The Top 20 RoI Films of the Last 70 Years
Below is the primary data set for my doctoral research study: 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.
(There is also a control set of 20 films, and also the Bottom 20 RoI Films.)
The data source is: The-Numbers.com, Movie Budget Records,i.e. Most Profitable Movies, Based on Return on Investment. The data set is publically available at The-Numbers.com (Nash Information Services 1997-2012).
But see also: StoryAlity #76 – On – The new `RoI’ numbers – at The-Numbers.com…
Note that: these films have the widest audience reach compared to their production budget (i.e. `negative cost’).
Negative cost – A film’s `negative cost’ is its production budget, or the cost of producing the film master-print `negative’ (a legacy term from when most feature films were shot and edited and mastered on 35mm film, prior to mass-market digital film production).
The data set really `selects itself’ as these 20 films are empirically the top 20 most popular films (relative to their production budgets) of the past 70 years, and therefore, the most viral film stories.
In other words, the key hypothesis of this research is that these 20 films are the films that are the most popular (relative to their own budget), due to the story.
The reason this is due to the story is that, there are no other observable reasons that might explain their success: they (mostly) had small marketing budgets (at least initially, if not later), had no stars (A-list actors), and most (17 and arguably 18 out of 20, all except Star Wars – 1977 and ET – 1982) had no `name’ directors attached, etc.
The reason these are the most viral films, is that they are the most contagious memes, due to word-of-mouth. The reason they are the most contagious memes, is that they spread furthest through the culture due to / via word-of-mouth, when their final audience reach is compared to their production budget. (See Brian Boyd on `cost-benefit ratios’ in On The Origin of Stories, 2009)
Notably, other potential causes such as: aggressive marketing, star power and director marquee value are absent – as all except two of these films had none of those factors, to therefore explain their success in going so virulent in the culture.
The literature search reveals that no other existing screenwriting manual nor research paper yet published uses this empirical data set.
As part of the doctoral study findings, it should also be noted that these films are:
1) primarily low-budget (under USD$2m on average);
2) primarily independently-financed; (18 of the top 20 films)
3) all involve writer-hyphenates, (notably, 7 of the `bottom 20 ROI films’ do not)
4) all are `original screen ideas’ (none of the top 20 are sequels, nor adaptations).
Also note that none of the 20 films had large marketing budgets, nor stars, and only two had “name” directors attached. The above four (numbered) factors in combination (and, the latter three factors, by their absence) indicate that: the reason each of these films became so popular/viral was the film story, alone.
It is problematic that story is generally not described in the film-making/ screenwriting discourse (in any significant depth) as the sole controllable reason for a film’s success.
Preventing and delaying the solution of this problem is the situation that in the domain of film, other factors – such as marketing and `star power’ – are still seen by many as causal factors in a film’s success, although the most comprehensive and scientific study to date (De Vany 2004, p. 6) shows this widespread conception to be false.
Note that, films older than 70 years are excluded from the data set. (Reasons for this are explained below.)
If the top 20 films of all time were considered, three films would then be included in the data set: Birth of a Nation (1915), The Big Parade (1925), and Gone With The Wind (1939) however these are excluded from the data set as (1) in the arrival of television in the 1950’s significantly changed the mediascape, and the economics of feature films, and (2) the Paramount Antitrust Case of 1948 (which removed `vertical integration’ of studios and theaters).
Notably the data set therefore shifts away from an emphasis on big-budget studio productions, to predominantly independent films. For this reason, when the data set is limited to the past 70 years (post television), three films move up onto the top 20 list: The Full Monty (1997), Star Wars (1977) and My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002).
The international audience has decided (at the box office) that these films are the most popular (relative to their budgets).
These are, therefore, the top 20 films that have gone the most viral.
The top 20 films are used as the primary data set – as has a control set of 20 films – and the top 20 are compared to the bottom 20 RoI films, as these films have been empirically the 20 most – and 20 least, viral films.
Another view of the data is this:
The viral (story) characteristics are therefore the most extreme / exaggerated – and therefore reveal the clearest data/story characteristics. An analogy in biology might be: to study the morphology (and DNA) of the most virulent (rapid-spreading) influenza virus.
As a side note – a larger data set was not chosen as 60 x films is a considerable data set, given the time required to closely study the story content of each film story (of 90 minutes duration each, on average) is limited by the 3-year timeframe of the doctoral research project.
Also, Distinguished Professor DK Simonton, in the excellent Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Success (2011) notes how long (and how many personnel) it would take to do a study of 1,000 films.
I hope one day someone does such as study. In the meantime I recommend reading Great Flicks (Simonton 2011) – as it was a huge inspiration for my research – and is simply excellent.
A note on Australian Movies in the Top 20 RoI Films:
The #2 RoI film, Mad Max (1980) is an Australian movie.
The #14 movie SAW (2004) was created by two Australian filmmakers.
Crocodile Dundee (1986) is the #23 top RoI movie.
– Comments always welcome.
High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher
The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky
JT Velikovsky is also 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 for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/
 It is also perhaps worth noting that the word `influenza’ is an Italian, from the Medieval Latin influentia, meaning `influence’. (Mifflin 2009) In many ways, these films have been 20 of the most influential, on cinema culture.
The-Numbers.com http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/budgets.php but see also: StoryAlity #76 – On – The new `RoI’ numbers – at The-Numbers.com…
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.
Simonton, DK (2011), Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics, Oxford University Press, New York; Oxford.