The “Less-Than-1%” Problem, in Movies.
The problem has 3 parts to it:
(1) 98% of screenplays go unmade… (Ouch.)
(2) Of the 2% of movie screenplays that ARE made, only 30% of them break even, (i.e., actually make a Return on Investment – aka, a `profit’ – as a movie.)
(3) This ultimately means: There is a [0.6, of 1%] chance of any given screenplay `succeeding’ as a film, other things being equal, and where “success” is defined as a `break-even’ film.
Below is a diagram that may help to explain the problem. In one way, it is indeed a very simple Problem:
Why do people like some things (e.g. say, some stories, some screenplays, some movies) and, not others?
- StoryAlity #6 – What is Creativity and How Does It Work?
- StoryAlity #6B – Flow Theory, Creativity and Happiness
- StoryAlity #7 – On “the 10-Year Rule” and Creativity
- StoryAlity #8 – More on the 10-Year Rule” and Creativity
- StoryAlity #9 – How To Be More Creative
- StoryAlity #9B – Creativity in Science (and – The Arts, and Film)
- StoryAlity #10 – About The Creative Personality
- StoryAlity #11 – Wallas and the Creative Process
- StoryAlity #12 – Combining Practice Theory – and the Systems Model of Creativity
- StoryAlity #13- Creativity and Solved Domain Problems
- StoryAlity #14 – On some Romantic myths of Creativity
- StoryAlity #14B – Creativity – the missing link between “The Two Cultures”
- StoryAlity #14C – Two Crucial American Psychological Association speeches: J P Guilford (1950) and D T Campbell (1975).
So – the thesis and dissertation (and, this StoryAlity research blog) examines all of the above concepts and domains (i.e.: Creativity, Narratology, Screenwriting, Film) in more detail.
I use the theory of Evolution (see: Evocriticism, and Laszlo's Systems Theory), and Bourdieu's practice theory, combined with Csikszentmihalyi's systems model of Creativity, and Narratology techniques (since Plato) and holon-parton theory (Velikovsky 2013) - to explain why the top 20 RoI films emerged in the domain of narrative fiction feature films, why they were the most viral film story Memes, and what that all means for screenwriters/filmmakers, in practice.
How do you write (and: make) a movie – that is more likely to go viral, and therefore – to reach the widest possible audience?
“STORYALITY THEORY: Story and Screenwriting, Movies and Memes: Examining the Top Twenty Return-on-Investment (RoI) Movies using Systems Theory, Creativity Theory, and Applied Bio-Cultural Evolutionary Epistemology” – Summary (by JT Velikovsky)
Question: How were the top 20 most successful (in terms of artistic cost-benefit ratio*) films, created?
(`Benefit’ is here defined as audience-reach/production-cost ratio, aka `virality’.) * (See also (Boyd 2009) on cost-benefit ratios in art.)
With regard to the “Less-Than-1%” Problem, two key real-world problems in the domain of film are that
(a) 70% of films lose money,
(b) 98% of screenplays go unmade.
Given that feature films are a relatively expensive art form, a financially-unsuccessful film also reduces the probability of the financing of subsequent films for the same creatives (screenwriters, directors, actors, producers, etc). Mastering most `big-c’ Creative domains takes ten years on average, and thus a key real-world problem for filmmakers is: investing around ten years in learning the art and craft of filmmaking, to then `fail’ with a first attempt.
The extant research literature reveals that the reason a film succeeds – in terms of relative audience-reach – is the story alone, and that success is not correlated with (or `caused’ by) factors such as Marketing, or Stars (A-list actors), or other factors aside from the Story.
Successful film stories are viral memes (Dawkins 1976, Dennett 1995, et al).
The logical steps of the thesis argument is, as follows:
(1) Screenwriting is a sub-domain of Film.
(2) Screenwriting and Film are acts of Creativity 
(3) Creativity (and, Evolution) works similarly in biology and culture, and in Science and the Arts (Simonton 2011, Csikszentmihalyi 1996, Koestler 1964, 1978, Campbell DT 1974).
(4) In order to create a film that goes viral, a study the 20 most-viral films (i.e. holons, see Koestler 1964, 1967, 1978) in history is herein undertaken, examining the common elements in their creative (a) persons (b) processes (c) products (d) places, with a focus on: story. Systems Theory applies, given: the systems model of Creativity.
(5) We thus arrive at: `possible winning strategies’ for filmmakers (not any guarantee, but rather: probabilities).
(6) Principles of how to create a `good’ story (one that the target audience will like) date to Plato and Aristotle, but such principles, to date, have not been consilient (scientific and empirical).
(7) `Consilience’ (Wilson 1998) showed the unification of knowledge: the Sciences, Social Sciences and the Arts/Humanities, is historically inevitable.
(8) Evocriticism is a `new’ (1995) bio-cultural consilient paradigm which uses Science to examine and analyse the Arts – however `the screenwriting convention’ (or: How film screenwriting is taught) has not yet comprehensively integrated the scientific study of `big-c’ Creativity – nor has Narratology (or, Theory of Story) been consilient in general, apart from in the domain of Evocriticism, and the Empirical Study of the Arts.
(9) From a bio-psycho-socio-geo-politico-cultural,post-positivist critical-realist perspective, we can see that there are 30 different common elements in the top 20 RoI (most viral) films, absent in the bottom 20 RoI (least-viral films).
(10) The resulting Guidelines (herein called StoryAlity Theory) for film Creatives potentially can result in more sustainable film careers, in an extremely-competitive artistic environment – where 98% of screenplays go unmade and of the 2% made, 70% of those films then do not reach a wide enough audience, to avoid losing money, thus only 1% of screenplays have a chance of becoming a successful movie.
Q: How to improve the odds? A: See: StoryAlity Theory.
TOP 5 `INCORRECT ASSUMPTIONS’ TO AVOID, ABOUT THIS THESIS:
When some readers learn that this dissertation is “A study of big-C Creativity in the top 20 RoI films“:
(1) People assume: this is perhaps some kind of `get-rich-quick scheme’; It is in fact, almost the opposite. Most importantly, see `the 10-year rule’ in Creativity (eg Hayes 1989, Simonton 2011). (Notably, these top 20 RoI filmmakers almost-all struggled in poverty, for many years. `Big-c’ Creativity is hard, and, often thankless work; yet see also: `Flow’ theory, Csikszentmihalyi 1975, 1990, 1996.)
(2) People tend to assume: The top 20 RoI films – given their titles (and, often without yet even seeing them) – are perhaps or even probably, all `mindless Hollywood blockbusters’. Yet very surprisingly, 17 of the top 20 RoI films are in fact, independent films. The sequels to these films however, were usually indeed: mindless Hollywood blockbusters (or, flops!). Those subsequent films (the sequels) appear to tend to colour readers’ perceptions of the original films. (Yet – had the original films not been so successful in the first place, obviously their less-impressive sequels would not exist.)
(3) Some people also tend to assume: that – `RoI’ (or, Return on Investment) simply means: `Money’. It does not. It rather means:`cost/benefit’ ratio, for a creative artist, in terms of audience-reach, for their Story (see: Boyd 2009). Also, ironically, the cinema exhibitors, studios, distributors and producers usually got most of the profits from these top 20 RoI films; and not necessarily the Creatives (the writers, directors, actors, etc).
(4) People assume: causes such as: Marketing, `Stars’, Merchandising, Timing, Cultural Zeitgeist, etc., are relevant to creative success, in film; they in fact are not. The extant literature – and also this, top 20 RoI study provides evidence. (This particular dataset also hasn’t been examined for Story / Creativity before.)
(5) Most importantly: `Creativity‘ is actually, not what most people assume it is. (See for e.g.: McIntyre 2012) Therefore, many of the findings of this study of movie success are also counterintuitive, and, surprising.
For the above 5 reasons – i.e. due to assumptions that are often initially made by most readers – it is not until an actual read-through of the entire blog (or, the thesis/dissertation), and absorbing all the evidence presented, that most people come to understand (a) What it is saying ; (b) Why; and (c) What it all then means, as a consequence.
Consequently, to date, my biggest time-expenditure (in talking to anyone about the thesis itself – unless they simply first, read the entire dissertation) is usually spent removing all of those incorrect assumptions, first. (A problem of: ontology and epistemology…!)
Then there are three other issues typically encountered, and, typically in need of addressing:
(1) The next issue is explaining Evocriticism (e.g. On The Origin of Stories, Boyd 2009), and `Literary Darwinism’ (1995). This approach is, (ironically), the opposite of what most people assume it to be when they see those two words placed together (e.g., `Literary’ and `Darwinism’). (Many people usually, and understandably, jump to many incorrect conclusions.)
(2) An erroneous assumption of `reductionism’ and also, `determinism’. – These are both the complete opposite of, this bio-psycho-socio-geo-politico-cultural approach. There are a great many explanations within the evocrticism literature, as to why it is not simply `reductionist’ (see, just for example, the first 3 pages of, Boyd 2009, On The Origin of Stories).
(3) The third key concept is, this approach, of:post-positivist critical realism. This is very much the philosophy of Sir Karl Popper. This approach also takes some explaining, i.e. See:http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/positvsm.php (Although, that page does not even mention Popper.
As Brian Boyd (2014) has noted:
`Popper has been expunged from the record there [in the US] but his ideas either lifted or, in straw-man versions, critiqued: he destroyed the logical positivists in the 1930s; he made critical rationalism the label of his own position (although I would have proposed to him creative rationalism, which I think he might have accepted: since he defines rationalism as openness to criticism, “critical rationalism” is pleonastic, and his real emphasis is on the creative imagination’s bold moves, which we then subject to rational criticism); and he was a lifelong champion of realism, including in his book Realism and the Aim of Science.’
(Boyd 2014, personal communication)
So, as we can see, one key problem with doing new research is – by definition, nobody else much knows about it, and thus, all the resulting assumptions (such as, all of the above) that first, need to be reversed. Importantly, Bayes’ Theorem also applies: i.e.: People changing (and even reversing) their opinion, on the basis of new information and evidence.
A key quote from this thesis on the creative person, process, product and place, in film:
`Hard-headed science puts the creative process at the very center of the motion picture universe… There is no reason for management to get in the way of the creative process.
Character, creativity and good storytelling trump everything else.’
(De Vany 2004: 6)
The various nested domains of the interdisciplinary thesis, in the discipline of Communications, are therefore:
Consilience > Creativity > Biology > Culture > Cultural Evolution > Narratology > Screenwriting > Filmmaking > Memetics.
Key philosophers referenced in the thesis are:Ervin Laszlo, Daniel C Dennett and Arthur Koestler, and on (big -c) Creativity: DK Simonton, M Csikszentmihalyi, RK Sawyer, P Bourdieu, J Carroll, B Boyd, J Gottschall, EO Wilson. Key journals include:Journal of Screenwriting, and Scientific Study of Literature journal. Key film theorists include David Bordwell, and various film theorists in Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader (2010).
And the Epistemology of the research is: Evolutionary Epistemology, or the Popperian (and D T Campbell) view. Which is also, the Systems Model of Creativity (1988-2015).
From my (2016) thesis:
The learning process itself can also be seen as a systems-cybernetic process. Lovelock (1995) states:
“The attainment of any skill, whether it be in cooking, painting, writing,(135) talking or playing tennis, is all a matter of cybernetics. We aim at doing our best and making as few mistakes as possible; we compare our efforts with this goal and learn by experience; and we polish and refine our performance by constant endeavour until we are satisfied that we are as near to optimum achievement as we can ever reach. This process is well called learning by trial and error.” (Lovelock 1995, p. 47).
This understanding can be applied to integrating tacit knowledge and also Bourdieu’s habitus [`a feel for the game’, developed by a creative person over their lifetime] into learning successful screenwriting.
This “learning by trial-and-error” is also equivalent to the scientific method, or the process of: (1) theory (expectation), (2) trial (experiment), and then, (3) if required: error-correction.
In this Popperian view, all of life (i.e., all biological matter) is not merely problem-solving (see: All Life Is Problem Solving, Popper 1999) but also all of life – as an experience, including the tasks of writing a screenplay and making a movie – is also, informally: “doing science”.(136)
Velikovsky (PhD thesis, 2016, pp. 86-7)
- Enjoy the blog!
De Vany, Arthur S. (2004), Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes The Film Industry (Contemporary political economy series; London ; New York: Routledge) xvii, 308 p.
Gorny, Eugene (2007, 2014), ‘Dictionary of Creativity: The ten-year rule’, Dictionary of Creativity: Terms, Concepts, Theories & Findings in Creativity Research <http://creativity.netslova.ru/Ten-year_rule.html>, accessed 27th Feb 2015.
Lovelock, J. (1995). Gaia: A New Look At Life On Earth. Oxford Oxfordshire; New York: Oxford University Press.
Macdonald, Ian W. (2004), ‘The Presentation of the Screen Idea in Narrative Film-making (PhD Dissertation)’, (Leeds Metropolitan University).
Simonton, Dean Keith (2013), ‘What is a creative idea? Little-c versus Big-C creativity’, in Kerry Thomas and Janet Chan (eds.), Handbook of Research on Creativity (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing), 69-83.
Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema: A comparative study of the top 20 Return-on-Investment (RoI) Movies and the Doxa of Screenwriting’. PhD Thesis, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, Australia. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1959.13/1324018
Vogel, Harold L. (2011), Entertainment Industry Economics – A Guide For Financial Analysis (8th edn.; New York: Cambridge University Press) xxii, 655 p.
 Harold L. Vogel, Entertainment Industry Economics – a Guide for Financial Analysis (8th edn.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011) xxii, 655 p.
 Ian W. Macdonald, ‘The Presentation of the Screen Idea in Narrative Film-Making (Phd Dissertation)’, (Leeds Metropolitan University, 2004).
 Feature films usually cost $7,000 or more (see the films: Primer 2004, El Mariachi 1993).
 `Creatives’ here refers to key film creatives, such as writers, directors, producers, and actors.
 See: Dean Keith Simonton, ‘What Is a Creative Idea? Little-C Versus Big-C Creativity’, in Kerry Thomas and Janet Chan (eds.), Handbook of Research on Creativity (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013), 69-83.
 Eugene Gorny, ‘Dictionary of Creativity: The Ten-Year Rule’, Dictionary of Creativity: Terms, Concepts, Theories & Findings in Creativity Research http://creativity.netslova.ru/Ten-year_rule.html, accessed 27th Feb 2014.
 Arthur S. De Vany, Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes the Film Industry (Contemporary Political Economy Series; London ; New York: Routledge, 2004) xvii, 308 p. at 6.
 See the systems model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi 1988) and also, practice theory (Bourdieu 1993).
 For evocriticism, see Brian Boyd (2009), Joseph Carroll (1995), Jon Gottschall (2008) et al.
 For an excellent summary of `the screenwriting convention’ see: Macdonald, ‘The Presentation of the Screen Idea in Narrative Film-Making (PhD Dissertation)’, (2004).
JT Velikovsky is a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/