Background To The Research Methodologies Chosen (in the StoryAlity high-RoI film study)

Given that my doctoral thesis is on: Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema, there was the need to choose a research methodology…

Nested domains of the StoryAlity Thesis

Nested domains of the research study

My background influenced the choices: I’m a produced feature film screenwriter, and have also been a story analyst for major film studios, for film funding agencies, and also, a professional screenplay consultant and script editor for over 20 years. (For more, see my Transmedia Writing Blog.)

That professional experience provided me with knowledge about which elements of a story and screenplay are more – or, less – important. Notably, major film studios have a different agenda to film funding agencies (which are more interested in the cultural values of a film story). The Writers Guild has a separate set of criteria again.

In terms of relevant research background, I had previously also conducted a literature review of the 100 most popular screenplay and story texts, while studying at film school. That literature review was published here on Lulu (2003-2011); and, if you Google “JT Velikovsky Screenwriters Workbook” you can see there are estimated to be over a million copies of it on the internet. The purpose of that literature summary, as with this Blog, was academic research, for the benefit of screenwriters everywhere.

Feature Screenwriters Wkbk cover

Most importantly, I noted during my review of 100 screenwriting manuals, that none of the authors used a consilient (empirical or scientific) methodology. That is to say, none (including McKee, Field, Seger, Hauge, Truby, etc) used a clearly-defined data set (selection of films/screenplays) from which to draw their screenwriting systems.

This meant that I had identified a gap in the research/literature. This empirical doctoral research study is intended to fill that gap in the literature.

So, the method I chose was consilience. Or – using science to study the arts.

Overlaps in scientific disciplines / domains (Velikovsky 2013)

Overlaps in scientific disciplines / domains (Velikovsky 2013)

So I conducted:

An empirical content analysis of the screenplay texts and films of the Top 20 RoI (return on investment) films.

So: Why use empirical and scientific methods of research and analysis, rather other methods?

Lots of reasons. The answers are in these consilient books.

But also, even with Consilience (Wilson 1998) aside for a moment, to go back even before 1995 (and evocriticism, or literary Darwinism), in Introduction to Communication Studies, I see that Fiske (1990) distinguishes clearly between the process school of communications studies, and the (more theoretical, conceptual) semiotics school.  (Fiske 1990: xv)

`Semiotics is essentially a theoretical approach to communication in that its aim is to establish widely applicable principles. It is concerned with how communication works, with the systems of language and culture, and particularly with the structural relationships of semiotic system, culture and reality. It is thus vulnerable to the criticism that it is too theoretical, too speculative, and that semioticians make no attempt to prove or disprove their theories in an objective, scientific way. It can also be criticised on the grounds that the evidence used to support or illustrate the theories is highly selective. I chose the examples in Chapter 6, critics would say, because they gave untypically clear illustrations of the theories I was expounding. And further, how can I know that the readings I have discussed do, in fact, take place? Can I be sure that I have offered anything other than my personal subjective and thus possibly idiosyncratic decoding?

Empiricism – These critics would argue that semiotics does not have an empirically validated base of evidence upon which to base its theory.

The aims of empiricism are: to collect and categorize objective facts or data about the world; to form hypotheses to explain them; to eliminate, as far as possible, any human element or bias from this process; and to devise experimental methods to test and prove (or disprove) the reliability of the data and the hypothesis.

Empiricism differs fundamentally from semiotics in that:

(a)  it is deductive instead of inductive;

(b) it assumes a universal, objective reality available for study;

(c)  it assumes that humans are able to devise methods of studying this reality objectively;

(d) it assumes that hypotheses explaining this reality are capable of proof or disproof.

It does, in other words, fit neatly with the common-sense, science-based picture of the world that our Western technological materialist society is based on.’ (Fiske 1990: 135-36)

For these reasons, an empirical content analysis was chosen over `Theory’ (e.g.: critical theory, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, deconstructionism,) or other critical and “Theory” approaches. (See also what all these books have to say regarding `Theory’, or poststructuralism… in particular what they say about deconstructionism…)

Also I’m hugely influenced by the consilient book, DK Simonton’s Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics (2011). And all these consilient works. In particular, the work of professors Brian Boyd, Joe Carroll and Jon Gottschall.

Which really all goes back to EO Wilson, and his excellent Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998).

If you’re a creative (e.g. a writer, screenwriter, artist, filmmaker, scientist, chef, anything creative) and you haven’t yet read Creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996) run, don’t walk to read it. EO Wilson is also in that book, as one of the 91 eminent creatives studied. Also I highly recommend Keith Sawyer’s Explaining Creativity (2012). But I digress.

The Top 20 RoI Films - StoryAlity Theory (Velikovsky 2013)

The Top 20 RoI Films – StoryAlity Theory (Velikovsky 2012)

The common elements in the 20 Top RoI screenplays researched and analysed in the doctoral study included:

  • common story theme/s, memes, tropes
  • genres,
  • premise,
  • subject matter,
  • character types – and archetypes,
  • structure,
  • plot,
  • pacing (scene lengths/number of scenes),
  • dialog (style),
  • visual and story motifs,
  • story metaphors,
  • setting (temporal, spatial, geographical),
  • music,
  • performance,
  • mise en scene,
  • number and type of locations,
  • character dynamics/relationships,
  • underlying classical myths or fairytales,


  • key film influences.

This doctoral empirical research project also used a new research method: Creative Practice Theory Narratology, which incorporates Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model of creativity (M. Csikszentmihalyi 1999: 315) and specifically focuses on a subset of the 20 films within the feature film Domain (of all produced, theatrical fiction feature films) that have been the most successful in terms of RoI a.k.a. Return-On-Investment (or, those films that reached the greatest audience, for the least production cost). See also Brain Boyd on `cost-benefit ratios’ for artists (in On The Origin of Stories, Boyd 2009)

Csikszentmihalyi Systems Model from Henry

Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model of creativity
from `Creative Management’ (Henry 2001)

Fig 1 – The systems model of creativity (M. Csikszentmihalyi 2001: 11)

So – the systems model of creativity came about from research by psychologist and academic Distinguished Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. There’s a TED Talk video of him talking about some of it here.

The evolution and emergence of the systems model of creativity is an intriguing story in itself: an initial study in the 1970’s by Csikszentmihalyi aimed to discover what made people happy. The study found that “creative” people (writers, filmmakers, artists, musicians) were the most happy. (i.e. it’s all about the flow state.)

Further research into this tripartite Bio/Psycho/Social/Cultural systems model of “How creativity is done” revealed that – there are three components to the model: the Individual, the Field and the Domain.

Further to this, from `Creativity’ (1997):

“For creativity to occur, a set of rules and practices must be transmitted from the domain to the individual. The individual must then produce a novel variation in the content of the domain. The variation then must be selected by the field for inclusion in the domain.”

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 1997: 12)

To explain in more detail, an Individual (e.g. a Filmmaker) must create a work (a film) that is `creative’ (which means: both appropriate to the Domain and also `novel’ i.e. original) and – once the work is selected by the Field (by relevant agents, producers, investors, script assessors/story analysts, and actors) it is produced – and becomes part of the Domain (all existing films, that can be viewed by an audience.) The Field (which also consists of the Audience and critics) continually keeps selecting (and de-selecting) works to include in the Domain.

The systems model of creativity is therefore: a tripartite confluence systems model.

The Feature Film Domain as a System

The Feature Film Domain as a System (after Csikszentmihalyi 1988)

For example, a Filmmaker (or Screenwriter, say) will first need to absorb as much of the Domain as possible (watch many films, read many scripts, read books on film screenwriting) before being able to create a work (like a feature film screenplay) that will be selected by producers/ agents/actors/ financiers (people in the Field) for production.

This whole process (of creativity) begins at birth, and even includes environmental and genetic factors such as the culture, such as: films, plays, artworks, novels, movies, and comics/graphic novels that the individual was exposed to by their peers and family.

Also the filmmaker will need to learn and practice `pitching’ to the field in order to develop “a feel for the game” or what Pierre Bourdieu terms “habitus”.

Csikszentmihalyi has much to say on this:

`The background of creative individuals – One of the first issues to consider is whether an individual is born in an environment that has enough surplus energy to encourage the development of curiosity and interest for its own sake. The following personal background factors can affect the incidence of creativity:

• A child is likely to be discouraged from expressing curiosity and interest if the material conditions of existence are too precarious

• Ethnic and family traditions can have a very important role in directing the child’s interest toward specific domains

• Cultural capital (i.e. home learning, schooling) is essential for a child to develop expertise in a domain

• Tutors, mentors, and connections are often indispensable for advancing far enough to have one’s ideas recognized

• Marginality (social, ethnic, economic, religious) seems to be more conducive to wanting to break out of the norm than a conventional, middle-class background’ (M. Csikszentmihalyi 2001: 12)

In short, the systems model of creativity may be used to explain: exactly how a filmmaker (e.g. a writer-director) makes a film that most effectively reaches its audience.

It should be noted – there are alternate views to the `rationalist’ systems model of creativity – such as: the `Romantic’ myth of “the creative genius” – that “geniuses are simply born and not made”, and that “creative genius” is due to a `muse’ and/or supernatural force/s.

This `Romantic’ view of Creativity, also, is not very helpful at all for anyone wishing to learn or practice professionally in a field that is – in effect – the most expensive art form, and is also a business.

On average, any business requires a 40% return on investment to be viable. Films typically require a 373% RoI to break even, on average, due to the additional marketing and distribution costs, as well as interest lost (the `opportunity cost’) on the invested capital.

The reason that this new field of Creativity Research is so exciting, innovative and original – is that, it leads us to an exciting philosophical question: The Agency-Structure Question, which leads to (and in fact, answers) the question “Do We Have Free Will?” (Can we “write whatever we want” in a feature film screenplay? Moreover: If we do, how likely is that film to be produced?)

We have agency (freedom of choice) within the various structures: the screenwriting field, the screenwriting domain, and the screenwriting convention. Overlapping these structures are the social and cultural structures we operate within.

The systems model of creativity also explains why (and how) variables in the field such as `current affairs’ can affect the success or failure of a feature film.

The Burning Question: If we can’t control current affairs (like, the news, the Zeitgeist and stuff), can we at least control anything within the film story?

It should also be noted, that: according to the systems model, the conventions, codes and symbols of the Domain (such as – “How to write a screenplay”) need to be learned – for about 10 years – before a work produced (e.g. a screenplay) will be selected for inclusion in the Domain (the culture) by the Field (producers, script acquisitions executives, the film industry in general).

This systems model of creativity invented/discovered by Csikszentmihalyi explains why some professional film creatives also continue to have repeated success. For example: George Miller, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and many other writer-hyphenates.

Probability theory means that this consistent success rate is not attributable to luck alone.

It should also be noted that – the success of these top 20 RoI films (see this page) is not due solely to Marketing, Stars, the Director’s `marquee name’, or any other factors like that.

As primarily independent films (18 of the 20), these films were all written and made, long before they were marketed, and – like their production budgets – their marketing budgets are comparatively small, and also their different marketing strategies alone cannot explain their success in different historical, economic and social contexts. Word of mouth made them go viral – and at any rate, this is the only reason a film succeeds.

For example, Star Wars 1977 (one film on the top 20 RoI films list) opened in only 30 cinemas, and word of mouth led 20th Century Fox to dramatically expand the release.

The film Primer was released in 4 cinemas, and yet is also one of the top 20 RoI films.

So – the question is: What is it about all these successful film stories/screenplays that created such “word of mouth”?

What made them successful memes?

The only way to find out is to actually study and empirically analyze them as a whole, i.e. all 20 of them, at once.

It should also be noted, the systems model (and, Creative ractice Theory Narratology) employed in this doctoral research applies to all creative fields, including but not limited to: art, music, film, theatre, dance, sculpture, writing, design, science and technology…

As Koestler showed in The Act of Creation (1964), and Janus: A Summing Up (1967) creativity works the same in the arts and sciences. (Also Csikszentmihalyi shows the same thing but with many more examples, in Creativity 1996)

Finally, I suppose I should note that `experimental films’ are just as valid creatively as `mainstream films’. Some of the Top 20 RoI films are “experimental/arthouse”, such as Primer (2004), which as a time-travel story, features a nonlinear story timeline[1]. (And just in my view is the best time-travel films made, and just by the way see also the excellent Spanish film Time Crimes (2007) if you happen to like that sort of thing.)

In terms of a philosophical question during the study, “What does it mean to be human” is examined.

“Structure and Agency” (and Giddens’ 1984 `structuration theory’) is also examined this research thesis, after this process of disciplined inquiry aimed at settling doubt about “What makes a successful film story”.

The research also explores Bourdieu’s work on `habitus’ or having a “feel for the game” – in terms of his work on the agency-structure question. (see: Bourdieu 1993:18)

Screenwriting is a recondite (deep and complex) domain. Narrative feature film screenwriting is possibly one of the most intensely-structured art forms, and yet – (both paradoxically – and ironically) – the writer-hyphenate also has enormous agency (freedom) within that structure (a 90 page screenplay[2]) to create any story they wish.

However an analysis of the top 20 and bottom 20 RoI films (and 20 control films) indicates which film stories, tropes (or memes) are more (and: less) viral.

This knowledge can be of use to screenwriters/filmmakers!

Though it’s no guarantee of anything, as you can’t pick your parents, and stuff. Yet we all still have free will. (Or: choices.)

…Thoughts, comments, feedback?

JT Velikovsky

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/


[1] See http://neuwanstein.fw.hu/primer_timeline.html for the film’s timeline (i.e. Primer 2004).

[2] Note: if we look at the StoryAlity syntagm, 90 minutes film duration is the preferable (highest RoI average). So 90 screenplay pages is probably a good length.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1997), Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1st HarperPerennial edn.; New York: HarperPerennial) 456 p.

— (1999), Implications of a Systems Perspective for the Study of Creativity in Robert Sternberg (ed) Handbook of Creativity  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

— (2001), A Systems Perspective On Creativity in Jane Henry (Ed) Creative Management (2nd edn.; Milton Keynes, U.K.London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Open University, Sage Publications) xi, 315 p.

Fiske, John (1990), Introduction to Communication Studies (2nd edn.; London: Routledge).

2 thoughts on “StoryAlity #5 – Background to the Research Methodology

  1. Pingback: StoryAlity#150 – Key Findings from the StoryAlity PhD on High-RoI Movies | StoryAlity

  2. Pingback: StoryAlity #160 – Reply to `Why are Australian films now so unpopular?’ | StoryAlity

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