I remember way back in late 80s/early 90s the New Zealand Film Commission brought Robert McKee out to deliver an abridged weekend version of his 3-day seminar. Lots of people from the local industry were there: producers, directors, screenwriters, playwrights, actors and drama coaches etc. This was the first time we were exposed to the concepts of script structure and it caused a huge controversy, to wit: the formulaic versus the instinctive; the Americanisation of world’s storytellers versus the fight for cultural integrity. Just look at the film “Adaptation” if you want a good laugh at the conflicting arguments (funny - but accurate!), and Brian Cox plays a great Bob McKee. I believe Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh were there, Jackson having recently become chummy with Jim Booth, the head of the Film Commission at the time and who had championed a home movie of Jackson’s called “Bad Taste” and snagged some Film Commission funding to finish it off. Jackson and Walsh have great scripting skills, that much is obvious, but I think it was this initial exposure to script analysis that shaped their abilites and subsequently led to Jackson’s popularity in Hollywood for a while as a “script doctor”, doing script polishes and even writing one of the Nightmare on Elmstreet sequels.
The N.Z. Film Commission became rather enamoured with the Script Gurus roaming the globe and selling their services for thousands of dollars a day (remember, this was the late 80’s, the age of the almighty corporate Consultant), and they were particularly keen on Linda Seger who came out several times to coach locals on how to be a script doctor. Pretty soon everywhere you turned you’d run into a gaffer or makeup artist or clapper loader’s second cousin’s hairstylist twice removed who had an opinion about this script or that. You could tell whose gospel they subscribed to according to the buzzwords they would throw into the conversation: McKee = “inciting incident”, Seger = “catalyst”, Field = “setup”. I was working as a film editor at the time and I couldn’t cut two scenes together without the director musing over whether the sequence was “in tune with the spine of the protagonist’s character arc” or “defied the resolution of the thematic subplot” etc.
IMO, when all’s said and done, you need a certain knack for storytelling and if you don’t have it then you could allocate metres of shelf space to the hundreds of books available on the subject and you’d still turn out garbage. OTOH, if you have the write stuff then what you can learn from these books can provide you with some very useful tools to appraise your own work. The key thing is to have the creativity to come up with an original, compelling idea. It’s too easy to believe you could take any boring old cliche-ridden potboiler and turn it into an inspired work of genius just by applying the rules you learned from the pages of McKee/Seger/Field et al. But if the idea ain’t there, then no amount of polishing is going to make it shine. That’s a lesson I learned as a film editor: if the next Great Film isn’t in the dailies, then it won’t be there in the edit either.
The contents of McKee’s book is almost identical to the seminar. I think it’s one of the better books out there, mainly because it covers alot more ground than simply film scripts. Alot of what he says is useful in all types of stories. He obviously spent alot of time considering Aristotle’s precepts, the Greek fables, Joseph Campbell, Shakespeare etc. and applying it to the modern film drama. Some of his stuff is pretty theoretical (e.g. the categorisation of “open” murder mysteries vs “closed” murder mysteries) and has about as much practical use as Christian Metz and his semiotics (which is to say, useful for your Film Studies class but not much else), but this is where McKee’s stuff differs from all the others and makes it all the more interesting.