“It’s so formulaic.” The term is often bandied about by critics, who have come to encompass cookie-cutter film-making into one word. Coming from the word formula, the criticism is leveled at an apparent lack of inspiration, adhering to the safe guidelines laid out by previous films and storytellers. Whether trying to appeal to the masses or play it safe as a filmmaker, being “formulaic” has its pros and cons.
In the world of screenwriting, there are some classic structures for how to set out your story’s arc with various quadrants, turning points and necessary character types and hurdles. Sometimes it’s just easier to stick with the tried-and-tested way of doing things. Although you could argue that this can also be put down to laziness.
Pandering to the mainstream, the word ‘formulaic’ can be good or bad depending on who you ask. As with most cinema, there is a spectrum of interest with multiple divisions. The most classic being between arthouse and commercial cinemas, distinguishing the type of content with one favouring formula much more than the other.
The thing with formula is that some viewers actually like the films to be predictable, or predictable enough so that there aren’t any real shocks. Original content is much harder to pin down, isn’t as easy to read or follow and generally makes it more difficult to classify. Depending on your taste, you may tend to one or the other or enjoy both. Adhering to a formula, ensures that those watching your film will easily be able to follow the storyline. Leaning on a number of other similar films, which have also borrowed concepts, characters and ideas from classics, there’s a self-replication that tends towards what has worked in the past. This constant recycling of ideas may seem a bit soul-crushing but as we are constantly reminded Hollywood is ultimately a place of business.
Although, the idea of sticking to a blueprint is not only a Los Angeles tradition. While you can blame powerhouse studios for churning out a number of similar films, they’re really just doing what audiences want them to do, delivering fresh content in an easy-to-consume fashion. This probably explains why there has been a surge of reboots, remakes and live-action films, simply transforming an idea that has worked in the past into something with a new skin.
Bankable ideas seem to have replaced bankable stars, who are now less reliable in terms of picking a winning film. In the past, it may have been easier to miss reviews and find yourself in a cinema watching a terrible movie. Nowadays with information at our fingertips, you really have to go out of your way to avoid getting the down low. This may keep the experience fresh and have some value but it seems that studios have had to rethink the game. Understandably, it’s become a lot easier to dream up just about any concept with computer-generated imagery at the cutting edge, able to conjure up and represent almost anything with competing VFX houses working to just about any budget.
Across the pond in the UK, there are just as many formulaic films making headway. Take for example ‘Fisherman’s Friends’, which follows quite closely in the tradition of The Grand Seduction and The Full Monty. Centring on a small fishing village in Cornwall, and based on a true story, the movie has plenty of heart and spirit. Channeling the story of a band of fishermen and their melodic sea shanties, then turning it into something much easier to understand, makes it a crowd-pleaser and a cheerful jaunt.
Following a fish-out-of-water music producer who falls in love with the town, the music comedy drama has a number of familiar aspects. While these may take away from the artistic credibility they redouble the entertainment value. Charming, predictable and easy-going, formulaic films definitely have their place and an audience. You may not receive critical acclaim for creating something completely fresh and original, but making these kind of movies is all about getting audiences into cinemas and showing them a good time.
If you’re going to go headlong into formula, at least have the decency to give it a fresh spin or inject complex multi-faceted characters to avoid boring your audience to tears.