, but the specificity of these modern screenplays owes its origin to a different person. In 2005,the late screenwriter Blake Snyder wrote the book “Save the Cat”, which is billed as “the last book on screenwriting that you’ll ever need.”

While traditional narrative models were more abstract and conceptual, Snyder’s screenplay model is extremely precise and concrete. On a single page, Snyder lays out a very specific template for screenplay structure.

In screenwriting lingo, this called a “beat sheet”. This divides your story into bullet points or “story beats”. These are points in your story that you want to hit and remains a useful way for outlining your story.

Snyder’s sheet tells you exactly what to put in and where to put it. It’s a fill-in-the-blank method that can be very effective if done well. Yet, you can also get a situation where the formula dominates the story and characters don’t do things because they have the proper motivation to do so, but because you have to do it to fulfill that narrative functionality. Good writing makes this process seem organic, the natural progression of events in a story. But when formula comes first, this can be easily lost.

Truth be told, I have a copy of the book. It is indeed useful when organizing my thoughts, although I more often refer to my journalism textbook when writing blog posts.

There’s an additional layer to this. Lots of people want to break into screenwriting, and lots of screenwriters need to produce work that works reliably well for the purposes of making a movie. They may not be the finest stories, but they get the job done.

In my experience, everyone is looking for a silver bullet and “Save the Cat” is that silver bullet. It is followed as closely as possible, elevated to a sacred level.

What is not discussed is that this formula is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Put simply, no one is going to see the same the movie they saw a million times before. While there are debates about the number of stories there are in existence, and Campbell would argue the Hero’s Journey is that single story, there’s much more flexibility involved in these previous models. Not so for “Save the Cat”.

This is why it can feel like separate screenplays were written by the same person, in some ways that notion’s true. This formula will have to be challenged and critiqued from within the industry in order for substantial gains to be made.

Otherwise, we can only watch as the movie theater becomes more irrelevant and left only as fond memories in the collective consciousness.

2 thoughts on “Left In An Empty Theater

  1. OMG YES! Why do they have to dilute the movie going experience by dragging on the story-telling into needless elaborate lengths! Sigh!

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