The Un-formulaic Life of the Man Who Invented the Movie Formula


Wycliffe A. Hill is the grandfather of the cookie cutter Hollywood movie.  Author of Ten Million Photoplay Plots: The Master Key to All Dramatic Plots, which was published in 1919, Hill created an assembly line approach to writing screenplays: character + dramatic situation + setting  = movie.

For example: “An old man wrongfully accused of a mine explosion + seeks refuge from a band of outlaws + with a woman whose house he enters for a hiding place.”

Each piece of the formula is interchangeable (the old man wrongfully accused could easily be a young man with a gambling problem), and Hill’s book consisted of numerous examples for each category to create an almost infinite number of (bland) plot combinations for would-be screenwriters.

Hill didn’t stop there though, eventually creating “an actual mechanical scriptwriting robot” and selling “Plot Genie books that used a board-game spinner for random plot generation.” Because why imagine a plot when you can just play ripoff Clue instead?

Unlike his screenplays though, which he actually struggled to sell, Hill led a life that could never be written by a screenwriting robot, eventually teaming up with a shady lawyer named Morgan Marmaduke and an imprisoned serial killer named Bluebeard Watson to search for a lost buried treasure in the hills outside of San Diego.

Learn the true story of Wycliffe A. Hill, “the man who invented the Hollywood schlock machine.”

Isaac Fitzgerald has been a firefighter, worked on a boat, and was once given a sword by a king, thereby accomplishing three out of five of his childhood goals. Formerly of The Rumpus and McSweeney’s and most recently the founding editor of BuzzFeed Books, Isaac is now the co-host of BuzzFeed News’ Twitter Morning Show, #AMtoDM. He also appears frequently on The Today Show to talk books, and is co-author of Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them and Knives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos (with Recipes) (winner of an IACP award), and the author of a YA novel and picture book forthcoming from Bloomsbury. He uses Twitter. More from this author →