Should I Save the Cat with a Hero’s Journey in Three Acts?

Webb Pickersgill asked:

The industry is complex, and I know there is no one answer, but I’d like to hear your commentary on the following subject: Following the “Save the Cat!” blueprint seems to be a sure-fire way of at least having a chance of getting your screenplay any sort of actual success. Agreed, it is solid, proven, and widely accepted by audiences worldwide. However, we are artists and we love to break the mold. Rather, we are always children and part of us always wants to rebel against the “parents” that tell us how things should be. Under what circumstances do you see the mold being broken, and being properly rewarded for it? Of course “properly” is the subjective here, if you rate success based on revenue, societal impact, or some other measure. Financial success is the easy measure, so I challenge you to find an answer that uses other sources for value as well as money. Nonetheless, I’d like to hear your thoughts, to give the artists inside us some hope that being a rebel is rewarding, because deep inside you know you want something new and different. Artists love finding a creative way!

OK, you opened a can of worms that might get me crucified but the fact is:  “Save the Cat” and any other screenwriting paradigm out there are just tools.  That’s it.  They help new writers to, well, hit their beats.  Make sure they get the key elements needed to tell a story, but the key is telling a good story.

Save the Cat! was published in 2005.  There was nearly 100 years of cinema before Save the Cat.  Syd Field’s Screenplay, probably the grand daddy screenwriting book of them all, was published in 1979.  There was decades of cinema before that as well.  People were writing good, solid, screenplays long before the guides and paradigms were drafted.

Corey Mandell, screenwriter and professor at UCLA, wrote a nice blog post about this very topic.  Its all summed up in a story he relates from a guest speaker in one of his classes:

He then gave her three scripts written to one of the popular structure books advocating what must happen on pages 1 to 10, 10 to 20, 20 to 30, and so forth.  He told her the first three scripts were realscreenplays and the other three were bullshit and her job was to never let a bullshit script cross his desk.

It’s not that someone used the guidelines with any particular paradigm, its when they follow them to a fault.  For example, Save the Cat says:

page number 12 Catalyst A life changing event that propels the hero out of the comfort zone and confronts him with the need to act in order to restore the balance
pages 12-25 Debate Sometimes the hero has a choice after the catalyst event, sometimes not. In any case, the pages between catalyst and break into act two should show how daunting the task ahead is, for example by having the hero struggle with the decision or show how he and/or others hesitate face the unavoidable.

Do you really think it matters if the Catalyst falls right on page 12?  Some people do and that’s ludicrous.  Its all about your STORY.  I mean, look, here’s the basic three act structure:

pages purpose
Act 1 first 25% Setup
All main characters and their surrounding situation should be introduced here. What is the hero’s goal – externally and internally? Who are the supporting characters.The first act ends with plot point 1 – an incident that turns the plot in a new direction.
Act 2 next 50% Conflict
The protagonist fights for his goal encountering one obstacle after the other. It ends with plot point 2 which puts him into a situation where it is almost impossible to succeed.Because the second act is very long, Syd Field suggests three orientation points for the writer. One is the midpoint – it’s in the middle of the movie. You knew that, right? Often this is the point where the hero and his enemy clash directly for the first time. Kind of a point of no return, the last chance for reconciliation has passed.It’s not easy to fill 30 pages with meaningful action that drives the plot towards its goal. So Field introduced two more orientation points: pinch 1 and pinch 2. Pinch 1 occurs half way between plot point 1 and the midpoint. Pinch 2 occurs half way between midpoint and plot point 2.The second act ends with plot point 2 – also called the crisis. Here the hero faces a situation that seems impossible to solve. We certainly don’t want to be in his shoes here, but would really like to know what he does now.
Act 3 final 25% Resolution
At the beginning the hero is in the pits, approaching the crisis. Except in tragedies he wins over all adversities and gets back on top, using everything she learnt and accomplished in act 1 and 2.

Its standard.  Everyone knows it.  Every assistant forced to read scripts all day and all night to present to the boss knows it and that’s the very minimal guidelines for writing a screenplay.  That all said, there are four and five act structures.  There’s Syd Field’s Paradigm.  There’s the Hero’s Journey.

The fact is each one says its the best.  The fact is that there are rabid followers of each of them.  Each of these paradigms have one thing in common: they outline the important points to remember in crafting your story and the pacing your story should try to maintain to entertain your audience.  But the one true fact is: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE STORY.

So break the rules, do what feels good and is comfortable for the story you are telling… but don’t leave something out and don’t make rookie mistakes (which includes following someone else’s outline on how to write your story).

Do screenplay contest winners ever get made?

An anonymous user asked: “What percent of contest winners ever get their scripts made into movies?”

Wow, that’s a hard question to answer as no one tracks all of that in one place, but quite often if you search through the major contest results very few ever get made.  Why?

Well, there are a few reasons.

First: A good portion of screenplays that the studios buy never get produced.  I’ve heard numbers anywhere from only 10% to 25% of all script purchases ever get made.  I’d actually bet the number is even smaller.  Sometimes they purchase a script because they already have something similar in development and want to take it off the market.  Sometimes they have all the good intentions of making the screenplay into a film but it just doesn’t get the momentum that it needs to carry it forward.  Sometimes the stars just don’t align right.  More often than not, the stars don’t align.

A movie is an engine with thousands of moving parts and anyone of them can break down and cause the project to not get off the ground.  Doesn’t mean the script wasn’t good, but…

Second: Let’s look at the market.  In 2012 and 2011 the Scoggins Report reported exactly 132 spec sales.  That’s 132 sales of scripts that were written independently by writers.  So how does that compute to screenplay winners and finalists?  Well with just the Nicholls Fellowship and Page Screenplay winners your talking 50 winners… and that’s just two contests.  Or, to put it another way, there were close to 50,000 screenplays registered last year by the WGA and only 132 sales.

That means only 0.2% of all screenplays written last year were purchased.  Go further, that means 0.05% to 0.02% of all screenplays registered last year will get produced.

Third: In a perfect world only good scripts get made, right?  Hollywood is far from perfect and neither are script contests.  If you follow the spec market and read the spec scripts you’ll scratch your head on some contest winners.  Why did this win? Are you kidding me?  And if you watch a lot of movies you’ll ask the same questions:  Why did this get made?  Are you kidding me?

So why didn’t they get made?  Oh, there are a host of reasons.  Those screenplay competition winners were good, but were they commercial?  Were they ready?  Where they professional?

To use a sports analogy: The best high school football player in a given state is still no match for the Heisman trophy winner in the same year.  And even that Heisman Trophy winner will get squashed if he tried to scrimmage in the NFL right away.

The best amateur isn’t as good as the best professional… at least not usually.

That doesn’t mean give up.  Take the acclaim and use it to your benefit.  Ride the press.  Always move forward!

 

Anatomy of a Distribution Agreement

I am going to try and explain a typical distribution agreement between a Producer and the Sales Agent.  A Sales Agent will act as the go between local distributors in foreign territories and you.  Individual distribution agreements will be similar….

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The Sale Phase of Distribution (and Delivery)

You’ve finished the film, sent it out and you’ve gotten a distribution agreement.  Wow, you’re all done, right? Not even close. Sorry, but you’ve got a mountain of items you need to deliver to the distributor.  Actually to each and…

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The Post-Production Phase of Distribution

RUNNING TIME

We’re almost there.  Everything is in the can nothing but the edit left, right?  Sure, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot of things to keep thinking about that will make your film easier to sell.

First, look to your running time.  Your goal should be 90 minutes, but the film needs to be at least 83 minutes or it will, again, be rejected by most buyers.  Any shorter and they just don’t consider it a feature.  Also, please keep in mind that you are not Peter Jackson so no epic length films.  In fact keep it to a maximum of 110 minutes and don’t be surprised if your sales agent asks you to cut it down to 90.

Keep your edit tight.  Start already in the scene and cut out before it ends.  Keep action sequences moving.  The faster your pacing the better the perception of the film.  It is a fact of the business.  Just keep it moving.

FEEDBACK

Get objective third party feedback.  Don’t trust your friends, your cast, your crew, and especially your mom for objective feedback. They like you.  They are invested.  Hold public screenings with an anonymous way to give feedback.  The studios do it, so should you.

STOCK FOOTAGE

License stock footage.  It really is not that expensive and can give you great cinematic appeal.  The cost of you getting an aerial shot of the city vs. just buying one of dozens of stock film clips can mean hundreds if not thousands of dollars back to your bottom line.

You can also get large crowd scenes, disaster footage, and simple establishing shots.  All of this adds to the quality and completeness of your film.

Make sure to copy the license agreements and keep the receipts for your chain of title documentation for each clip.

BUILD YOUR PRESS KIT

While your editor and sound designer are hard at work, spend the time putting together your press kit.  You’re going to need it not only for your press contacts, but to give to potential buyers and then it will be a delivery requirement to those that license your film.

What should be in a press kit?

  • A quality, professional folder.  Not some off the shelf, mass produced stock.
  • Synopsis, actually three.  A Long, Medium, and short synopsis
  • Cast and Crew Bios
  • Create a Frequently Asked Questions document.  You are actually writing the article for them at this point.  What author, if given a set of questions and answers won’t want to use those to make their life easier?  Viola, they talk about exactly what you want them to.
  • Publicity Stills.  Ok, time to go through the 100+ photos you took and single out a dozen for use in the press.  You can even provide some crew shots and definitely provide headshots for the director.

Now deliver it to all those press folks we’ve been keeping in contact with since before the film began.

The Preproduction Phase of Distribution

In pre-production, every step of actually creating the film is carefully designed and planned. The production company is created and a production office established. The production is storyboarded and visualized with the help of illustrators and concept artists. The filmmaker…

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