Has the Three-Act Structure Destroyed Indie Film?
How an overemphasis on structural rigidity, "rules," and a desire to please the market is hurting indie filmmaking.
A recent search on Amazon for books about screenwriting yielded 11,045 results. This is many more than the average writer could hope to read. Add in seminars, blogs, and classes, and you get my idea: there is a lot of information about screenwriting out there. As indie films and Hollywood movies creep closer and closer together stylisitcally, the question must be asked: does all this information make for "better," more creative movies? Or is devotion to the idea of the marketable screenplay stifling creativity?
How we got here
In the first decade or so of filmmaking, relatively few parties were involved in the making of a particular movie, which obviated the need for a complicated script. The director (who was frequently the cinematographer, editor, etc.) knew what they wanted to accomplish, but as productions increased in complexity, crews expanded with them, and the need to have a document that could be referenced by everyone became paramount. One of the first known guides to screenwriting was produced in 1915 by Embrie Zuvner of the E-Z Scenario Co., and was entitled How to Write Photoplays. It includes such helpful advice as, "If you can write a play into which you can put a good moral, it will add merit to your Scenario," which is a sentiment I think we can all agree with.
The term 'plot point' appeared in the New York Times fewer than 10 times during the century or so before 1979. Since then, it has appeared more than 200 times.
The modern screenwriting craze, though, can be dated to 1979 and the publication of Syd Field's epochal Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. What had previously been very much inside baseball—knowledge restricted either graduates of the apprentice system, or, later, film schools—became available to anyone with a few bucks and a dream. As is noted in his 2013 New York Times obituary, "The term 'plot point' appeared [in the Times] fewer than 10 times during the century or so before 1979. Since then, it has appeared more than 200 times."
Simply put, there would be no modern screenwriting industry without Field. He popularized the three-act concept, and in doing so, made screenwriting explicable to the average movie-goer. What had been occult knowledge suddenly came within grasp, as Field and others popularized the idea of "high-concept". A high-concept screenplay should be, above all, reducible to one to three sentences, suitable for "pitching," and structured so it can be summed up neatly in three acts, with a set-up, complications, and resolution. It also, ideally, can be planned out on a worksheet. Field was the inspiration for numerous other "gurus," from Blake Snyder to Robert McKee, each of whom brought their own unique perspective on the structure of screenplays to bear. Structure became king, the most important factor in the success of a screenplay.
When indies went against the grain
Beginning in the '60s, and through the next two decades, increased access to low-cost equipment and processing made independent filmmaking if not easy, then at least not impossible. American filmmakers like John Cassavetes pioneered independent filmmaking in the U.S. with narratives that were unlike the dominant Hollywood photoplays of decades past, and European iconoclasts, including Godard, Francois Truffaut, Lina Wertmuller, Alain Resnais and many more, whose work had challenged the dominant idiom of European cinema, inspired the so-called "film school" generation.
These American writers and directors, including Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdonavich and Francis Ford Coppola for a brief period came to ascendance in Hollywood and threatened to break some of its dominant narrative paradigms (paradigms which were, ironically, the ones that Field would end up reifying). Among these were the ideas of non-linear narration, downbeat endings (or endings that did not have any redeeming message at all) as well as subversive use of traditional narrative elements: Terrence Malick used voice-over, not as a basic expository device, but as "a character in its own right," in films like 1973's Badlands.
But it was Steven Spielberg, a member of the film school generation who never went to film school, who would bring much of the artistic experimentation to an end when he made the first summer blockbuster, Jaws, in 1975. By its 59th day of release, the film had earned over one hundred million dollars. Jaws was very much the sort of film that, though it was masterfully executed, had a very solid and explicable structure that could be understood, and imitated, by the screenwriters who would, four years later, be buying Field's book.
Hollywood goes indie (or vice versa)
Throughout the 1980s, a vibrant filmmaking community flourished in the U.S., with artists from Spike Lee to the Coen Brothers and more at work, and many of these filmmakers found their home at festivals like Robert Redford's Sundance. But the release and success of Steven Soderbergh's debut feature, sex, lies and videotape, which conquered Sundance and made the 26-year-old director the youngest winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d’Or, began to change that.
Even though the film itself was brash and non-formulaic, Soderbergh's debut changed things when it earned more than $20 million from a $1.2 million budget and marked the ascendance of the festival as a Hollywood marketplace, where producers like the Weinsteins looked for the next big thing.
And even though Soderbergh is one of the most celebrated writer/directors in Hollywood, as this article from Uproxx notes, his "instincts as a sly, supple entertainer were well-honed from the start," and his successful debut presaged a change in independent film storytelling. Filmmakers were now looking for the big deal, the contract that would change their lives, and by 2004, "fringe filmmakers like Todd Haynes and Errol Morris now share[d] the ceremony with people like Tom Cruise, Lucy Liu and Jennifer Aniston" at events like the Independent Spirit Awards.
“Forget about contests, agents; focus on what you can control. Words, pages, and the intention behind them." —Brian Koppelman
As Hollywood films and indie films get closer and closer to each other in style, I'm not the first to bemoan the lack of narrative experimentation in independent films. Meanwhile, screenwriting in general has, since the ascension of Field, become a land of seminars and how-tos. These drive an industry that screenwriters like (the admittedly mainstream) Brian Koppelman have bemoaned in statements like this from the New Yorker magazine: “Forget about contests, agents; focus on what you can control. Words, pages, and the intention behind them," and, "Don’t stress about making your main characters likable or relatable. That’s development speak. Just make them fascinating, and we’ll care.”
Koppelman concedes that Snyder and Field wrote "classic books," but he goes on to argue that "they make you think only one thing is commercial, and commerce creates barriers. They think this writing is about cracking the code...if you think there is a code to begin with, then you’ll never really create much of value.”
I agree with Koppelman. After all, if there's any lesson to be learned from films like Memento, it's that movies with non-traditional narratives and good stories can succeed. In the end, there will always be art films, and there will always be blockbusters, but as independent filmmakers and film industry people, we should always make sure to champion well-told stories that eschew the blatant beats of Snyder and Field.