Thursday, August 6, 2009
Blake Snyder, Screenwriter/Author
Blake Snyder, who on Tueaday died suddenly from cardiac arrest at age 51, began his writing career in 1988 working for the Disney TV series Kids Incorporated, penning thirteen episodes before turning to writing spec screenplays full time. He was the author of the screenwriting book, Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need, which was published in May 2005 and quickly became the No. 1 best-selling “how-to” on Amazon.com, and Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, a dissection of 50 top Hollywood and independent films.
The son of Emmy award winning children’s TV producer Ken Snyder (Roger Ramjet, Big Blue Marble) and once described as “one of Hollywood’s most successful spec screenwriters,” Snyder wrote, among others, the screenplays Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Nuclear Family, and Blank Check, as well as sold many original scripts and pitches to such major Hollywood players as Steven Spielberg.
Blake also conducted screenwriting seminars, lectures, and taught at Chapman, UCLA, Vanderbilt, and the Beijing Film Academy.
Here is my exclusive newsletter interview with the late Mr. Snyder:
Mike: What got you started in writing?
Snyder: I actually can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. But when I was 14, I saw this movie called Paris When It Sizzles, starring William Holden and Audrey Hepburn. Holden, of all things, plays a screenwriter in it. And Hepburn is a typist that helps him. I’ve been hooked on screenwriting ever since.
Mike: What most influenced you during your early years learning the art of screenwriting?
Snyder: Believe it or not, I never took a screenwriting course or a read a book on screenwriting until after I had sold my first screenplay. I was an English major in college, and when I was starting out in screenwriting there weren’t that many books on screenwriting to begin with. Maybe that’s why it took me a little longer than most. I wrote nearly 20 scripts before I hit with one. But I was very interested in what the form looked like, what was required creatively, so I simply learned by reading a lot of scripts.
Mike: You’re self-taught then?
Snyder: Yes, almost entirely. I learned from trial and error. Maybe that’s why it took me longer to make it than most screenwriters. If I had a shortcut, I guess I would’ve been selling much faster. You have to find your way.
Mike: What was your introduction to screenwriting books?
Snyder: I was already a working screenwriter, doing re-writes, when I finally read Syd Field’s classic “Screenplay: The Foundation of Writing.” In fact, I remember that the producer kept referring to the “act break,” and I had no idea what he was talking about. That’s how clueless I was back then.
Mike: What were the early years like, before you made it?
Snyder: I was like a lot of beginning screenwriters. I had my heroes, like Lena Wertmüller, and I wrote with those certain heroes, who weren’t necessarily, in mind, writing movies about subjects I liked, things that I thought were kinda cool—and not selling a thing.
I was flat broke and still trying to find out what the industry wanted when I just sort of discovered high concept. I just sort of stumbled into it and eventually figured it out. Before, I was like a lot of writers; I wanted to write character pieces, or pieces that were true events that happened in my life, or adaptations of Greek plays. I tried all the things that I personally loved and wanted to do. Then I realized that I’m providing a service, that I’m providing a creative product, and I’m just like everyone else in this business; I’m trying to sell it to the next person. If you are a studio, you are trying to sell it to the public. When you figure that out, you will be able to fit into the business a bit better and really provide a service.
I mean, people would tell me that I’m talented, they were responding to me, but they weren’t buying anything.
I needed money, so I worked as a production assistant on a couple of TV sit-coms and was an NBC page, one of those guys in a suit who gave tours—which was actually a fun thing to do.
But I eventually realized that these jobs were interfering with my main goal, which was writing. So I took a day job, worked in the mornings as a sales guy in an insurance office, for six hours five days a week, which paid all the bills, and in the afternoons of every day I would write.
Mike: Did you ever get so discouraged that you wanted to quit?
Snyder: (He chuckles.). How many days are there in a year? There were a lot of times early in my career I thought about doing something else. I wrote 10-20 scripts, thought I had tried everything, and hadn’t had a big sale. Every time I thought I was starting to get it, a door would slam in my face. The only thing that kept me going was that people encouraged me, told me I had talent.
Mike: What’s the lesson to be learned from the way you went about things?
Snyder: To not do what I did. Don’t write a lot of screenplays and burn yourself out with a lot of false hope. It’s a bad thing to waste a lot of soul energy on things that are never going to work.
I’ve since discovered several shortcuts and lots of tricks of the trade that would’ve definitely made things easier for me. I guess I should’ve read those books and took those courses when I was young.
Mike: So, if you had to do it all over again?
Snyder: I probably would’ve taken any job that would’ve gotten me in the door, anything where you can gain experience of the development process. And I’d read even more scripts. I’m talking about hundreds of them. All kinds. I’d study the market. And I’d concentrate on the type of movie I really like. I think to know what your specialty is, what kind of service you offer, where you fit, and where you don’t fit, are important to know. If you have a passion for family movies, then become an expert and write nothing else. I don't see any benefit to being a jack-of-all-trades just to have samples in all genres.
The only good thing about my writing all those dead scripts early on was that I got in a lot of great practice. I developed my writing muscle. I built up skills, learned how to move people in and out of rooms on the page, and how to put description and dialogue on the page. I also established a strong voice, one that was obviously attractive enough to get me hired somewhere and get me an agent fairly quickly.
Mike: What made you write Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need?
Snyder: After being online with a lot of screenwriters wanting advice, I thought there was a need for a simple, slim, fun, easy-to-digest, easy-to-read book that covered everything on how to be a successful screenwriter. I viewed it like a screenwriter’s version of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.
I sat down and wrote it in a very short period of time—just months. I guess it was something I had to get off my chest.
It was a lot of fun to write and I’m really proud of it.
And what makes me different from other people who write screenwriting books is, I’m a working screenwriter. I just sold a script last year. I’m going on pitch-meeting weeks all the time. I’m doing the job.
Mike: Should the screenwriter pursue the artist within his or her soul, or simply go after what’s commercially hot at the moment?
Snyder: Depends what you want out of your career. My goal is to make a sale and get a movie made—and I like the big, pop movies that travel internationally.
The job priority of a screenwriter, let’s face it, is to entertain strangers in a theatre; they don’t care about your growth as an artist. They want to laugh and cry and be dazzled.
When I speak to writers at seminars, I tell them to work on the one line that’ll hook people! With all the things competing for an audience’s attention—TV, movies, books, Internet—you’ve got to grab people with a compelling idea.
But if you’re still intent on pursuing art in your movies, my advice to you would be to first write a commercial hit.
I mean, the guys who wrote Problem Child—Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski—went on to write Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt. They started with a very high concept, a very saleable script. But that wasn’t their ultimate goal. They had grander artistic goals than I have. They wanted to make higher-quality films. But by selling a script, they became a known, viable entity. From there, they re-channeled their career to something else. For them, the early stuff was just a means to an end. Smart strategy. Great writers. Two clever guys with a well-executed plan.
Mike: What do the best screenwriters have in common?
Snyder: Humility! In person, even the most outrageous voices of our era are surprisingly self-effacing. True confidence comes out on the page. In the room, workmanlike cooperation and being a team player is a must. I have acted like an artiste in my time, standing on some point or clinging to a scene I love; it has not served me well.
The really big screenwriters are the ones who talk less and listen more. They are the ones who quietly observe human behavior, think first and speak second, and are most open to hearing criticism, taking notes, and being cooperative in this very cooperative undertaking we are all involved in.
Mike: How can you spot talent immediately?
Snyder: Again, humility in the room—combined with confidence on the page. The No. 1 thing I hope when someone sends me a script is that I feel when I’m reading it that I am in good hands. If I find myself using body English to move past one or more uncomfortable spots in a script, I know that confidence is not there. And the writer loses me for that script. I must get the sense that this is easy for the writer, that he or she is comfortable telling me this story (without being cocky) and surprises me along the way with turns I did not expect. I guess the easy answer is: If I lose myself in the script and forget I’m reading one, you've won me over.
Mike: What are your working habits like? Do you work days or nights, on a computer or in longhand?
Snyder: I work early morning, on the computer, and write 1,000 words a day—that’s all we ask for!
Mike: How important is originality?
Snyder: Very important. The screenwriter’s job is to constantly scour our writing looking for the cliché—and stomp it out. Whether it’s the hackneyed idea, the dull turn of phrase, or “the been-there-bored-by-that” character, it’s our duty to make everything about our screenplays—and our writing—POP!
And that means never settling for what is less than fresh and new.
I’ve just finished reviewing my usual 1000 words a day and found them laced with phrases like “when push comes to shove,” “the be all and end all,” and “don’t go there.” Ugh! But instead of beating myself up—for too long, anyway—I see these “place holders” for what they are: an opportunity to liven up my writing with a fresh way to say the same thing—by saying it my way.
Odds are if it feels like you’ve seen it or heard it somewhere before, it’s time to re-think and re-write. That comforting feeling that “It’s like a movie, therefore it’s safe for me to use it” is in fact misleading you into the world of Cliche Alert! And as they say in the now tired words from my writing today: Go there not!
Mike: How do you attract a top agent?
Snyder: If you have the stuff, they will find you. I really believe that. And, yes, I did have good connections. But I found them myself. I found friends with similar interests who would introduce me to agents or agent trainees. Finding an agent is not as mysterious as you think. It may be frustrating. It may be a Catch 22 scenario. But it’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is getting good at what you do.
If you have a great poster, a great hook, a great logline, if you have that winning idea, and if you have a script that’s well-executed and well-structured, agents will find you. Trust me on this.
Mike: How long did it take you to find a top agent?
Snyder: Actually, I got one fairly early in my career—Hilary Wayne at Writers and Artists Agency. I was going out with a friend of hers, and we just kind of hit it off. Like me, she was very enthusiastic, very creative, and very willing to try anything.
Unfortunately, she recently passed away.
Hillary sold a lot of my scripts and built my career from scratch. She was a huge influence on how I see the business and write for it even now. She encouraged me to think more commercially, to write the poster first, to think in terms of the target market (who is this movie for?) and the target studio (which studio is trying to fill that need?). And she backed it all up with results—she loved to sell. She knew how to position the script and me as the writer. She liked to say all the time that “Every sale has a story”—a compelling reason to buy beyond just the script. Her most reassuring advice to me was: “It just takes one person to say yes,” meaning that a hundred people can say “No” to your script and it doesn’t matter if one says “Yes.”
Eventually, with Hilary’s help, I learned about the marketplace and satisfying the marketplace and broke through. I started writing movies that were necessarily my favorites personally—even though I liked them a lot—but they met certain commercial criteria. They clearly made you think of a poster right away. They had a clear target market. And they were a style of movie that could be executed within the budget that would make it profitable.
I know a lot of people wonder when they hear this. They wonder if I’m selling out, if I’m being too commercial. To me, I saw it as yet another creative challenge, and I continue to this day to find that challenge interesting. You think it’s easy to create a commercial hit? Try it someday.
I challenge people who think it’s easy to rise up to the craft that it takes to write a commercial hit. There’s definitely snobbery involved with various films, such as indie film versus studio and artsy versus commercial. It’s ignorant. It takes a great deal of craft to write an entertaining, popular, successful movie. Anything else you want to try, good luck to you.
Mike: How do you see the relationship between screenwriter and agent?
Snyder: In a perfect world, I’d go in and pitch a list of ideas about 2-3 times a year. To which my agent stops me at some point and yells, “That’s the one!” What you need is someone trustworthy and honest and blunt, someone who’s not afraid to tell you when something’s really bad. Someone who knows the current market well enough to know what I can deliver. Bottom line, it’s a partnership like any other. I've been very lucky. I’ve learned something from every agent I’ve had, and nearly everyone has made a sale for me.
Mike: What do you think of all the screenwriting contests these days?
Snyder: Amazing, huh? It’s the fad right now. Everybody seems to love sending their stuff to contests. My thought on this: Why? The key ingredient of knowing whether you’re a successful screenwriter is when someone buys a script from you, not winning some contest. When you make a sale is when you know you’re onto something, when you know you’re on the right path.
Mike: What’s the No. 1 avoidable mistake that beginning screenwriters make when submitting their screenplay?
Snyder: Make sure the concept is strong. That will open a lot of doors for you. And including a nice query letter with your concept will get you a lot of attention as well.
The truth is, if you have something that someone wants, you can’t make mistakes. Everyone is looking for the next hit. This is why I focus so much on the logline in my book.
I have run across people who are totally tone deaf about concept. I could tell them about concept and “poster” and “loglines” all day long and they won’t get it. I think that’s the biggest stumbling block to success.
What is this movie about? That’s the key question when you’re pitching someone. We are busy people, with plenty of stuff to occupy our time and attention. So, how are you going to break through that haze and communicate an idea to me? How can you capture my imagination?
Mike: What makes for a perfect logline?
Snyder: A perfect logline is a poem. I have to see the movie and the poster and it has to intrigue me. The best ideas are ones where when you say it, anyone who hears it immediately chips in with suggestions.
Mike: During the writing process, how do you know when a scene is working or not?
Snyder: After a while you start to set up some rules for yourself. What’s the conflict? How do you start off emotionally? How do you end emotionally? How you satisfy that goal? It is kind of hard to explain, but I think that there is that thing about what is boring and what is fun. It’s hard to do a scene analysis, but if you’re reading the script and you can’t stop turning the page, that’s a good sign. For me, momentum is important. If a scene is a problem for me it’s because it stops me from reading. Why that is and what I have to do to fix it differs every time.
Mike: How has your writing improved over the years?
Snyder: Screenwriting is a craft. It’s full of tricks. And that craft and those tricks can be learned with experience. For instance, what’s wrong with a story becomes clearer faster, and I love that. I am better at it now because I am no longer afraid to say I’m wrong, or fix some part that’s just limping along, dragging the rest of the story down. I also think my writing has benefited from other kinds of writing I’ve done. In my occasional periods away from the business, I’ve written a weekly Internet column, a novel, and articles for magazines and newspapers—that has all helped my communication skills tremendously.
Mike: Have the style and requirements of scripts changed drastically in the last decade?
Snyder: Yes, a lot. When I started my career, a typical script was 120 pages long. If it was 119, people that matter in the business might read it, might not. Now, scripts are between only 90-95 pages.
Mike: What caused such shortening?
Snyder: Short attention spans.
Mike: Do you listen to or read pitches from aspiring screenwriters?
Snyder: Every single day. I’m approached all the time from 20-year-old screenwriters, and I absolutely love it. I’m always telling writers: “Send your best pitch to me. Let me hear your idea.” I’m thrilled to hear new ideas, and I try my best to give the most helpful feedback I can. But I’m a big believer in giving the screenwriter the truth about his or her chances to sell their script. The truth is, I’ve turned over many a student to my agent or producer friends of mine in the past. If you can intrigue me with your log line and your structure, I’ll help you. I am happy to provide that service for the industry. Because I think the industry needs new blood, new writers all the time. It’s also very rewarding for me personally.
Mike: Do you read full scripts as well?
Snyder: Yes, if they hooked me with their pitch first.
Mike: How long does it take you to figure out if you have potential hit on your hands?
Snyder: I can tell you if your movie has a chance in the first 2-3 pages. I could look at a script from across the room and know whether it’s been written by an amateur or a professional. If I see big blocks of dialogue or thick descriptions, I know that the writer doesn’t know what he or she is doing.
Mike: What should an aspiring screenwriter do to become better at doing the craft?
Snyder: Obviously, I think you need to read books like mine. But also read the ones written by greats in the industry such as Syd Field and Robert McKee. And go to screenwriting workshops and seminars. I’ve been to a couple of McKee’s seminars. He’s such a great performer. His intensity is very inspiring. Any aspiring screenwriter should find a way to go to one.
And, above all, practice, practice, practice.
Mike: Should I read a lot of scripts?
Snyder: As many as you can.
Mike: Any ones in particular?
Snyder: I would be as current as possible. Look at what’s being made now and what’s hitting it big and try to figure out why. And stick to your own genre. Each genre has its own rules and regulations.
Since my genre is PG comedy and family, I studied Wedding Crashers. What a great script! From title to concept, it was perfect. People think it’s just a silly movie. A lot of people don’t like it. But it made $200 million. And they made it for $40 million. I want to know why it was such a big hit.
Mike: You live in Beverly Hills, right?
Mike: Do you think it’s important for aspiring screenwriters to live in the Hollywood area to make it bigtime?
Snyder: I think that planning a trip out here is definitely a good idea, not just to network and make good connections but also to get a lay of the land. I don’t, however, think you need to live here to have a successful screenwriting career. I do think you have to get an “in” with successful film people and have them be a core group of allies.
I wouldn’t advise an aspiring screenwriter to come out here until he or she has a good reason—which means they have a meeting with someone, or a few people, interested in their script. Try setting up four appointments for a week if you can. And every time you go to one of these meetings, ask for a referral. One question I always asked: “Do you know anybody else who might be helpful to my career?” It’s a myth that big people in the business will be cold to you and slam doors in your face. These people usually want to help you. If you’re a reasonably nice person—and not a stalker—they likely will, because they’ve all been there. Plus, they don’t know who you might turn into. You might be the future Martin Scorcese.
Mike: So, you should always be looking to extend your network?
Snyder: Absolutely. Every little connection leads to a bigger connection. And always remember that it’s just six degrees of separation or less to knowing somebody that can help you. Believe me, you know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who can help you in your writing career. Everybody does. It can as simple as knowing a guy who cleans pools for an executive in Bel Air. He can get your script to that guy. The trick is, doing your networking without being obnoxious or silly or outrageous. You want to get attention, but not cross the line. Just carefully, calmly make inroads and try not to burn bridges. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the people to whom you’re trying to give your script.
Mike: When do I stop pitching my script?
Snyder: I trust the look in someone’s eye. If they have a twinkle, I’m ok. If they look away and say, uh, huh, I’m in trouble. If too many people are looking away, I know I have to reassess things: What’s missing from the pitch? What elements do I need to work on? What do I need to include or exclude?
Mike: What are the realities of the business?
Snyder: That it’s very hard to sell even one script. That even the best screenwriters typically sell scripts without them ever getting made into movies. That out of the 50,000 scripts registered with the Writer’s Guild last year, maybe 20
got purchased and of those 20 maybe one will get made.
So, in the end, your script is not a finished product. It’s merely a possible blueprint.
Mike: What online resource sites would you recommend?
Snyder: There’s the Hollywood Creative Directory at:
I would definitely make that your bible. It’s updated every quarter, and the addresses and phone numbers and sometimes the emails of anyone who’s anybody in the business.
Another wonderful site is:
Mike: Any final words of advice?
Snyder: When you come up with a new movie idea, pitch it to real people. It’s more important to get the opinions of strangers than friends. You’ll know fast how good it is by pitching to people with no vested interest in your writing career. It’s THE best way to find out if what you have is gold—or just dust. Pitch it to the person in front of you on the line in Starbucks. Pitch it to the guy behind the counter in the drug store. And especially pitch it to people buying tickets to movies. Find out what brought them to the theater. Was it a concept? Was it the star? Was it the special effects? I mean, we screenwriters are all working for the same goal—get the people into the theater and give them a great experience. So go to the source. You’ll be surprised at what great ideas you come up with.
Remember that concept will always will be KING! The hook is vital for getting all of us interested—agent, producer, studio, AND ticket-buyer. Lure people to your movie with a concept they can’t wait to see, regardless of who’s starring in it, and keep their attention with great storytelling—which will always be in fashion.
Learn to tell a great story and you will always be in demand.