Why do 99% of movies follow the same formula?

Why do 99% of movies follow the same formula?

Because they address our most basic anxieties, our fear of death and our drive to deny it.  Denial of death is what I call a meta-institution. That means an institution (defined by Veblen as a crystallized habit of thought or life) that is globally dominant and pervasive. No place, country, society, culture or whatever group is immune.  We all create and nurture death-denying institutions. Sometimes they involve religion, sometimes not. Business is as good at death denial as religion is. There is no way that the film industry can escape our basic drive to deny death.

Death doesn’t necessarily mean what happens to you when your brain and body stop functioning. It can mean poverty or social death and isolation. In this sense death denies us the good life but leaves us, zombie-like, to live out our physical lives with not much of anything interesting to experience or for which to look forward.

The film industry barters in death, social or physical, worldly or eternal. So, you’ll often see a person die in movies but generally that’s considered a sacrifice for the survival of our favourite death-denying meta-institution, the one that promises us eternal life of one kind or another. The hero, that person or group that personifies the triumph over death, occasionally dies in a movie, but always with the proviso that what they’ve fought and died for lives on. From war movies to romantic comedies, the formula is always the same as is the outcome. Of course there is a lot of variation in how the formula plays out and how long an individual movie spends on any particular part of the formula, but that doesn’t negate the existence of the formula itself.

Triumph over complacency, attack from various quarters (earthly or otherwise), disease, rejection, isolation, poverty, or what-have-you, is the bread and butter of the film industry.

Want to produce a blockbuster movie? This is what you gotta do.

The  eight part formula you must follow if you want to create a blockbuster movie.

Create a world where there is nothing much going on (at least for a short time). It may be a purely internal world. It may be on a space ship. It may be under the sea. It may be a battlefield, on POTUS’s airplane, in small town USA, wherever. It doesn’t matter much what kind of world you create. Set it in the past, present or mythical future, or a mix of all three (Terminator). Everybody is going about their business and although it’s not essential that everybody be happy, they should at least be leading fairly straightforward lives even if they’re in prison or on a planet penal colony in the Andromeda galaxy. In fact, their lives may be a shitpot, but that doesn’t matter as long as there isn’t much going on. Play innocuous music in this part.Terminator

Have something dire happen in your world. Shit happens so make it happen. It might be the world coming to an end, a dam busting, a war, a famine, running out of water, going crazy, an alien attack, a whoever attack, needing to tell your parents that you’re gay, having a spouse cheat on you or die, go to jail, get out of jail, having your superpowers sapped by some evil genius, having disreputable people move next door. You get the idea. Get the big Japanese drums going. Big music has to happen here unless your movie is about coming out of the closet or unrequited love (Her), then you can play Adele.

The poor helpless schmucks in your world are at a loss for what to do (Dirty Dancing). Don’t make it easy for them, it would make a silly movie to do that. Make them suffer.  Some might even die because of what happens in 2 above, but that’s not important. The important characters must live. This is where you make sure people know that traditional leadership has failed schmuck world. The mayor is an ass, the boss absconds with the cash, the adults dismiss any action and seem to just want to lie down and die. Things look very bad, very bad indeed.

Then make the situation really bad, so bad that the world is coming to an end. Don’t pull any punches here (Mad Max). Sadness is great here. Lots of sadness, mayhem, bad shit. There’s no logical expectation of survival for the good guy(s).

But, aha! all is not lost! One special, kind of a nobody schmuck gives a speech to rally the troops, or ‘digs down deep’ to find the courage to do something. He or she or both or even a group become(s) the hero(es). This is the defining moment in your movie. Don’t blow it. Don’t get maudlin or sappy.

The schmucks get organized. Watch out bad guys. Training often happens at this point and equipment is gathered to take on the enemy. Play upbeat music in this part and keep dialogue at a minimum.

The climax. Very important. You need a climax where the good and bad are caught in deadly battle. This has got to be good. No holding back here. Time is of the essence. It’s preferable if someone dies here especially the villain unless you’re planning a sequel. It may be that you just knock off one of your lead character’s many personalities, that can be fun). Whatever happens you need resolution here.

The dénouement. This is when all the action is done, people are back to ‘normal’ or at least they know what’s up and the imminent danger has passed.  The good triumph although sometimes it’s hard because there’s a ‘bad’ guy acting good (Unforgiven).  Explanations happen at this stage. We have to know about Darth Vader after all. We can all go home knowing the world is set to right, at least until the sequel.


I challenge you to name a movie that doesn’t follow this formula. Well maybe one or the other of Wes Anderson’s movies or some obscure low-budget indie effort.

So why are movies so formulaic? I address that in my next post. Stay tuned.

This formula also happens in TV shows, even sitcoms. Professional sports tries to emulate this formula as much as it can, not always successfully although it does try hard to create the us/them dichotomy culminating in ‘real’ rivalries (Canucks and Flames).

  • images from IMBd