To McKee or not to McKee

A friend asked me if I would be offended should he spend $600 to go see McKee in Melbourne.

Years ago I happened to be in LA in the first days of release of the first edition of STORY (McKee’s bestselling book). I purchased two copies: one for myself and one for my best friend who had attended the story seminar a couple of times and who had told me McKee had never published. McKee autographed both. Mine says:

“To Karel. Tell the truth.”

So I will.

I have seen McKee a couple of times. He is entertaining, and has an impressive knowledge of cinema, both mainstream classics and arthouse. I think he’s worth the money – if you can afford it – for a whole weekend of entertainment. His guru-like performance also ignites inspiration with a lot of people.

But I have never found the level of practical, detailed and essential information that is required to successfully analyse and create screenplays. This I have found with other people such as Hauge, Vogler, Truby and Gulino.

McKee’s weekend story seminar was the basis for his book. It is a literal transcription.

A few years back UNK published a blog post on his experience of the story weekend and when I wanted to forward the link to my friend with the spare $600, I couldn’t find the article on his site. Fortunately Google had cached it and I have reprinted the cache below.  UNK’s post is entertaining and …

The Truth.
(From The Unknown Screenwriter)

“So I got my yearly Robert McKee brochure in the mail…

Last year when I received the exact same brochure, I read it over… Having never been to a McKee seminar but having been to every other screenwriting guru’s seminar, I figured it was worth the read…

After all, I had spent the money to attend the seminars of…

* Bill Martell
* David S. Freeman
* Syd Field
* Blake Snyder
* John Truby
* Michael Hauge
* Chris Vogler
* Chris Soth
* Screenwriting Expo

And, to be honest, I THOUGHT I had left the best for last… The piece de resistance if you will…

Uh… No.

The brochure last year AND this year said for me to be sure to read STORY before attending the seminar so that I would be intimately familiar with the material…

So I did.

Now I already had a copy of STORY that I purchased the first year it actually came out. I remember trying to read through it but holy shit… So much stuff to wade through back then…

On the other hand, I can read STORY today (which I did a year ago) and pull an enormous amount of material from it.

Make no mistake… From reading the book, McKee obviously knows his stuff.

Maybe too well… LOL.

Why do I say that?

Let me take you back to last October (from what I remember) in Los Angeles when I attended McKee’s seminar…

First of all, I was late. I ended up having to take the 405 freeway which I loathe and always try to avoid but a quick glance at my Google Map revealed that I had to take the 405 to get to Loyola Marymount University after all!

So after an easy extra hour of driving, needless to say, I arrived LATE.

I walk up and get my complimentary cup of coffee (thanks Bob!) just outside the building where the STORY seminar was being held, go inside to the tables where the assistants were very nice and directed me to the seminar.

While I stroll around the McKee tables toward the entrance to seminar I notice piles of the book, STORY…

Piles of the screenplay, CASABLANCA…

Piles of the STORY audiotapes…


So I enter through the seminar doors about an hour late and as I walk in I hear that “PHIFFFT” sound of a few hundred people turning pages…

A full house to be sure.

I find a nice little fold-up desk in the extreme upper left-hand corner of the room… Upper left-hand corner to Mr. McKee that is.

I didn’t know this but he had stopped in mid-sentence to wait for me to find a seat… I thought that was pretty nice of him but when I sat down and focused my attention down at him and his table, he didn’t seem that accomodating… LOL.


I sat down and smiled at him and when he felt like my entering the seminar was no longer an interruption, he continued…

He went on and I was impressed! It was like watching Hal Holbrook’s one man show of MARK TWAIN TONIGHT!

The only thing I kept finding strange was the consistent “PHIFFFT” of hundreds of pages turning every so often…

This captured my attention so I looked around and by golly if there weren’t hundreds of people turning pages as Mr. McKee progressed with his performance… er ah… course outline.

At first I was confused. Then I realized that everyone was following along in their book as he was going through WHAT I THOUGHT WAS HIS OUTLINE…

Was I missing something?

Oh yeah.

I ended up meeting a very nice female actor who was sitting next to me — also reading through the book as McKee did his schtick. When we finally had a break, I made an inquiry…

I asked: “Why is everyone going through the book while he speaks?”

She replied: “Because HE’S going through the book.”

I asked again: “You mean he’s going through the same topics?”

She replied: “No, he’s going through the book.”

I asked again: “You mean he’s looking at the book and expanding on the information?”

She replied: “No! He’s MEMORIZED the book and he’s going through it!”

I asked/stated: “SAY WHAT?”

She replied: “He’s going through the book word for word but he’s memorized it.”

I stated: “No fuckin’ way…”

She replied: “Yup.”

I asked: “And I paid over $500 for this?”

She replied: “We all did.”

Okay, so we went on a little more about it until the seminar started up again… I sat there in disillusionment.

And the rumors you heard about cellphones are in fact true… If you have a cellphone and it rings during his performance, you gotta give the guy $10.00 for interrupting. I actually liked that part of the seminar because I fucking hate cellphones and I hate people that leave their cellphones ON during any kind of seminar… Don’t EVEN ask me what I’ve done when a cellphone goes off in a movie theater… Let’s just say YOU DO NOT WANT ME IN THE THEATER IF YOUR CELLPHONE GOES OFF…


After lunch, McKee’s cellphone goes off… He’s looking around the audience… The audience is looking around the audience… Everybody is looking at each other until finally… He checks his own briefcase… He opens it up and sure enough, the ringing gets immediately LOUDER.

Everybody laughs and he turns off the phone and remarks, “I’ll pay myself later.”

The audience HOWLED for at least a minute… THEY LOVED IT!

I sat there with I know what had to be a stupid look on my face… I swear I was in the midst of mob-mentality… THIS GUY COULD DO NO WRONG!

At one point throughout the weekend, McKee talked about good and evil… When talking about evil, he pressed a button on a remote and a picture of Oliver North went up on the screen… Again, most everyone laughed except for myself and a very large man down in front who just happened to be a former Marine.

He stood up and said, “Fuck you old man!”

I for one was hoping this was going to get good but alas… Everyone in the seminar kept sticking up for McKee and told the guy to eat shit and get the hell out of there if he couldn’t handle it… Yada yada yada… LOL.

And, the former Marine did in fact leave only to show back up later and take on the mob mentality himself, by clapping and laughing at McKee’s every breath…

I had about all I could stand when, on Sunday, we started going through Casablanca… Of course, I didn’t buy his copy of the script so I couldn’t follow along but I have gone through Casablanca on my own many many times so I felt qualified to at least sit there and listen.

It was BRUTAL yet everyone was eating it up… I finally got up and hit the road. Thank fuckin’ God but I did go ahead and purchase Mr. McKee’s STORY audio book on cassette tapes (he didn’t yet have the seminar on CD).

As I eeked my way through the Loyola Marymount University campus on a late Sunday afternoon, I inserted tape number ONE.

And guess what?

He did memorize the book!

The only thing that was different on the tape were the jokes! Nobody laughed at his jokes hence, they were not funny… By the time I got back home, I was listening to him go through his discussion of CHINA TOWN.

Word for fucking word I listened to the tape and while I cannot say with 100% accuracy that he simply went through the book word for word (but why wouldn’t he?), these audio tapes were exactly what I had just paid over $500 to sit through on a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday when I could have been at home or my favorite coffee shop, WRITING.

So there you have it… You can get the entire three days on audio for $15.00 — well, that’s what it cost me at the seminar so it might be more if you purchase it elsewhere IF you can purchase it elsewhere…

*NOTE: I see over at Amazon, that he now has the book on CD… Nice. Anybody know how I can convert my cassette tapes over to CD?


So now the question… To McKee or not to McKee… Is that the question?

Is it?

If you want to witness the performance, by all means… Pay the $575 and see the one man show.

If you want the material, read the book. That IS the seminar. Better yet… Buy the book, buy the STORY audio CD and then follow along in the privacy of your own home, coffee shop, bathroom stall, etc…

My only regret is not actually paying $675 instead of $575.


For $675, I could have gotten the latest version of Final Draft instead of paying almost $200 for it about 2 months ago…

I never learn.”

-The Unknown Screenwriter

Here is another opinion, by John August. The disclaimer: John has written a few screenplays that manifestly stray from the generally accepted 3-Act convention. Up to you to decide if he’s a reliable source in this.

4 thoughts on “To McKee or not to McKee”

  1. Thanks Karel, I remember you telling me this in the Hero’s journey gold coast seminar. I am know tracking down his audio book. You were saying that he isn’t the best to study do you think I should scrap him and go for the other you suggested or is he good for the basics?


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