I’m a big fan of the ten “genres” in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat books. I personally believe successful movies nearly always can be seen to fit clearly into one of these ten types of stories. (They have five subtypes each – see this chart with movie examples.) In my view, working within one of the genres is perhaps the single most important thing a screenwriter can do to try to ensure that the main story problem and goal of their movie (which the genres speak to) has a chance at being hugely compelling for millions of people (and thus commercially viable).
I think the first thing a screenplay is evaluated on is its central concept, which really means the problem that takes the whole movie to solve, which is what the logline should focus on. What kind of problem is it? What is the main character grappling with, and trying to achieve? Is it powerfully, universally relatable at its essence? All ten genres describe situations which have historically proven to meet those criteria – whether it’s trying to escape a killing machine (in “Monster in the House”), overcoming complications to an otherwise perfect relationship (in “Buddy Love”), or reconciling one’s individuality to the demands of a larger group one is a part of (in “Institutionalized”).
Here are my thoughts on some of the year’s most lauded films, and the basic dramatic situation at their core (and how that fits one of these ten “genres”).
12 Years a Slave: "Golden Fleece". The original Golden Fleece, Homer’s Odyssey, established the basic criteria: there's a long road which some sort of team travels down (usually with a single main character at the center of it), in pursuit of a life-changing prize. The key here is that the audience really cares that they reach the prize – life will be unthinkably bad if they don’t, and so much better if they do. And there are a lot of trials and costs along the way of trying to reach it. What could be a more compelling prize than what this main character is chasing, which is freedom from being unjustly enslaved? And this is what he constantly pursues, throughout the movie. (Great central problems require the main character to continuously push toward their goal, which leads to loads of complications that only increase the problem – until it’s finally resolved at its climax.) Other "Fleeces" include Finding Nemo, The Hangover and Saving Private Ryan.
American Hustle: Also a “Golden Fleece,” subgenre “Caper Fleece”, where a group of somewhat damaged people try to outwit an (arguably) less sympathetic opponent through a complicated mission, as in The Sting or Oceans 11. I personally wasn’t sure I loved the hero(es) enough, or understood what they were trying to pull off, but wow, great performances, and great hair!
Captain Phillips: “Dude with a Problem”, meaning, an innocent hero, through a sudden event, faces a life and death battle that takes the whole movie to resolve. As in Die Hard or The Bourne Identity.
Gravity:Yup, same thing. “Dude with a Problem” – in this case, a “Nature Problem” since there is no bad guy behind it (just like Apollo 13).
Dallas Buyers Club:starts out very “Dude with a Problem”-esque, in that he’s got a life-and-death problem, but "Dudes" are always more action oriented, so diseases usually don't work as the threat. And things quickly shift in this movie into a “Real-life Superhero” genre (like Erin Brockovich or Lincoln), where a unique individual with a special power (but also a flaw) fights a nemesis of sorts, on behalf of others. Something hugely impactful for others has to be at stake in a "Superhero" script. And it certainly is here (although for a while, it seemed to me like he was only in it for the money).
Her: “Rite of Passage”. This is the kind of movie where the main character adopts a wrong way of dealing with a relatable life problem (like a romantic “Separation,” in this case), and embarks on an ill-advised quest after some goal that we know probably won’t end well, but we can still sympathize with them trying it. In this case, the "wrong way" involves a relationship with a human-like female operating system. Ultimately, the main character wakes up from this fool’s errand, and adopt some sort of acceptance of life as it is. Other examples: The War of the Roses, The First Wives Club and An Education (the latter is in the “Adolescent” subgenre).
Nebraska: Since it’s told from the son’s point-of-view, I’d call it a “Golden Fleece” (“Buddy Fleece” subgenre), where the “prize” is the eventual arrival at the sweepstakes office to make his aging father stop his ridiculous quest for a supposed million dollar prize. If it were told more from the father’s perspective, it might feel more like a “Rite of Passage” (subgenre “Death Passage”), where the money chase is a relatable, sympathetic “wrong way” of dealing with impending death.
Philomena: Also a “Golden Fleece”/“Buddy Fleece”,where this duo is chasing a really important prize, where it’s really not okay to fail (the stakes seem huge). “Fleeces” require that.
Before Midnight: “Buddy Love” – which is the type of story where the central problem and question the audience is concerned about is “will these two end up together”? You have an incomplete hero, a seemingly perfect counterpart, and a big complication.
Inside Llewyn Davis: “Institutionalized” (subgenre “Business Institution”) –where the main problem is about an individual’s relationship to a group (the folk music business), where they have to make a choice in the end about their relationship to it, which involves a sacrifice (as in The Godfather, Wall Street or The Devil Wears Prada).
August: Osage County: “Institutionalized,” as well, this time in the “Family Institution” subgenre.
Saving Mr. Banks: “Buddy Love” (subgenre “Professional Love”) – where the real question is whether the two leads will end up “together”. You could say Emma Thompson’s demons going back to her childhood -- which are seen to drive her current behavior -- amount to something of a “Death Passage” (a wrong way of dealing with her father’s death, which ultimately ends in her finding acceptance).
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