The Birth of the Hollywood Formula - Music and Movies Week


Photo by Steven Monteau.

Charlie Kaufman:
There are no rules, Donald. And anyone who says
there are, is just, you know…

Donald Kaufman:
Not rules, principles. McKee writes that a rule
says you must do it this way. A principle says,
this works and has through all remembered time.

– Adaptation (2001)

Have you ever been watching a movie and you could guess the next line, or who the killer was, or even the ending?

This is because movies are becoming increasingly formulaic. In fact, it wouldn’t be a far reach to say that almost every movie since Star Wars has followed the same basic formula. These days there are hundreds of classes, books and websites that claim, “There is a blueprint – structured through acts, sequences, and plot points – that almost every movie follows. This is the science of the screenplay” Then, naturally, they try to sell you their step-by-step formula that guarantees you will write a successful script.

One website boasts, “anyone can learn the secret formula used by Stephen Spielberg, James Cameron and George Lucas.” The site urges eager young screenwriters to buy their formula so they can start a career in Hollywood and “become the greatest filmmaker of all time.” And it’s so simple, all you have to do is sit back and fill out the Hollywood Script Format Chart, which “shows you how to create successful stories in perfect script format.”

That’s right! With this chart you can write the BEST screenplay of all time, simply by following “the 10 Commandments of Screenwriting, plot points, hooks and emotional curves…the golden paradigm-three act structure, formatting and submission tips and the page number breakdown.”

Wow! It’s that easy! Just plug in your ideas and out comes…art? (I do think it’s fair to say that the best films of all time can be considered as art.)

Why then, would anyone think it’s possible to make any art form in such a scientific and rigid way?

The answer lies in Star Wars, or rather in the success of Star Wars.

Just before George Lucas began his trilogy, Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces, an unconventional study in mythology that deconstructed the basic tropes of heroic epics throughout the humanities. After spending years reading hundreds of different myths from all over the world, Campbell came up with his theory of the “mono-myth.” His assumptive models on universal ideals and heroic characteristics convincingly argued that all cultures, even those that never had any communication with each other, were telling the same stories.

Campbell deconstructed the basic tropes of the myths he studied into a structure called the hero’s journey. George Lucas, who would become a good friend of Joseph Campbell, used this structure to write Star Wars.

But the Star Wars trilogy didn’t revolutionize the way movies were made just because they were the first movies to consciously use this ancient story-telling structure, but more so because the franchise made so much money. While the first three movies earned an unprecedented $1 billion, the merchandise brought in over $3 billion. In fact, just last year Lucas Arts raked in $3 billion in licensing revenue alone.

Film studios, looking to milk this new cash cow, jumped at any script that resembled Star Wars — a typical response along the same lines as when every record label grabbed up every the grunge bands they could after Nirvana got really big. The industries follow the money. Studios saw what Star Wars did, they all tried to repeat it, with or without spaceships and screenwriters catered to this.

Some screenwriters like Syd Field and Robert McKee wrote books that outlined the script formula down to the page. Now studios won’t even read a script unless it pretty much follows a specific format. “In every script that has ever sold the inciting incident is on page 10 and the twists happen exactly when they are supposed to.” If the script doesn’t follow these ridged rules, “The studios will not touch it with a ten-meter cattle prod.” [1]

Amazon Studios recently held a script competition with a $100,000 dollar prize. Over 7,000 scripts were submitted to the contest judged by the very prestigious Lawrence Bender and Akiva Goldsmith.

According to Matt Gossett, the winner of the competition, “Amazon Studios seemed genuinely interested in exploring avenues outside the standard channels, and I thought I’d give it a whirl.”

When asked why he thought his script, The Origin of Species, based on the book by Charles Darwin, was considered to be outside the standard channels, he explained that most screenwriters are just “trying to get some attention, they’re trying to make a little money. So, they cater a lot to what they think is going to win; and a lot of times that’s a very kind of formulaic movie.”

As he continued to explain, “It’s dangerous to write for the studios when you’re first coming up. You’re already putting yourself in a place that makes your story exactly like a million other stories. When I first start writing, I don’t think about that at all. Then again, maybe that’s a little dangerous not to think about the three-act structure, and by page twenty this has to happen…I don’t really think that’s important when you’re trying to come up with a story.”

However, Gossett finds that once a script is whittled down to its final form “you find out that their script is going to fall into that structure because that’s the way that people see films, that’s the way we’re used to watching film.”

Which brings us to the tangible, substantive reason why Star Wars was so popular and made so much money. The mono-myth speaks to something deep inside all of us, as Campbell says, “It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.” [2]

The problem is that writers follow the mono-myth formula, rather than allowing their stories to become a mono-myth. Campbell states, “The symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche.” [2]

We are trying to invent our own myths, instead of letting them come to us from “the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos.” [2] But we don’t have to, as Matt Gossett explains, “I think at the end, when you get to your final draft, it’s probably going to end up being a three-act structure, with all these little things that Syd Field and all these people say there needs to be, but I don’t know if you can reverse-engineer that.”


[1] Garant, Robert Ben, and Thomas Lennon. Writing movies for fun and profit!: how we made a billion dollars at the box office and you can, too!. New York: Touchstone, 2011. Print.

[2] Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 19681949. Print.