There's a Producer's maxim in Hollywood that says "Give me the same thing, only different." Recently, I watched Guardians of the Galaxy and this mantra floated in my head the whole time. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the film, but I couldn't help but wonder is it really different than everything else out? It felt like an extraterrestrial Avengers, but wasn't that what it was supposed to be all along?
Warning: Spoilers for every Hollywood movie ever made
Movies follow a form. The traditional three-act structure is the backbone of all Hollywood films. This is then expanded to additional "beats" (to borrow a term) where certain things always happen. There's always a "whiff of death" near the end of Act 2 (roughly 80 minutes into the movie) and it usually occurs as our hero(es) are getting kicked around by a villain resurgent. To go back to Guardians, this moment would be when it looks like Gamora is going to die in the atmosphere of Knowhere…but doesn't (hence "whiff") and Quill is captured and the bad guys have the special shape (sphere). In The Avengers, Agent Coulson dies right on schedule (only to come back in the TV show…that's a "whiff" I guess) as Loki escapes and has the special shape (cube).
Before you cry out that "They're both Marvel movies - they're going to be similar!" I will add Exhibit C. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy and Marion are trapped in the Well of Souls to die and the Nazis have the special box (Ark). Indy, of course, escapes and they don't die ("whiff"). Guess when this happens in the movie? Right before Act 3.
Pick up any screenwriting book and they'll all harp on this structure. Blake Snyder expands the three-act structure into several "beats" in a simplistic way with his Save The Cat! instructional series. Syd Field was an apostle of this traditional structure long before Snyder. Industry writing guru Robert McKee is a big fan of outrageous charts for film structure. This one looks like a schematic for a toaster:
The truth is, dramatic structure goes all the way back to Aristotle, circa 335 B.C. It was he who declared "A whole is what has a beginning, middle, and end." While this seems overly common sensical, you'd be surprised how easily amateur writers deviate from it. Especially film students. In my university days, we were encouraged to share and even act out our screenwriting in class. There was always someone who has a new script they couldn't wait to share. I've seen what scripts lacking three-act structure look like…and it's not pretty. You wonder where the %*^# this mess is going and why you're on page 50 and nothing has happened yet.
Which brings me to my point. Our brains are trained to watch films or read scripts in a three-act structure. Humans have done it for so long, we want our stories to have a clear cut beginning, middle, and end. If we went to see the latest Marvel movie and we deviated from the structure, the people in the audience would be frightened, confused, animalistic. When we cinematically deviate from "how things are supposed to go" it leads to confusion. This is why Hollywood adheres to structure like glue on fly paper. They also use it to weed out amateur writers - dialogue and characters can be rewritten. Without structure, you've got a wad of tree pulp and some ink.
So structure is important. And from someone who writes screenplays, it's a wonderful tool to develop your story. Think of it as a coat hanger that displays your shirt like a shirt…and not like a lump of cotton on the floor. (You may feel the desire to bring up films like Pulp Fiction or Kubrick's The Killing…but trust me, these still adhere to structure).
But structure does not necessarily lead to predictability. It's hard to argue The Sixth Sense was predictable. Or Rocky losing in the first film. Or Bruce Willis dying at the end of Armageddon (more spoilers). It's my belief the predictability comes from the four-quadrant rule. Sometimes colloquially referred to as the lowest common denominator.
The four-quadrant rule is Hollywood market-speak for appealing to the entire moviegoing (paying) public. Male-Female and Young-Old make up the four quadrants. To maximize return profits, a film needs to appeal to each. If a film appealed to only, say, men young and old, you can't count on 50% of moviegoers paying to see your movie. It's the broad appeal that leads to predictability.
For example: We have a superhero film (young males) starring a heroic adult (older males). We need a young, beautiful foil for our hero (young female) and together they take on a simplistic challenge like saving the world (lowest common denominator) because it effects everyone. We're missing a quadrant, so let's add an older female character that projects wisdom and level-headedness (older female). Now, we spent a lot of money on this film so we want people to leave happy and upbeat - they may actually see it again or go tell someone else to see it. (Happy ending/No one we like dies)
So what movie did I just describe? Was it Guardians of the Galaxy (with Glenn Close as our older, wiser lady)? Or The Avengers (with Gwyneth Paltrow as the intelligent Pepper Pots)? Or maybe Spider-Man (with Aunt May)? Or maybe it was Michael Bay's Transformers series - with Shia LeBeouf's girlfriend and parents rounding out the quadrants.
When you adhere to structure (rightfully) and push four quadrants (gotta make your money back), you leave little room for variation. Hence, "Give me the same, only different." This variation also cannot include killing off a major franchise character (sometimes even villains don't die), and if someone does die they either have to grow back (like Guardian's Groot) or have it cleared by the Marketing Department. This lack of variation is going to lead to overlap, redundancy, and (drum roll) predictability.
Is there hope for creativity and freshness? You won't find it in $150 million movies - there's too much at stake. You will, however, find it in independent and horror films, where chances are more welcome or likely to be taken. The lower the budget, the less restrictions there are on where a story can go. Take the Friday the 13th series, for example. You can kill everybody and we start over next film. You can also find unpredictability in your favorite cable TV series - look at Game of Thrones or Walking Dead. No one's safe.
The next time you see a blockbuster in the theater, play this little game of I Spy and see if you can spot the four quadrants, the whiff of death, and the happen ending. Compare with your friends. Then come back and leave your comments below.