Creativity is, by definition, the opposite of formula. So why do supposed creatives get rich selling other people formulas?
When Paul Guyot started writing screenplays, the only how-to book was the one Syd Field wrote in 1979, when hardly anybody knew what screenwriting was. Field’s only movie credit at the time was Spree, a documentary on nightlife in Las Vegas complete with cockfighting scenes and a Jayne Mansfield strip tease. But by offering simple rules and a recipe for success with a three-act structure, his book became, per CNN, “the Bible of the film industry.”
Guyot winces. As far as he is concerned, the three acts are beginning, middle, and end, and the “recipe” boils down to writing, revision, better writing, more revision. But right after Field wrote his now classic text, the media began reporting a screenwriting boom, with studios paying millions of dollars for a good script. “People thought, ‘That’s my lottery ticket,’” Guyot says. “And then all the other failed screenwriters started writing their own books, and they’re all derivative from Syd’s book. And none of them talk about writing because they don’t know how.”
Guyot has made his living as a professional screenwriter—his name shows up in the credits for Geostorm, NCIS: New Orleans, and a slew of other successful shows and feature films. He is tired of watching people with no street cred sell magic beans to hopeful amateurs. A book he finds especially annoying is Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, in which Blake Snyder lists “the four elements of every winning logline,” “the seven immutable laws of screenplay physics,” “the ten genres that every movie ever made can be categorized by,” and ways of “mastering the fifteen beats.”
Guyot decided he would write his own damned book. He would cut through the bullshit and uncloak “the weasels in owls’ clothing” who write guidebooks instead of writing screenplays themselves. He would call it Kill the Dog: The First Book on Screenwriting to Tell You the Truth.
But first he would have to read all those books he thought absurd. “Dozens of books on how-to write a screenplay and do you know how many were by actual working professional screenwriters?” he asks. “Two. And one of those was a parody.”
Had these books been written when he started out, he says, “I would have absolutely fallen for everything. I was too young and too much of a train wreck to see through it.” Instead of writing what he found funny or cool and finding his voice in the process, he “would have overthought every single syllable.”
Is that why so many of the new shows and movies are recycled, derivative, or dumb?
Not exactly. Most of the aspiring screenwriters who memorize the formulas never sell a script. The real reason for “the homogenization of Hollywood,” Guyot says, is that “creatives aren’t in charge. Bankers are.” Greedy for scripts that will appeal to everyone, they throw out anything new, fresh, unusual, or deep, playing it safe and bland and sticking to formula.
In European theater and film, the written word still outweighs the sure cash of yet another Marvel movie. Shows “are more literate, more character-driven, more emotional,” Guyot says. Here, the last golden era was the 1970s, when there were still studios “run by independent mad-genius mavericks.” Then Viacom bought Paramount [and later merged with CBS], and Columbia became Sony, and cinema sank to the bottom line. “The only way quality writing survives now is if it’s driven by an actor or director who insists and protects and shepherds.”
Barbie, for example. “People from Warner Brothers said they tried so hard to wreck that movie. For fifteen years, Hollywood had been trying to do a Barbie movie. Then Margot Robbie said, ‘I’d be interested in playing her, but not as a caricature, and I won’t do it unless you get a director like Greta Gerwig.’”
Chapter after chapter, Guyot tells Hollywood’s truths—and explodes writing myths. All those elaborate diagrams of archetypes and mythic plots and the ideal structure? He quotes Tony Gilroy saying, “I don’t think in archetypes, ever. I think about people. Real people.” Archetypes, adds Guyot, “are the tail wagging the dog.” As for diagrams, “write a good story, and structure takes care of itself. People can then amuse themselves labeling the inciting incident, the crisis, the complications, the resolution…. But when you start by thinking “This piece must go here; this must happen over here; I must put this thing here, and so on, you clog your imagination.”
Having personally gone crazy trying to structure my prose according to Aristotle’s Incline, Freytag’s Pyramid, the Fichtean Curve, Kurt Vonnegut’s eight patterns, or Joseph Campbell’s archetypes, I nod with relief. Common sense. It feels like peeling off a mask and scrubbing my face clean. Why did I fall for all that crap? Granted, I never managed to follow any of the formulas, but I sure read the books.
Publishing shares the film industry’s new obsession with a business approach, as legendary book agent Andrew Wylie recently noted, and “it’s comical, because frequently these people don’t understand the difference between selling a widget and selling a good novel.” As a result, they make “hilarious errors of judgment.”
Film’s new execs, meanwhile, go on retreats to learn how to speak to writers and actors, who are exotic and baffling to them, and return with the latest jargon: “What’s the character’s takeaway?” “Are we sure the sister characters pass the circuit test?” What they really want, Guyot says, is to let AI write the scripts. Hence the recent screenwriters’ strike, which was “paradigm-shifting, because we weren’t striking studios. We were striking tech companies where we contribute only 2 or 3 percent to their revenue.” Nothing happened—the network executives did not even bother to come to the table, just sent their lawyers with an absurd offer—until, by coincidence, a group of celebrated writers filed suit against OpenAI. “Forty-eight hours later, the CEOs came to the negotiating table, and 48 hours after that, we got 80 percent of what we were originally asking. Largest gains in the guild’s history. I think they were terrified because their business model is AI taking over, and the only thing they hate more than creatives is being sued.”
When we talked, he was guessing the Screen Actors Guild strike would end soon, now that the screenwriters were back at work penning scripts for the actors. That very evening, the SAG strike ended. But AI is not going away, and the creative future is as risky for actors as it is for screenwriters.
“The idea is that the six lead actors do the pilot, then you just use variations of their images for the subsequent episodes,” Guyot says. I blurt that there will be no human inflection, no interpretation in any of the dialogue. “And they could not care less,” he replies. “Say we had given in, and 50 percent of everything written from now on became AI. The quality is going to crash and burn, but their profit margin is going to soar. The only way that business model sustains is if the audience is AI.
“And I don’t think we’re that far gone.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.