The Guardian has called Robert McKee the “most influential storytelling theorist since Aristotle.” As a screenwriting instructor, he has taught students as illustrious as John Lasseter of Pixar and Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “A Beautiful Mind”, “The Da Vinci Code” and other films. For over 15 years, his Story Seminar has been the ultimate writing class for over 50,000 screenwriters, filmmakers, TV writers, novelists, industry executives, actors, producers, directors, and playwrights.
I took this class in July. This interview was recorded in September. If you have any aspiration to write for film, I highly recommend the seminar. I invited Bob to discuss the business of film with me, and it helped me gain clarity on a number of issues.
SM: Box offices have seen a surge in movie tickets sales as it looks as though people are going to the movies more during the recession. At the same time, there is a story crisis in Hollywood films. We see a lot of the same stories repeatedly. Why is storytelling facing a crisis?
RM: I agree with you. From the Hollywood point of view there is no story problem. It is not in crisis. They are making a lot of money and they are happy to do that. As a business, Hollywood is very pleased with their storytelling, and it is successful for them.
We think that storytelling is in crisis because we do not like the movies Hollywood is producing. To be clear, Hollywood by and large knows how to tell stories. The problem is not a crisis in storytelling. I have been teaching for 25 years, and they have a 100-year tradition behind them. Hollywood knows how to tell a story. The problem is not a crisis of form. It is a crisis of content.
We do not approve of the content of Hollywood films. Hollywood films are not intended for us. They are intended for young people. They are by and large action films, low-brow comedies, or the occasional romantic comedy. We are not their audience. People of a certain age and of a certain educational background are not Hollywood’s audience.
I have argued for years that the problem in Hollywood is a problem of content. These films are made by people who have nothing to say. They are made to be experienced by people who do not want to discover or learn anything in human nature or human relationships of any substantive kind. Hollywood is happy. We may not approve of their content, but they are doing fine as a business.
SM: If you look at the consumer population, there is a very large, wealthy population of baby boomers who are consumers of content. You are saying that Hollywood does just fine by ignoring that whole population from a business point of view.
RM: When we say Hollywood we mean Hollywood films. If we include television under the definition of Hollywood, then Hollywood television is doing extremely well in terms of content. Hollywood television has found the baby boomer market, and TV series for that market are doing extremely well, from “Six Feet Under” to “The Sopranos”, “Sex and the City”, “In Treatment”, “Damages”, “The Wire”, “30 Rock”, on and on and on. We are, in America, seeing a golden age of television. Right now the best writing in America is not in the novel or on the stage, or in film. Right now the best writers are flooding into television and are creating brilliant TV series, both comedies and dramas.
SM: What is the point of ignoring the more sophisticated film audience?
RM: Hollywood film does ignore that audience, while Hollywood television embraces it and is making a lot of money with huge audiences.
SM: Why does the Hollywood film industry ignore that audience?
RM: For two reasons. One, that mature audience is a fickle audience. They are less vulnerable to trickery. They will walk out or reject something the moment they sense that they are watching something which is not authentic. When you put a film out for that audience, if it does not have a certain quality or standard, then the first weekend the film will be badmouthed and will die immediately.
On the other hand, you can take films that are meant for young people who do not have the same standards. They will enjoy a film simply for its special effects. You can market to young audiences with more success by showing amazing CGIs despite the banality of the storytelling. One of the most successful films of the summer was “Transformers”, which could not be more banal in terms of storytelling. On the other hand, an equally successful film was “Up” from Pixar, which was very rich in storytelling. The same audience, more or less, goes to both of those films. They are just as likely to watch “Transformers” as they are “Up” because the storytelling is not the great factor, the effects are.