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Plotting Commercially Successful Screenplays:
The Art of Gratifying Expectations
By R. K. Bechtel


I. Introduction

II. Moviegoer Expectations
   a. Motion Picture Production Code
   b. The Three-Act Structure
   c. Three-Act Structure in Romantic

   d. Audience Expectations in
       Romantic Comedies

   e. The Cost of Disappointing

    f. Signature Content Expectations

III. Adapting Screenplays from

    a. Bringing Literary Plots Up to
        Code—and Down

    b. Risk of Lightening the Dark Side

IV. Remaking Originality
    a. Nothing New Under the Sun
    b. Flight to Fantasy and Science

    c.The New Originality:The Feature
       Film Serial

    d. Can there be Original
       Screenplays in the New

V. Genres Based on Series of

    a. Film Noir: Genre,
       Cinematographic Style or Both?
b. Neo-Noir: Genre,
       Cinematographic Style or Both?

VI. So What?


Two disparaging words often used by film critics are disappointing and predictable. Ironically, anything disappointing fails to meet expectations. And anything that meets expectations is predictable. The critic will counter that he expected the film to be unpredictable, that is, original. In fact, an original plot is far riskier than one that delivers the expected. For instance, several classic films celebrated today for their originality—e.g., “Bringing Up Baby” (1938), “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), “Vertigo” (1958)—were panned by critics and disappointed at the box office. They became classics thanks to profits from re-releases and television.

Plots of commercially successful films gratify moviegoers’ expectations more than their imaginations. Film is a medium that appeals instantaneously to emotions rather than reflectively to the intellect. The expectations that are gratified or disappointed are shared by moviegoers, ergo their origins are cultural and biological. I do not need to think in order to expect George Clooney get the girl or Denzel Washington to vanquish Russian gangsters.

The geneses of these expectations are usually less important than a century of cinema that hardwired them into moviegoers. Decades of filmmakers learning what does and what does not gratify audiences has made audience expectations ever more acute and the risk of disappointing them ever more perilous. And yet, this truth is so counter intuitive that it is taboo for critics and invisible to moviegoers. Both criticize something a film does when often they are disappointed by something the film does not do.

But while visuals and dialogue create the illusion of plot originality, moviegoers are beginning to sense something is stale about the traditional two-hour feature film. We will examine here why the need to gratify expectations is responsible for this perception and how some filmmakers are trying to solve the problem. Be aware that the only measure of a successful or unsuccessful film in this analysis is its box office profitability.


Since the advent of sound, Hollywood has drawn heavily on novels for plots and plot devices. That is particularly true today given the imperative for a film to succeed during its opening week and even opening weekend. The box office of a film based on a bestseller usually benefits opening week from fans of the novel. That’s not to say that this guarantees success. Sell 10,000 copies of a novel during the first week of publication and it becomes a New York Times bestseller. Sell 10,000 tickets opening week to a $20 million feature film and the film will lose theater screens quickly on a fast track to not being screened at all. Adapting a novel into a screenplay for a general audience requires, like any successful screenplay, ensuring the plot gratifies moviegoer expectations that have been instilled by the Motion Picture Production Code, the structure of the film’s genre, and other sources specific to cinema.

a.) The Motion Picture Production Code (Hayes Code)

In 1930, Jesuit priest Daniel Lord and Catholic parishioner Martin Quigley proposed a code that would require Hollywood films to depict “the correct standards of life.” The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) approved the code that year, but did not enforce it until 1934 when the industry feared government intervention. The code would become popularly known as the Hays Code, named after Will H. Hays, president of the MPPDA from 1922 to 1945.

The code reflected the values of Caucasian law-abiding church-going heterosexual monogamous Americans. Its censors would reign over Hollywood until 1968, when the Hays Code was replaced by a movie rating system overseen by the Classification and Rating Administration. Although gone, the Hays Code is not forgotten. Most of its do’s and don’ts still govern films rated “G” (all ages admitted), “PG” (parental guidance suggested), and PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned). Moreover, there are expectations instilled in moviegoers by the Hayes Code that makers of “R” and “NC-17” films dare not disappoint.

Among them: No villain shall go unpunished. By villain we do not mean any criminal or wrongdoer, such as the protagonist conmen in “Oceans 11, 12 and 13” (2001, 2004 and 2007) or even the protagonist Dean Whipple (Zac Efron), guilty of involuntary manslaughter, in “At Any Price” (2012).¹  A villain is decidedly evil compared to the protagonist or, if the villain is the protagonist, compared to his or her antagonists. Most villains kill, maim or otherwise wrong morally superior people for profit, amusement and/or ego gratification.

1. It’s debatable whether Dean Whipple (Zac Efron) in “At Any Price” is an exception to rather than the outer limit of today’s Villain Rule. Certainly his fate would have been different had the film been subject to Code censors.

Rare are films like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) which somehow escaped censorship under the “villain rule.” The film’s murderer, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), has run away to Europe with his slain wife’s fortune when his hapless accomplice, Judy Barton (Kim Novak), plunges from a mission bell tower to end the film. One senses that the Hayes Code is the butt of a joke when Hitchcock chooses a nun to frighten Judy over the edge. In any case, Kansas girl and department-store clerk Judy takes the fall for rich sociopathic megalomaniac Gavin. As previously mentioned, “Vertigo” disappointed critics and disappointed at the box office.

Probably we would expect villains to be punished had there never been a code.  It seems likely that American mores would have eventually rewarded films that punished villains and punished films that did not.  However, the key word here is   eventually. Enforcement of the Hays Code began in the middle of the Great Depression when anti-establishment sentiment made folk heroes out of criminals like John Dillinger and Al Capone. This populous sentiment was one big reason why the Hays Code was proposed, adopted and enforced. Sans the code, who can say when moviegoers would have begun to expect villains to be punished and be disappointed when they were not?

We do know that repeal of the Hays Code was no reprieve for most villains. Quite the opposite: filmmakers discovered that punishing villains with a severity befitting their villainy translated into profits. Laying the foundation for this expectation were the bitter ends of super villains such as Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes franchise starring Basil Rathbone.  The character of Moriarty appeared in three films, was played by three different actors and was killed screaming as he fell 1) from the Tower of London [“The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939)], 2) through a trap door to the sewer 60 feet below [“Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon” (1942)], and 3) from a crumbling penthouse ledge [“The Woman in Green” (1945)]. 

But while the Holmes franchise is an example of the detective mystery genre, the action crime genre has profited most from liquidating super villains. Leading the way was the James Bond hit “Goldfinger” (1964), in which we see the seemingly indestructible thug Oddjob fried as he tries to separate his steel-brimmed bowler from an electric cable, and a rotund Auric Goldfinger sucked through a smashed window of his private jet at 30,000 feet. Electrocution and fatal falls would become the action genre’s favorite ways to whack super villains.

Our favorite examples include: 

  • “Where Eagles Dare” (1968), in which exposed traitor Col. Turner (Patrick Wymark) commits suicide by stepping off an airplane high above the Alps;
  • “Die Hard” (1988), in which terrorist-robber Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) plunges 40 stories from an office building;
  • “Under Siege” (1992), in which Wiliam Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones) has his eyes gouged by Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal) before Ryback thrusts Strannix’s head into a live computer monitor;
  • “Under Siege 2” (1995), in which terrorist-extortionist Travis Dane (Eric Bogosian) has his fingers cut off by a closing helicopter door sending him plunging into the inferno of a wrecked train;
  • “Taken” (2008), in which Byan Mills (Liam Neeson) straps  human trafficker Marko Hoxha (Arben Bajraktara) into a chair, interrogates him with electric shocks to his testicles, then turns on the juice and leaves;
  • “The Equalizer” (2014), in which Russian mafia kingpin Vladmir Pushkin {Vladimir Kulich) electrocuted in his bedroom bathroom by a floor electrified by Robert McCall (Denzel Washington). 

The rule is audiences tolerate displays of super villainy with the expectation of catharsis at the climax. In “Silver Streak” (1976), we see mass murderer Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan) wounded, lying on his side and extended from a locomotive as he sees a passing locomotive about to smash his face. Audience reaction: Sweet!  In the box office underachiever “Firewall” (2006), Bill Cox (Paul Bettany),the leader of kidnappers holding hostage the family of Jack Stanfield (Harrison Ford) hostage, dies instantly and without much of a struggle when Stanfield swings a pick back over his shoulder and by a fluke strikes Cox in the back.  Audience reaction: Gyp!

b.) The Three-Act Structure

This generic plot structure shapes most Hollywood scripts in practically every genre.  Analyzing how plots comply with their genre’s three-act structure reveals expectations moviegoers bring to that genre. Anyone aspiring to plot a successful screenplay is wise to learn the expectations of its genre. This includes screenwriters adapting literature for the screen.

The three acts consist of set-up, conflict and resolution, a formula that dates back to plays of ancient Greece. A spinoff of this formula was dialectic—thesis, antithesis and synthesis—which, according to philosophers such as G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx, is the process by which history progresses. For these philosophers, history’s final synthesis is, like the final act of most Hollywood films, a happy ending.  

Below is a basic outline of cinema’s generic three-act structure:

Act 1 (Set-Up)

  1. Introduction of the Protagonist: We see the protagonist(s) before the event that launches the storyline, i.e., the First Plot Point. Act I can include a teaser that foreshadows action in the future, e.g., Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) plunders a golden idol from a tomb and escapes South American Indians allied with rival archaeologist René Belloq (Paul Freeman) in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). It can include a scene that foreshadows action in the past, e.g., the voice-over of Joe Gillis (William Holden) in the opening scene of “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) that shows Gillis’ drown corpse in a swimming pool.

  2. Time and Place: Without a reason to think otherwise, an audience assumes the action of a film is contemporary with the year of its release. The reason to think otherwise should be communicated by dialogue or caption. If the time is contemporary, place can be communicated solely by an establishing shot if its subject is iconic, e.g., the Golden Gate Bridge, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, etc. However, even then, place is usually also communicated by dialogue or caption unless the locale is negligible to the plot.

  3. Physics Not of this Earth: If time and place is an invention of science fiction or fantasy, inform the audience that action can break the earthly laws of physics. Introducing super powers or other physical anomalies to affect a storyline in progress is like changing the rules of the game after it has begun.
  4. Chance: An instance of chance that will impact the storyline should occur in Act 1. For example, in “North by Northwest” (1959), Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) gestures to a waiter who is paging “George Kaplan.” This causes thugs to mistake him as spy George Kaplan and abduct him in what is the First Plot Point.  An exception to the Chance Rule is a disaster that the audience expects from the historical significance of the film’s title. Such disasters are preceded by storylines of romance, drama, mystery and/or intrigue that make the disasters climaxes or Second Plot Points. Examples of such films include “The Hindenburg” (1975), “Titanic” (1997) and “Pearl Harbor” (2001).

  5. First Plot Point: This ends Act 1 and begins the storyline and character arcs of the protagonists.

Act 2 (Conflict)

  1. Protagonist Character Arc(s): Every protagonist is on a journey of innocence to experience. This journey is called the character arc and spans Act 2.

  2. Subplot(s):  Most subplots begin in Act 2 and conclude as late as Act 3. A subplot is subsidiary to the storyline. It enriches the plot and delivers insights into its characters. However, remove it and the outcome of the plot remains the same. For example, in “The Sting” (1974), Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) romances assassin Loretta Salino (Dimitra Arliss) who is posing as a waitress. A gunman hired to protect Hooker shoots Salino just as she is about to kill Hooker.   

  3. Second Plot Point: Commonly known as the climax, this plot point concludes the protagonist character arc(s).  It is the point when the protagonist knows all he must to try to resolve the conflict and now acts to resolve it.

Act 3 (Resolution)

  1. Resolution of Conflict:  The protagonist resolves the conflict or is defeated by forces opposing him. Antagonistic forces range from villains of every sort, law enforcement, disgruntled love interests, social inequity, social competitors, etc. The general rule, once enforced by Hollywood’s Hays Code, is that good endings come to good protagonists and bad endings come to bad protagonists. A good protagonist is can be morally flawed (the so-called antihero) provided he is morally superior to his antagonist. Bad protagonists are largely found in the crime and horror genres.

  2. Status of Main Characters: Moviegoers should not leave the theater wondering: “What happened to . . .?” Loose ends need to be tied up if they have not in Act 2. This is particularly true of the fates of villains; the audience needs to know the villain was adequately punished. Such information can be communicated by dialogue as it is in “Titanic” (1998), in which female protagonist Rose, now an old woman, remarks that shipwreck survivor and villain Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) was later financially ruined in the stock market crash of 1929. However, Hockley was guilty of attempted murder only. The demise of murderers is usually graphic.

  3. Conclude Remaining Subplots: Every subplot should conclude with the audience understanding how the subplot related to the plot.

c.) Three-act Structure in Romantic Comedies

Below we break down the three-act structures of seven highly successful films in the romantic comedy genre. Please note that audience expectations of this genre differ from other romance genres. For instance, in romantic comedies, conflict arises between boy and girl. In a romantic thriller, conflict arises from an outside force pitted against boy and girl, e.g., the Nazis in “Casablanca” (1942); an elitist and homicidal fiancé and sinking ship in “Titanic” (1990); the Adjustment Bureau in “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011).  

Successful Romantic Comedies & Protagonists

  • “It Happen One Night” (1934)
  • “Pillow Talk” (1959)
  • “Manhattan” (1979)
  • “Pretty Woman” (1990)
  • “Wedding Crashers” (2005)  
  • “27 Dresses” (2008)
  • “Trainwreck” (2015)

Peter (Clark Gable) Ellie (Claudette Colbert)
Brad (Rock Hudson) Jan (Doris Day)
Isaac (Woody Allen) Tracy (Muriel Hemingway)
Edward (Richard Gere) Vivian (Julia Roberts) 
John (Owen Wilson), Claire (Rachel McAdams)
Jane (Katherine Heigl), Kevin (James Marsden)
Amy (Amy Schumer) Aaron (Bill Hader)

Act 1 (Setup)

For reasons we will discuss, the romantic comedy is an urban -oriented genre set in the here and now. The vast majority of romantic comedies, good and bad, are set in New York City.

Time & Place

  • “It Happened One Night”: Present 1934, U.S. East Coast, New York City
  • “Pillow Talk”: Present 1959, New York City
  • “Manhattan”: Present 1979, New York City
  • “Pretty Woman”: Present 1990, Los Angeles and Beverly Hills
  • “27 Dresses”: Present 2008, New York City
  • “Trainwreck”: Present 2015, New York City

First Plot Point

First Plot Point: The urban setting is one where boy and girl can meet as strangers. The genre became a Hollywood staple in the late 1950s and early 1960s coinciding with young women leaving home en masse to attend college or join an urban work force rather than live with their parents until married. Accordingly, moviegoers expect to see the start of the romantic relationship. They also expect this first meeting to be cute if not “meet cute,” a term defined as a first meeting that is not only cute but by chance.

  • “It Happened One Night”: Boy finds girl in meet cute. Peter (Clark Gable), a newspaper reporter, and Ellie (Claudette Colbert), a runaway heiress, quarrel over sharing a bus seat. He soon recognizes Ellie and promises to reunite her with her fiancé in exchange for an exclusive story.
  • "Pillow Talk": Boy finds girl in meet cute. By chance, Brad (Rock Hudson) and a girlfriend are seated at a nightclub table next to Jan (Doris Day) and the inebriated son of one of Jan’s interior design clients. Eavesdropping, Brad discovers that Jan is the woman he has been feuding with on his telephone party line. He rescues Jan on the dance floor after her companion (Nick Adams) passes out, and then escorts Jan from the nightclub carrying her companion over his shoulder.

  • "Manhattan": Boy is already dating girl. Tracy (Muriel Hemingway) is a high school student whom Isaac (Woody Allen) is dating but not seriously.  At a fundraiser, Isaac encounters Mary (Diane Keaton), mistress of his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy), and the two become attracted to each other.
  • "Pretty Woman": Boy finds girl in meet cute.Having difficulty driving his lawyer's Lotus and lost in Hollywood, Edward (Richard Gere) encounters hooker Vivian (Julia Roberts) and asks directions to Beverly Hills. She drives him there herself proving to be a far better driver of the sports car than he.
  • "The Wedding Crashers": Boy finds girl. John (Owen Wilson) targets bridesmaid Claire (Rachel McAdams) at her sister’s wedding reception and introduces himself by amusing her with his predictions of the contents of wedding presents.     
  • "27 Dresses": Boy finds girl in meet cute. Kevin (James Marsden) revives Jane (Katherine Heigl), who is knocked unconscious in a scramble for a bridal bouquet.
  • "Trainwreck" Girl finds boy.. Amy (Amy Schumer) is a writer for a men's magazine who is assigned to interview Aaron (Bill Hader), a sports medicine doctor. During the interview she receives a text from her sister insisting that their father be moved to a cheaper care facility. Amy hyperventilates, but is calmed by Aaron who suggests they dine together.


  • "It Happened One Night": NA
  • "Pillow Talk" Jan’s housekeeper Alma (Thelma Ritter) arrives at work everyday hung-over. She becomes the romantic interest of the elevator operator, Harry (Allen Jenkins).
  • "Manhattan": Yale is having an affair with Mary. Meanwhile, Isaac’s ex-wife (Meryl Streep), now a professed lesbian, is writing a book about her failed marriage to Isaac.  

  • "Pretty Woman": Edward is a New York corporate raider in Los Agents of the father to spin off the assets of a targeted company.

  • "The Wedding Crashers": John’s wedding crashing accomplice, Jeremy (Vince Vaughn), has sex with Claire’s sister Gloria (Isla Fisher) at the wedding reception. Gloria convinces her father, William (Christopher Walken), to invite David and Jeremy to their estate for the weekend, where Gloria corners Jeremy into a romance.

  • "27 Dresses":Believing she is in love with her boss (Edward Burns), Jane watches helplessly as her boss becomes romantically involved with her sister (Malin Akerman).
  • "Trainwreck": NA

Act 2 (Conflict)

Character Arcs

In romantic comedies, Act 2 includes the beginnings and ends of the character arcs for both the boy and and girl protagonists.

  • "It Happened One Night": Peter's prejudice against Ellie for being one of the privileged rich dissipates with familiarity and finally love. Ellie's sense of superiority to the street-smart newsman dissipates with familiarity and finally love.
  • "Pillow Talk":Brad is a womanizer who jumps at the challenge of seducing a wholesome woman only to fall in love with her. Jan’s contempt for a playboy composer she knows only from a telephone party line unwittingly turns to love for a man she thinks a wholesome Texan.
  • "Manhattan": Isaac's inability to commit to Tracy turns to a longing to get her back. Tracy idolizing Isaac succumbs to the realization that she needs to move on, although possibly temporarily only. 

  • "Pretty Woman": Edward evolves from an obfuscating and manipulative corporate raider to Vivian’s image of a knight on a white horse. Vivian’s arc is a version of Cinderella—i.e., hooker to princess. 
  • "The Wedding Crashers": John crashes a wedding targeting bridesmaid Claire for a one-night stand only to find himself spending the weekend competing for her affection with her fiancé, Sack (Bradley Cooper). Claire’s misgivings about her fiancé come to the fore when she quickly becomes attracted to John.  
  • "27 Dresses":Jane is a serial bridesmaid who dreams of marrying her entrepreneur boss (Edward Burns) but, in spite of herself, is attracted to a reporter covering her boss’ wedding to Jane’s sister (Malin Ackerman). Kevin’s disdain for marriage, occasioned by having been left at the altar and reporting for a newspaper’s “Commitments” beat. This attitude dissipates as he falls for Jane.
  • "Trainwreck" :Amy is a promiscuous party girl who resists whose growing affection for Aaron conflicts with her conviction, instilled at childhood by her father, that monogamy at childhood that monogamy is unrealistic. Aaron has not dated for six years before he dates and falls for Amy.

Second Plot Point

  • "It Happened One Night": Boy loses girl." As Ellie sleeps, Peter drives to New York to ask editor for an advance to marry Ellie. Seeing Peter’s car gone, motel owners eject Ellie, who believes Peter has deserted her to collect her father’s reward money.

  • "Pillow Talk": Boy loses girl. Jan discovers Brad is not a Texas oilman but instead the playboy composer who is sharing her party line.

  • "Manhattan": Boy loses girl. Tracy decides she will attend university in England.

  • "Pretty Woman": Boy loses girl. Edward asks Vivian to spend one more night with him, not because he is paying her, but because she wants to. She refuses.
  • "The Wedding Crashers": Boy loses girl. Claire discovers through Sack that John has lied to her about who he is.

  • "27 Dresses" Boy loses girl: Jane discovers that the published article Kevin has been researching is a Sunday feature not about her sister's nuptials but about Jane having been a bridesmaid 27 times.

  • "Trainwreck": Girl loses boy. Amy is Aaron's date at a banquet when Aaron receives a prestigious award. As Aaron gives his acceptance speech, Amy leaves the room to take a call from her boss.

Act 3 (Resolution)

The Happy Ending
  • "It Happened One Night": Boy gets girl. Peter meets with Ellie’s father and, refusing to take any reward, demands only $39.60 in expenses. Ellie deserts groom King Westley at wedding to elope with Peter.
  • "Pillow Talk" Boy gets girl. Brad abducts Jan from her bed and carries her through the street to his apartment, which Jan has tackily redecorated. Brad fumes that he wanted a redecoration because he no longer intended to be a bachelor. The two makeup and marry.
  • "Manhattan": Future of boy and girl uncertain. Trying to dissuade Tracy from leaving New York for London, Isaac tells her he fears she will change. She responds not everyone becomes corrupted, suggesting someday they might get back together.

  • "Pretty Woman": Boy gets girl. Edward is enroute to the airport when he orders the hotel chauffeur to drive to Vivian's apartment building, where he leaps from the white limousine's sun roof and "rescues her."

  • "The Wedding Crashers":Boy gets girl. At the wedding of Jeremy and Gloria, John publicly declares his  love for Claire. When Sack tries to interrupt, Jeremy sucker punches him unconscious.

  • "27 Dresses": Boy gets girl. Jane finally kisses boss (Edward Burns) and discovers that she does not love him.  She goes to a wedding being covered by Kevin and professes her love. The two marry.

  • "Trainwreck": Boy gets girl. Fired by the men's magazine, Amy sells her article about Aaron to Vanity Fair and sends Aaron a copy. The two reunite at a basketball game, where they declare their love and kiss.

Subplots & Main Characters
  • "It Happened One Night": Opposed from the get-go to King Westley becoming his son in-law, Ellie's father bribes Westley to forget being left at the altar.

  • "Pillow Talk": Brad has apparently made up with Jonathan (Tony Randal) because the film ends with Brad en route to Jonathan’s office to tell him he is about to be a father.

  • "Manhattan": Emily confronts her husband Yale about Mary, who decides to leave Emily for his lover. Mary dumps Isaac to reunite with Yale, causing Isaac to appreciate Tracy.

  • "Pretty Woman": N.A..

  • "The Wedding Crashers": Jeremy falls in love with Gloria and the two marry, their wedding bringing Claire and John together. At the wedding, Jeremy sucker punches Sack, paying him back for unnecessary roughness during a touch football game.

  • "27 Dresses": Having been dumped by George, Jane’s sister Tess makes up with Jane. Tess and George cordially meet again at the wedding of Jane and Kevin.
  • "Trainwreck": NA

d.) Audience Expectations in Romantic Comedies

Based on the above films save one, the three-act structure of the romantic comedy is boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. This is the structure Hollywood found successful with audiences and continued to deliver causing audiences to expect it.

The one exception on our list is Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” This film so departs from the romantic comedy structure that, contrary to popular labeling, we must conclude “Manhattan” is not a romantic comedy at all. Clearly the film is a comedy; ergo the issue is whether the film is romantic.

The social change that inspired the romantic comedy argues that it is a genre more popular with women. That’s not to say that men do not appreciate films like “Pillow Talk” or “Trainwreck.”  However, films in the romantic comedy genre are often and for a reason tagged “chick flick.”  Never mind that romantic comedy fans would likely be disappointed by “Manhattan’s” a semi-happy ending for a homely middle-aged man and an attractive 17-year-old high school student. The definitive question here is: Who would go to a film starring Woody Allen expecting Woody to get the girl?  Answer: Not many—especially female fans of romantic comedies. While Bill Hader is no Clark Gable and Owen Wilson is no Rock Hudson, these actors are far more suited to be romantic leads than Woody Allen. Compared to Allen, Wilson and Hader are endearing not only in looks, but in personality.

Gratifying the expectations of female moviegoers is critical to success in this genre. The leading man should be someone with whom female moviegoers can vicariously become involved. The sex appeal of the female protagonist is less important to female moviegoers than that she be someone with whom they can identify. Gratifying this expectation is more important than treating men to a 10. Men are drawn to these films largely because they are “date movies.”  

Other than “Manhattan,” the films above indicate the following expectations should be gratified to ensure a successful romantic comedy:

  1. Attractive Male Protagonist:  For the screenwriter, this means giving the leading man situations to express a personality endearing to the female moviegoer.

  2. Empathetic Female Protagonist: The female protagonist must be someone with whom the female moviegoer can identify.

  3. Cute First-Time Meeting: Protagonists meet as strangers or at least for the first time after a long time. The meeting should be the stuff that would makes for a humorous and/or charming anecdote.

  4. Worldly vs Idealistic: One protagonist is worldly and somewhat cynical in contrast to the other protagonist who is idealistic and/or naive.

  5. Character Driven Plot: Character arcs, once commenced, must drive the plot. The essence of a romantic comedy plot is that two strangers meet and interact until their character arcs merge in true love. Love occasioned by anything other than the protagonists’ free will is not true.

  6. Break Up: The protagonists split because of a lie, misunderstanding or miscue for which the worldly protagonist is responsible.

  7. Happy Ending: The protagonists reunite after trust is restored and love is professed.

e.) The Cost of Disappointing Expectations

The importance of gratifying the above expectations is evidenced by the many box office failures that disappointed them. Of course, criticism of these films never includes: “The plot was not what I expected.” But despite the different critiques of feature film bombs, a plot analysis almost invariably reveals a disappointed moviegoer expectation. Conversely, the list is short of films that ignored one or two expectations but nonetheless succeeded.  

Examples of each are two films directed by Rob Reiner: the very successful “When Sally Met Harry” (1989) and the bomb “And So It Goes” (2014).

When Harry Met Sally” (1989)

Protagonist Meg Ryan fits the bill as a leading lady, but co-protagonist Billy Crystal is midway between Woody Allen and Rock Hudson as a leading man. In looks, that is. Unlike Woody, Billy has a warm personality allowed to be all the warmer because the film’s conflict arises not from dishonesty, misunderstanding or miscue, but from the protagonists debating whether sex prevents men and women from being friends. Crystal‘s character believes it does, Ryan’s character believes it does not. The issue is the common denominator of character arcs that span more than a decade of periodic encounters. The resolution that culminates in a happy ending is that true friendship between a man and a woman is achievable only through marriage. The debate over friendship and sex successfully replaced the usual boy-girl conflict because its question gripped romantic comedy moviegoers. However, to work, the male protagonist could not be too sexy. What heterosexual woman would just want to be friends with Rock Hudson?

Rob Reiner wouldn’t be so lucky 15 years later:

"And So It Goes" (2014):

Protagonists Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton do not meet cute, although there is nothing cute about Douglas’ character to meet. While he is hard and worldly compared to the soft and sentimental Keaton, he is also self-absorbed and misanthropic. Some critics have compared him to Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets” (1997), a successful romantic comedy in which Diane Keaton was also the co-protagonist. But unlike Nicholson, Douglas offers female moviegoers nothing to love unless their hearts throb to his 70-year-old scowling face. Keaton, who was 17 years younger when starring in “As Good As It Gets,” is also a little too long in the tooth for many men to want and women to want to be. It’s a small audience indeed that is interested in the love lives of senior citizens.

The foremost testimony to the power of expectations is the number of failed films that disappointed the same expectation. Such is the case, for instance, of the flops "Simply Irresistible" (1999) and "Accidental Love" (2015).

"Simply Irresistible" (1999): Expectation

Cute as cute can be are protagonists Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sean Patrick Flanery, both restaurateurs. Meet cute they do when a live and magical crab that Gellar is pursuing scrambles up Flanery’s leg. However, the character arcs of the protagonists are shaped largely by magic that leads to girl losing boy because he thinks she has bewitched him. The film’s actual sorcerer is the crab, who has taken up residence in Gellar’s kitchen. The few moviegoers who liked this film thought magic turned the trick. Those who disliked it saw crab finds boy, crab loses boy, crab gets boy.

"Accidental Love" (2015)

The crab in the kitchen of “Simply Irresistible” becomes a nail in the skull of Jessica Biel in “Accidental Love.” The nail is embedded accidentally by a workman firing a nail gun just as our leading lady is proposed to by James Marsden. The nail, which Jessica cannot afford to have removed, causes behavior changes for better and for worse, the latter leading Marsden to dump her. More than once are we told words from Jessica’s mouth are “the nail talking.” It’s never clear which wins the heart of leading man Jake Gyllenhaal.

What's in a name? Nothing that romantic comedy fans care to see if the leading man is named “Mr. Wrong.”

“Mr. Wrong” (1996)

Some loved this film. Some hated it. Important to us are those who didn’t see it at all. Don’t blame stars Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Pullman for this movie flopping. “Mr. Wrong” didn’t need word of mouth and critic reviews to tank during its opening weekend. The title alone announced this chick flick won’t click. Lesson being: Women don’t need Hollywood to experience an unhappy ending in love. And absent female coercion, most men avoid a movie whose poster pictures a bride. It’s been said “Mr. Wong” is also a black comedy. Maybe so, but the fans that made hits of black comedies “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “Fargo” (1996) didn’t think “Mr. Wrong” made a right.

Comedy in romantic comedies should not come at the expense of audience expectations about romance. Such is the lesson of . . .

“All About Steve” (2009)

Stars Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper are veteran romantic leads. Cooper’s character is a worldly network television cameraman and Bullock’s is a cloistered and naïve creator of newspaper crosswords. The two meet on a blind date. However, rather than being cute, Bullock is nuts—nuttiness underscored by the red disco boots she wears everywhere. The result is girl finds boy and girl loses boy in the same scene. This leads to the longest Act 3 in memory. What passes for a happy ending is summarized by Bullock: "If you love someone, set him free; if you have to stalk him, he probably wasn't yours in the first place."

f.) Signature Content Expectations

Signature content is specific action and/or dialogue expected from a genre, franchise or filmmaker. In the movie “Scream” (1996), characters joke about the signature content of slasher films, each joke followed by the action joked about. Rose McGowan’s character, for instance, tells partying friends she’ll “be right back,” a signal, her friends say, that she is about to be murdered, which she is fetching beer alone in a garage.

But why would slasher fans be disappointed by the absence of signature content? For one, it relieves tension. For instance, “I’ll be right back” alerts the audience to brace for a horrific murder. The most horrific horror films are those in which moviegoers never know what to expect next, e.g., “Psycho” (1960), which originated the slasher genre.   

Some content deemed signature of a franchise did not originate with the franchise. Fans of “Scream” extol the originality of the film’s opening scene, which became a franchise signature. The scene consists of a leading female star, Drew Barrymore, alone in an isolated locale where she is stalked indoors by a bizarrely disguised maniac and finally and shockingly stabbed to death with a butcher knife. However, replace Drew Barrymore’s name with Janet Leigh’s and you have the shower scene in “Psycho.”  The originality of “Scream” lay in making this scene its first.

The perceived risk of “Psycho’s” originality forced Alfred Hitchcock to film in black and white, use Universal’s television crews and finance the film himself for $807,000. Psycho’s budget would have amounted to $4.2 million in 1996 when “Scream” was produced for $15 million. “Scream” earned a box office of $173 million despite its mimicry. Of course, if noticed, such mimicry is easily explained away in Hollywood by one word: “homage.”

Signature Endings

Signature endings are more common than signature beginnings. An example of a simple signature would be the endings of the James Bond franchise from 1962 to 1985, in which Bond (Sean Connery or Roger Moore) cuddles with his leading lady. The image of the couple lying not standing gratifies the expectation of Bond fans that this happy ending is about lust not love.

Lust may have had something to do with the signature ending in gothic horror movies starring Vincent Price. The ending has Vinny grandiosely incinerated at night inside a burning mansion, castle or museum. The film’s lame plots suggest that the toasting of Vinny is an ending by default.  However, these are “make-out movies,” so-called in the 1950s and 1960s because their fans were teenage drive-n moviegoers who appreciated that few people, particularly their parents, would want to see a make-out movie. The blaze that consumes Vinny and his domicile provides a shock of light that drive-in moviegoers expected as an alert that the film is about to end.   

The most plentiful and most substantive signature endings come to us from detective film franchises. Below are four signature endings, each of which begins with signature dialogue and/or action that signals to the audience that the solution to the mystery is about to be revealed.

  1. The Thin Man: Retired private detective Nick Charles (William Powell) has been drafted by circumstances into assisting police with a murder investigation. The ending is announced when Nick directs the police to assemble all the suspects in one room. The detective recounts events and how he believes they relate to the suspects. His observations finally prompt his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) to ask how he can say such derogatory things about the suspects. “It’s the only way it makes sense,” Nick responds. He continues bantering with the suspects and then declares: “I’ve been waiting for someone to make a slip. Well, someone has.” Nick names the killer who, until that moment, is the most improbable murderer in the room.  Unable to refute Nick’s reasoning, the murderer attempts to escape but is subdued.

  2. Sherlock Holmes: The detective’s sidekick Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) makes a seemingly insignificant remark which causes Holmes (Basil Rathbone) to exclaim, “Say that again!” When Watson repeats his remark, the detective responds, “That’s it!” In the next scene, Holmes confronts the villain and describes in detail the clues pointing to his guilt. The villain tries to escape but is subdued or killed as the police arrive. Holmes then reveals how Watson’s comment led him to the solution of the mystery.
  3. Poirot:  Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) asks all the suspects to assemble to hear his solution to the murder. Often an official has authorized the detective to investigate the crime(s) because the police are unavailable. Poirot recounts clues as they point to each suspect and appears on the brink of accusing each. However, not until he describes the most recent clues does he point the finger. The other suspects combine to ensure the murderer can be delivered to police. Often the locale is one that would make escape difficult if not impossible.

  4. Scooby-Doo:  This franchise has produced two feature films and plans a third. It has also produced several animated movies. An homage to its signature ending is found in the feature film “Wayne’s World” (1992).  The “Scooby-doo ending” is announced when Fred (Freddie Prinze) creates a mechanical trap to catch the villain. Once caught and unmasked, the seemingly supernatural villain is revealed to be a very human character in the movie. Velma (Linda Cardellini) and Fred explain how and why the villain did what he did.

Signature Character

By signature character we do not mean the screen persona of an iconic actor, particularly stars of Classic Hollywood whose screen images were crafted, nurtured and maintained by studios. It’s true that leading actors forge personas or types that moviegoers come to expect. Conversely, playing against type can be risky business no matter how popular the star, e.g., John Wayne playing Genghis Kahn in the bomb "The Conqueror" (1956). However, type is an issue for casting not screenwriters. By signature character we mean a character archetype played by different actors that becomes expected in the work of a specific filmmaker.   

A leading example is the “Hawksian woman,” a female character found in the films of director-producer Howard Hawks over the course of three decades. The Hawksian woman was an independent and self-assertive woman before the modern feminist movement. She was capable of teasing John Wayne until he blushed and Humphrey Bogart until he whistled. She becomes one of the good guys earning her own nickname, e.g., Rosalind Russell is “Hildy” in “His Girl Friday” (1940), Lauren Bacall is “Slim” in “To Have or Have Not” (1944), Margaret Sheridan is “Nikki” in “The Thing From Another World” (1951),  Angie Dickinson is “Feathers” in “Rio Bravo”(1959),  Elsa Martinelli is “Dallas” in “Hatari!” (1962), Michele Carey is Joey in "El Dorado" (1967). The Hawksian woman made Hawks' films a favorite of early feminists who came to expect this character and made Hawksian woman a term of art.


A must-read novel does not necessarily translate into a must-see movie. Film is a visual medium that appeals primarily to emotions as opposed to literature, which appeals primarily to the intellect. Reading about the slaughter of children in the novel The Hunger Games is one thing; watching children slaughtered on film is another. The challenge of the screenwriter is to tell a novel’s story as faithfully as possible while gratifying moviegoer expectations.

a.) Bringing Literary Plots Up to Code—and Down

For good reason was author James Elroy giddy over Hollywood buying the rights to his crime novel “L.A. Confidential.” Describing the novel set in 1950s Los Angeles, one critic wrote:   “Elroy's disdain for Hollywood tinsel is evident at every turn; even the most noble of the characters here are relentlessly sleazy.” Those characters are mainly LAPD detectives, including the novel’s three protagonists.  The film ends happily for one protagonist, an ambitious Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), whose character was dialed down by screenwriters Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland from homicidal sociopath to antihero. In the film, Exley bravely corners and shoots three armed black men suspected of murdering nine people at the Nite Owl café. In the novel, the men are unarmed and offer solid alibis to Exley, who nevertheless shoots them in cold blood.

At the angelic end of the spectrum is “Troy” (2004), a film based on Homer’s epic poem “The Iliad,” whose plot was modified to vilify certain protagonists.  Despite being popular since the Bronze Age, “The Iliad” posed a structural problem for filmmakers, i.e., Homer portrays major combatants, both Greek and Trojan, as heroes. Considered the Bible of ancient Greece, “The Iliad” embodies the belief that immortality consists of society remembering an individual’s heroism. The “Iliad” is a testament to heroism.

War film audiences, however, expect to root for one side over the other. To present heroes on both sides invites emotional ambivalence that moviegoers usually attribute to a confusing plot. However, vilifying the Trojans was impractical because their leaders, King Priam and his eldest son Hector, are arguably the noblest of Homer’s characters. Vilifying the Greeks, on the other hand, was a nonstarter because it would not only vilify star Brad Pitt (Achilles), but the cultural origin of Western civilization. The solution of screenwriter David Benioff was to vilify the two Greeks most responsible for the war—Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) is portrayed as a brute largely to blame for wife Helen fleeing Sparta with house guest Paris of Troy.  Moviegoers would not share the cultural value of ancient Greeks that Paris’ violation of Meneleus’ hospitality was an unforgivable sin. Agamemnon (Brian Cox) then seizes upon Helen’s desertion as an excuse to plunder Troy. To underscore Agamemnon’s opportunism, the screenplay conveniently ignores that events set in Troy were the final weeks of a 10 -year war. Agamemnon also defiles a woman intimate with the Greeks’ foremost hero, Achilles (Brad Pitt).

True to the Hays Code, both Menelaus and Agamemnon die in the film. This contradicts not only “The Iliad,” but its sequel “The Odyssey,” in which Menelaus and Helen are together again in Sparta. It also ignores mythical history that inspired Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon,” a play in which the king returns home from Troy only to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra.

b.) The Risk of Lightening the Dark Side

When John Huston adapted The Maltese Falcon into the 1941 film that he would  direct, two movie versions of the Dashiell Hammett novel had already been released—“The Maltese Falcon” (1931)  starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels; and “Satan Met a Lady” (1936) starring Warren William and Bette Davis. Huston’s film would eclipse both of its predecessors thanks partly to performances by Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, but more importantly because Huston seized an opportunity rarely available to screenwriters: he scripted a film meticulously faithful to the novel. 

By contrast, the 1931 pre-Code version written by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes emphasized sexual themes that would become taboo in 1934.  The 1936 version written by Brown Holmes emphasized comedic scenes à la the box office hit “The Thin Man” (1934), also based on a Dashiell Hammett novel.  Huston’s film would emphasize the shadiness of the novel’s characters and be credited with introducing a new genre to Hollywood detective films—film noir. The 1940s and 1950s would see Hollywood produce several film noir detective films, including classics such as “Laura” (1944), “Murder, My Sweet” (1944), “The Big Sleep” (1945) “Out of the Past” (1947) and “The Narrow Margin (1952).

The pattern which doomed the 1936 comedic film was repeated as recently as 2015 in the making of “Victor Frankenstein” starring Daniel Radcliff and James McAvoy. Here screenwriter Max Landis wanted to imitate the box office successes of “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) and its sequel “Sherlock Holmes: The Game of Shadows” (2011). Specifically, he wanted to bring to the horror genre modern and snappy repartee displayed by Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.), Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) and other characters in these detective films. Like screenwriter Brown Holmes, who thought detective films required no further classification, Max Landis believed a horror film is a horror film.  Aggravating his mistake was the title “Victor Frankenstein,” a name synonymous with gothic horror, a genre in literature a century before it was introduced to film in the 1920s.    

Gothic horror gave us Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, Ligeia, the Phantom of the Opera, Princess Asa Vajda, Hugh Crain, etc. The title “Victor Frankenstein” would appeal most to gothic horror fans expecting a mad baron, a grunting hunchback, grave robbing, a mob with torches and pitchforks and, above all, a monster terrorizing the countryside. What they got is mainly a bromance between Victor Frankenstein and Igor that blossoms when Victor removes a cyst that is the cause of Igor’s hunchback. Igor is a circus clown who has, when not clowning, devoted his time to studying medical textbooks. So impressive is Igor’s expertise (in anatomy, physiology and biochemistry, not clowning) that Victor adopts him as his protégé. The two men conduct experiments on animal parts at Victor’s university until Victor is expelled, then travel to Scotland and resume their work at the estate belonging to a rich friend of Victor. In the meantime, Igor becomes romantically involved with an attractive trapeze performer named Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), who then causes a rift between the two protagonists. So it goes—on and on—until the film’s closing minutes when we finally see the monster. So disappointing is (it? he?) to Victor and Igor that they mortally stab each of the monster’s two hearts. So disappointing was “Victor Frankenstein” to moviegoers that its $34.2 million box office fell short of its $40 million production cost.

Gothic horror is a genre that can be spoofed but not lightened. Spoofs (e.g., “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948) and “Young Frankenstein” (1974)} actually belong to the comedy genre (gothic horror comedy). We should also note that some critics have categorized “Victor Frankenstein” under the neo-noir horror genre.  Assuming this classification is valid, the lesson here is that makers of neo-noir horror films should not use gothic horror icons for their characters.


Every element of the human experience that can be plotted has been plotted, most several times, by filmmakers over the last century. This conclusion is evidenced by 1) the burgeoning number of movie remakes and homages, 2) the profitability of serial movies, and 3) the success of films in the fantasy and science fiction genres. Originality is best left to actor personas, clever dialogue, camera blocking, special effects and locales—not plot. 

a.) Nothing New Under This Sun

A wave of remakes began at the turn of the millennium and continues to surge today. The number is so extensive that our sampling below consists of a different genre for each year from 2001-2018. Our examples also bear the names of their respective original films, something not the case for many remakes. We include the dates of the original films and their remakes.

  • Heist Drama: “Ocean’s Eleven” (1960, 2001)
  • Science Fiction Drama: “Solaris” (1972, 2002)
  • Fantasy Comedy: “Freaky Friday” (1976, 2003)
  • Romantic Comedy-Drama: “Alfie” (1966, 2004)
  • Disaster: “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972, 2005)
  • Heist Comedy: “The Pink Panther” (1963, 2006)
  • Romantic Comedy: “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972, 2007)
  • Science Fiction Horror: “Day of the Dead” (1985, 2008)
  • Musical Drama: “Fame” (1980, 2009)
  • Action Fantasy: “Clash of the Titans” (1981, 2010)
  • Psychological Thriller: “Straw Dogs” (1971, 2011)
  • Comedy-Drama: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1947, 2013)
  • Science Fiction Superhero: “RoboCop” (1987, 2014)
  • Action Thriller: “Point Break” (1991, 2015)
  • Western: “The Magnificent Seven” (1960, 2016)
  • Romantic Musical Fantasy: “Beauty and the Beast” (1991, 2017)
  • Musical Drama: “A Star is Born” (1976, 2018)

b.) Flight to Fantasy and Science Fiction

Challenged to devise original plots that reflect actual human experience, Hollywood has turned to super human experience and fantasy. Make no mistake—audience plot expectations remain largely the same and must be gratified for films to succeed. Whether an audience is taken to hunger games; domains of vampires and zombies; or a galaxy far, far away, it brings with it the same expectations about romance, villainy, heroism, etc. However, science fiction and fantasy do rejuvenate old plot formulas by packaging them in make-believe worlds where every type of person--man, woman and child—can be a “kick ass” protagonist.

Of the 20 top grossing films in history, the genres of 16 were either science fiction or fantasy. (The total is 17 if you believe Batman is too fantastic to actually exist.)

1. “Avatar” (2009):

2. “Titanic” (1998)

3. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015)

4. “Jurassic World” (2015)

5. “Marvel’s: The Avengers” (2012)

6. “Furious 7” (2015)

7. “Avengers: The Age of Ultron”

8. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” (2011)

9. “Frozen” (2013)

10. “Beauty and the Beast” (2017)

11. “The Fate of the Furious” (2017)

12. “Iron Man 3” (2013)

13. “Minions” (2016)

14. “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)

15. “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (2011)

16. “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003)

17. “Skyfall” (2012)

18. “Transformers: The Age of Extinction” (2014)

19. “The Dark Knight Rises”(2012)

20. “Toy Story 3” (2010)

$2.78 billion

$2.18 billion

$2.06 billion

$1.67 billion

$1.51 billion

$1.51 billion

$1.40 billion

$1.34 billion

$1.27 billion

$1.26 billion

$1.23 billion

$1.21 billion

$1.15 billion

$1.15 billion

$1.12 billion

$1.11 billion

$1.10 billion

$1.10 billion

1.08 billion

$1.06 billion





















It’s true that the biggest surprise and moneymaker of 2013, the animated musical-fantasy “Frozen,” dared disappoint an expectation instilled in many moviegoers by the fairytale and Disney film “Sleeping Beauty” (1959). In “Frozen,” a troll tells Princess Anna she will freeze solid unless “an act of true love” reverses a spell. Kristoff, who loves Anna, rushes to the castle where the princess is held captive. In the nick of time is Anna rescued, but not by a kiss from Kristoff, but by a hug from Anna’s sister, Elsa. Some commentators credited the success of this ending and the movie itself to the feminist empowerment movement. What is certain is that the secret of “Frozen’s” success lies with the little people who made it possible. Chances are, having not been exposed to fairytales and 20th Century Disney movies, these pre-schoolers to second-graders had no expectation to disappoint and identified more with sibling love than romantic love.

c.) The New Originality: The Feature Film Serial

“The Godfather Part II” (1974) is often described as the best sequel ever filmed. We argue that “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather Part II” are better regarded as one six-hour film that had two episodes separated by a two-year intermission. That same decade, George Lucas plotted the Star Wars trilogy presaging the two characteristics that have come to define most modern blockbusters—scientific/fantasy genre plotted as part of a two-, three- or more part serial. By serial, we mean a series of films that are episodes in an overarching plot, as opposed to a series of sequels with unrelated plots.  Lucas, who said he was inspired by B-film serials of the 1930s, conceived the plots of “Star Wars” (1977), “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Return of the Jedi (1983)—known also as Episodes IV, V and VI—before the first film “Star Wars” was produced.  These plots and the films’ overarching plot were indeed B movie. But every film in the trilogy proved to be a blockbuster because 1) their fantasy/science fiction genre enabled creation of an original physical reality, and 2) each film is a subplot to an overarching plot which allowed for multiple plot points, character arcs and subplots within subplots.  Since then, many of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers have been serials largely plotted before film production—e.g., “The Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “The Twilight Saga,” “The Hunger Games,” etc. The one difference: the plots of all came from novels.

The feature film serial enables a plot and even subplots to span multiple films. It also permits the development of multiple and more detailed character arcs in different genres to commence in one film and conclude in another. It’s true that structures of two and even three genres—e.g., action romance drama—can be found in traditional feature films. However, only so many three-act structures can successfully be accommodated by a two-hour film. While audience expectations remain largely the same for feature serials, different genre structures can coexist and climax at different points. To wit: only an episode in a serial would dare end with co-protagonist Han Solo embedded in carbonite as a prisoner of Jabba the Hut. Rather than disappoint expectations, this ending in “The Empire Strikes Back,” whets the audience’s appetite for the serial’s next episode, “Return of the Jedi!”

Countless combinations restore to plotting the potential for originality otherwise delivered only by visuals and entertaining dialogue. Uncertain is whether 1) a successful feature series can be in a genre other than science fiction or fantasy and 2) whether future feature series can join the Star Wars franchise as one based on original screenplays.

d.) Can there be Original Screenplays in the New Originality?

With the extinction of B movies, original serials have been the province of television. The most successful serials produced by cable networks—particularly HBO and AMC—have approached the production value of medium budget feature films. Of course, success for cable networks is largely measured in new and retained subscribers, many of whom regard as must-see serials like “Sex and the City” (1998-2004), “The Sopranos” (1999-2007), “Entourage” (2004-2011), “Mad Men” (2007-2015), “Breaking Bad” (2008-2013), “The Walking Dead” (2010-) and “Game of Thrones” (2011- ).  Two of these serials—“Sex and the City” and “Entourage”—Inspired feature films after their television runs. The film “Entourage” (2015) flopped, but “Sex and the City: The Movie” (2008) grossed $450 million on a budget of $65 million, and its sequel, “Sex and the City 2” (2010), grossed $294 million on a budget of $95 million. Interestingly a number of critics dismissed “Sex and the City: The Movie” as an extended episode of the cable serial. We would argue this was the very reason it succeeded so well.

However, this offers no insight into whether an original movie serial can be greenlit. The Sex and the City franchise is not only based on an HBO serial, but the HBO serial is based on a book authored by Candace Bushnell. Moreover, the most recent cable serials listed above are also derivative—“The Walking Dead,” based on Marvel comic books, and “The Game of Thrones,” based on novels by George Martin. The fact both serials are in the fantasy genre suggests cable networks are imitating the motion picture industry, not the other way around.

Even so, cable networks are far better suited to producing original serials than are feature filmmakers. Acquiring financing for any original screenplay is a hard sell unless an A-List director and one or more A-List actors have committed to the project. Most films today are remakes of old films or are based on history, novels, graphic novels, comic books, plays, television shows, video games and even a Disney World attraction. Plots are commodities whose value is ideally proven in another medium. Absent that, the task of financing a movie is daunting, let alone financing a serial. To extend plot lines from one film to another means the first film will not gratify all moviegoer expectations. For a serial to be successful, the moviegoer must leave the theater not disappointed that some of his expectations must wait two or more years to be gratified.

Finally and most important, cable networks own and control the means of their films’ distribution. In this sense they resemble the studios of Classic Hollywood, which owned and controlled the theaters that screened their films. That luxury was lost in 1948 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that owning the means of both film production and film distribution violated antitrust law. Because they control when and how often their productions are broadcast, cable networks can afford to give their productions time to build an audience. Motion picture producers, on the other hand, are at the mercy of theater owners. If a film does not succeed its first week—or weekend—or even opening day—the number of screens showing the film will quickly be reduced to none.


James Mallahan Cain, author of the novels “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity,” famously dismissed genres as a meaningless invention of critics. Cain was entitled to his opinion—at least regarding film critics—because critics labeled films based on his novels as film noir which, as we’ll see, is a nebulous term used to label a variety of black-and-white detective and crime films.  Cain’s criticism is also justified by the different genres that have been ascribed by different sources to a single film, e.g., the genre of “Now You See Me” (2013) is “mystery suspense” according to Rotten Tomatoes, “heist thriller” according to Wikipedia. Worse yet are the multiple genres that have been ascribed to single films by single sources, e.g., the genre of “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) is “action, adventure, crime, mystery, thriller” according to IMBd.  

For us, genre does not consist of every category of artistic composition in a film. We define genre as a unique series of plot expectations which can be classified by genus (e.g., comedy) and species (e.g., romantic). The function of our genre is not to inform moviegoers nor suggest direction/cinematographic style. It is to inform screenwriters, filmmakers, investors and anyone else with a vested interest in the success of a screenplay. And because expectations attach to character types, it also informs casting agents.

To begin classifying “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) and its sequel “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (2011), we need go no further than their film titles. Specifically, the character Sherlock Holmes has the distinction of being the first “consulting detective,” a term that became, when reality caught up with fiction, “private detective.” Given the great number of detective films, this leads us to posit “detective” as the genus of the genre. The second term most associated with Sherlock Holmes and detectives generally is “mystery,” and indeed, classic films describable as detective mysteries share the same plot expectations which justify mystery as the species.

Mystery was included in the IMBd list, but what about crime, action, thriller and adventure?

First, crime is superfluous in this instance because every detective mystery involves crime. As for action and thriller, these are certainly components of many detective mysteries. However, they are not essential to gratifying the plot expectations of detective mysteries. That’s not to say that action and thriller are not components of other genres; only that the genre of Sherlock Holmes is different from the genre of James Bond.  

This brings us to adventure, which is generally attributed to films like the two Holmes films that are set in a yesteryear world [e.g., “Mogambo” (1953), “Swiss Family Robinson” (1960}, “Raiders of the Lost Arc“ (1981),“Around the World in 80 Days” (2004)}, or are set in a world of science fiction {e.g., “Star Wars” (1977),  “Inception” (2010)] or in a world of fantasy [“The Princess Bride” (1987), “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012).  Past, future and fantastic settings enable filmmakers to portray locales foreign, exotic, mysterious, foreboding and largely unknown. Journeying to such locales is the first and primary moviegoer expectation of the adventure genre. “Mogambo” takes us on a safari to 1950s deepest darkest Africa, “Swiss Family Robinson” to an uninhabited South Seas island during the Napoleonic era, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to 1930s Tibet and Egypt, “Around the World in 80 Days” to 19th Century Asia and the American Wild West. Holmes, on the other hand, leaves England only in the sequel, and then to travel to turn-of-the-century Paris, hardly parts unknown because of Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Debussy, Ravel, Mistral, A. France, Chanel, Eiffel, Maxim, etc.

a.) Film Noir: Genre, Cinematographic Style or Both?  

Wikipedia lists the genre of “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) as “neo-noir” (neo Greek for new, noir French for dark), a term introduced to characterize hard-boiled detective and crime films post film noir. Defining neo-noir therefore begins with a definition of film noir.  

Film noir was a term coined by French critics to describe a wave of American black-and-white films released between 1941 and 1955. In this sense, film noir resembled a passing fine art movement such as Impressionism or a music style such as Disco. It reflected the dark mindset of moviegoers during and after World War II, its characters and plots offering a sharp contrast to Hollywood’s customary idealized heroes and happy endings.  

A question never definitively answered is whether film noir is a cinematographic style or a film genre. In terms of style, film noir uses shadows and diagonal composition to create a mood of tension, foreboding and fatalism. By this standard, many films qualify—too many, in fact—because the same style applies to many black-and-white crime and detective films  as well as horror films, such as James Whale's “Frankenstein” (1931). In fact, film noir cinematography had its roots in German expressionist cinema, which focused more on projecting states of mind than storytelling. If there is a cinematographic explanation to the sudden demise of film noir, it is the emergence of color. Not only did the color process become affordable in the in the mid-1950s, but it was considered a must for motion pictures to compete with television.   

However, film noir also applies to plot structure. Judging by film noir’s classic films, plots gratify one of two series of expectations that other detective and crime films do not. As such, they qualify as one of two genres—what we call detective film noir and crime film noir. Moreover, many of the expectations in both genres relate the one signature character of film noir: the femme fatale.  
Below are femme fatales of acclaimed films in each film noir genre followed by the respective plot expectations of the femme fatale in each genre:

Detective Film Noir:

  • Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)
  • Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) in “Laura” (1944)
  • Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) in “Murder My Sweet” (1944)
  • Vivian Sternwood (Lauren Becall) in “The Big Sleep” (1946)
  • Anna (Alida Valli) in “The Third Man” (1949)
  • Mrs. Phillips (Lynn Baggett) “D.O.A.” (1950)
  • Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers) in “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)                    

In this genre, the femme fatale is a woman of mystery—a mystery that the protagonist, usually but not necessarily a detective, tries to solve. Helping motivate him is the charm and seeming vulnerability of a woman attractive if not drop-dead gorgeous who appears to be in distress. The protagonist soon suspects the lady’s secret involves her link to one or more suspects in a murder or suspicious death that the protagonist is investigating. His suspicions narrow to the femme fatale’s connection to the film’s primary villain. The protagonist’s character arc ends when he learns the femme fatale’s secret and realizes she is either innocent or evil. The solution of her mystery is also the final piece of the puzzle to solving the criminal mystery.  If evil, the femme fatale dies or is arrested for murder.

The film “Laura” offers a twist to the beginning of this scenario. Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) becomes obsessed with advertising executive Laura Hunt through her letters, diary and portrait while investigating what he mistakenly believes was her murder. In fact, the victim of a shotgun blast to the face was one of Laura’s models, Diane Redfern.  When the detective discovers Laura is alive and that the victim was Redfern, the plot proceeds true to form. The detective finally arrests Laura for the murder, but only to interrogate her in the official surroundings of the police station, where she erases any doubt he has about her innocence. Simultaneously he is convinced that the murderer is columnist Waldo Lydecker.

Crime Film Noir

  • Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in “Double Indemnity” (1944)
  • Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) in “The Woman in the Window” (1944)
  • Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946)
  • Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947)
  • Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in “Out of the Past” (1948)

Again the femme fatale is beautiful and seductive, but in this genre she uses her charms—or appears to use them--to induce the male protagonist to commit a crime. She is married or attached to an affluent man whom the protagonist consciously or subconsciously aspires to replace despite his being a man of lesser means. His misguided objective is to get the girl, get the means to support her, and get away with it. This causes him to become hopelessly entangled in the femme fatale’s intrigue to escape if not murder her husband/boyfriend. The protagonist’s character arc ends with the realization that he has been trapped by the femme fatale in a situation likely fatal. The femme fatale dies violently and the protagonist, if a knowing accomplice, dies or faces prison.

Deserving mention here is the film “Gilda” (1946), which is widely considered a film noir classic. In terms of plot, this film reverses the character arcs of the leading man and femme fatale.  It is also the only so-called film noir classic in which the femme fatale, played by Rita Heyworth, receives top billing over the leading man, played by Glenn Ford. Gilda is married to Buenos Aires casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready). when she meets Johnny, a former lover now working for her new husband. This would have been a good film noir crime beginning except we also know Johnny does not need a femme fatale to lure him into misbehavior. Johnny was hired by Ballin after he was caught cheating Ballin’s casino at blackjack. Unbeknownst to Gilda and Johnny, during World War II Ballin laundered money of German businessmen to finance a tungsten cartel. The war now over, Ballin murders one of the Germans rather than transfer title. In the end, we discover there is nothing fatale about femme Gilda nor felonious about card shark Johnny. Gilda is guilty only of flirting with other men to make Johnny jealous, and Johnny, assigned by her husband to follow Gilda, is guilty only of verbally abusing Gilda. After Ballin is killed by a washroom attendant, Gilda and Johnny profess their love to complete character arcs of a romantic drama, not film noir crime.

B. Neo-Noir: Genre, Cinematographic Style or Both?

Those who dismiss the term neo-noir as meaningless claim it encompasses practically every detective and crime film that is not film noir.  This is fair criticism in terms of cinematographic style. Numerous color films labeled neo-noir are not visually noir or dark.  For instance, about every neo-noir list includes “Chinatown” (1974), a film in which director Roman Polanski said he took great pains to capture the particular golden tint of Southern California sunlight.
The validity of the term, if we accept it, arises exclusively from plot. In other words, neo-noir films are color films with the same plot expectations as either detective film noir or crime film noir. To identify films in both genres, namely detective neo-noir and crime neo-noir, we look at post-1955 color detective and crime films with femme fatales comparable to those of film noir:

Detective Neo-Noir

  • Judy Barton (Kim Novak) in “Vertigo” (1958)*
  • Evelyn Mulwray (Faye  Dunaway) in “Chinatown” (1974)
  • Helen Kruger (Ellen Barkin) in “Sea of Love” (1989)
  • Catherine Tramell** (Sharon Stone) in “Basic Instinct” (1992)
  • Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) in “L.A. Confidential” (1997)

 (*We include “Vertigo” because of its success after it was a box office disappointment.)

(**The evil femme fatale in “Basic Instinct” goes unpunished. This makes it one of the few films to successfully break The Villain Rule).

Crime Neo-Noir

  • Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) in “Body Heat” (1981)
  • Heather Evans (Kim Basinger) in “Final Analysis” (1992)
  • Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) in “The Game” (1997)
  • Laurie Ash (Rebecca Romijn) in “Femme Fatale” (2002)
  • Anne Merai-Harrison (Sanaa Latham) in “No Way Out” (2003)


A database could be created to determine when and when not a screenplay gratifies its genre’s plot expectations. Step 1 would involve identifying genres according to like expectations created by structure, character types, dialogue, the Hayes Code, etc. in a lineage of successful films. Genres would be based on successful films only because the database would be a tool intended for filmmakers and investors, not film buffs and historians. Step 2 would involve identifying the few films that succeeded despite ignoring certain expectations. Step 3 would identify films that failed to gratify one or more expectations and consequently failed at the box office. If such a database already exists, we must assume it was compiled on a proprietary basis given the many failures that could have avoided heeding such a database.

Of course, a screenplay could be evaluated by identifying how its plot compares to those of successful films that best represent its genre.  However, given the magnitude of the filmmaker’s risk, the need for exactitude argues for a comprehensive approach to identifying genre expectations. Our sense is that screenwriters are wise to be creative in everything—situations, locales, dialogue, and add-ons such as action, comedy, unique characters, etc.—except for moviegoer expectations in their screenplay’s genre.  



The author can be contacted at rbechtel@rkbechtel.com.

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