Define a `successful’ Film?

What is film `success’ anyways?

Is it:

1)    Awards and critical success?

2)    Box-office numbers?

or is it:

3)    Relative-Audience-Reach, with your story/message/theme/meme (i.e.: compared to the film’s budget)?

Awards Money or What

For a filmmaker and/or screenwriter, there are many ways to define `success’ for your film:

1)    Whether the film was profitable (i.e. made a greater than say, 373% return on investment)

2)    Awards (Oscars, BAFTAs, AFIs, etc)

3)    Critics’ Reviews (e.g.: on Metacritic.com, and Roger Ebert, and Joe-Bob Briggs, etc)

4)    How far the film spreads in the culture (i.e.: “audience reach”)

5)    Whether the film was actually produced (note that: only 2% of movie screenplays submitted to producers are made)

6)    Whether the film had a theatrical release (or was perhaps straight-to-disc media)

In Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics (Simonton 2011) Simonton examines various criteria that make a film great. He states:

`What Do We Know? Lots! Perhaps the single most critical lesson is that there’s more than one kind of great film. There are movies that make big money, motion pictures that rake in the awards, and films that garner critical acclaim. And even these three groups of criteria have subgroups. In the case of movie awards, for example, we must take care to distinguish the honors defining the four creative clusters – the dramatic, visual, technical and musical. Not only are these four awards largely independent of each other, but they also feature contrasting correlations with other criteria of film greatness, including box office returns, best picture honours and rave reviews.’

(Simonton 2011: 190)

Both Simonton’s overview of the scientific studies of film success, and his own scientific studies are excellent, and I recommend reading them – and screenwriting research is the richer and better for them.


But – I would now like to suggest another view…

In my own view (speaking as a filmmaker), there is only one goal of storytelling:

To reach the widest audience possible.

What does this statement mean, exactly?

What (or, who) exactly is “the widest audience possible”?

For our purposes, it simply means: getting as many people to watch your film as possible.

Even those who “wouldn’t necessarily watch a film like that, normally”.

i.e. Imagine if you wrote/made a sci-fi-horror-comedy film; and not only do you get people to come see it, who don’t usually like any of those genres, but you get people who on principle refuse to see Horror films.

Or, like Rocky: who is a fan of boxing pictures? (Usually only: fans of boxing pictures.) But Rocky thrilled/entertained male and female audiences. And – many of them hate boxing. (It’s too violent, or whatever.)

Ok – so – Thought Experiment #1: How many people actually saw the most-seen film, so far?

Let’s find out, what is actually the “most-seen film” then.

In terms of theatrical cinema, the most widely-seen feature film in recent history was: Avatar (2009), written and directed by James Cameron.

Avatar (2009)

Not a still from `Avatar’ (2009), but you know the movie I mean.

Let’s work out approximately how many people went and saw that film:

The international theatrical box office for Avatar (2009) was: USD $2,783,918,982.

(Answer – Source: The-Numbers.com http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/budgets.php )

And so; if the average cinema ticket price worldwide is around $10 (averaging both 2D and 3D film ticket prices, internationally), then: we can divide USD$2,783,918,982 by $10, to arrive at the approximate number of people who paid to see that film, in a cinema.

So: 2,783,918,982/10 = 278,391,898 people. (Roughly, 278 million people.)

Now – as a storyteller, having 278 million people experience your Story (whatever it may be) is: a very good result (bearing in mind: after the film’s theatrical run is over, at least twice that number will also see the film on BluRay/DVD/TV, although some of those are the same people, i.e. people who saw the film at the cinema – and then bought or rented the film, on ancillary media).

So – in recent history, the film Story that empirically reached the widest audience was Avatar (2009). (We are of course assuming that – the reported box office figures are roughly accurate. This is extremely difficult to verify, but those are the best figures we have.)

So – Why do people tell Stories?

There may be many, many reasons people tell stories. (Who can say.)

Some of the customary reasons given by filmmakers/writers/storytellers – in general – are:

1)    To express themselves

2)    To create an emotional experience

3)    To change the world

4)    To make money

5)    To impress family, friends and peers (including: the opposite sex)

6)    For the sheer joy of it (see: `Flow’ Theory in creativity, i.e. Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 1996)

7)    To educate others

8)    To discover more about yourself

9)    Etc…

(Why do you tell Stories? eg Write movie Screenplays. Please Comment, below.)

Coming back to Avatar (2009): James Cameron managed to integrate some fairly strong/ powerful messages – about environmentalism, the concept of Gaia (the `sacred Earth Mother’, essentially), and respect for indigenous inhabitants in the story. I won’t go into a detailed analysis of the depiction of corporate greed and the `Unobtainium’, but the message/theme is fairly clear. In short, like Stanley Kubrick, with Avatar, Cameron demonstrates a social conscience. The film could be viewed as an antidote for corporate psychopathy (as evidenced in the `Occupy Wall Street’ movement.) Cameron’s latest TV series, Years of Living Dangerously  demonstrates even more of a social conscience. So: I heart James Cameron. But I digress.

And so – most people tell stories because they have something to say.

What Cameron `said’ with Avatar (2009) was profound, and highly unusual – in the context of most blockbuster (massive budget) films. But – he’s James Cameron (and with a list of massive hits, like Piranha 2: The Spawning) and he can `take charge’ like that… Only about 3 people in the world have that sort of power. (Spielberg and Lucas being the other 2, and it doesn’t work for them always, either. Also Spielberg isn’t so great with comedy. 1941. What the heck was that all about.)

Either way, whatever the reason a storyteller has – for telling a story – the goal must inevitably be: to reach the widest audience possible.

– Is it possible to reach a wider audience with a film, than Cameron did with Avatar (2009)?

In theory, absolutely yes.

Thought Experiment #2: The (Hypothetical) As-yet-unmade but Most-Seen Film Ever

What If – for one whole year, every cinema on the Earth only played one movie, i.e. the same movie (let’s call it “Avatar 2: Return of the Avenging Avatars”) and, let’s say, everyone who could afford to go to the cinema paid their $10, and went, and every session was full, and nobody went twice:

How many people would see that movie?

Well, according to Chartsbin, (http://chartsbin.com/view/32k) the number of cinema screens in the major countries = 149,676.

Assuming each of those cinemas has an average of say 100 seats – and the film played on each screen, 7 times a day, the formula becomes:

7 screenings x 100 people x 149,676 screens x 365 days a year

=  38,242,218,000 people. (38 thousand million.)

Given there are around 7 billion people, that’s .005% of the world’s population. (Remembering also, depressingly that: many people earn $10 a year, in developing countries.)

Be all that as it may: Most Film Storytellers want their story to be seen by as many people as possible.

Contrapositionally – (i.e. taking the opposite position for a moment, just for the sake of the argument)

– Would anyone create a (film) story with the goal of it being experienced by no-one?

i.e. Would they want their story heard/seen/experienced by the least amount of people, possible?

Bottom ROI left tail of the bell curve

(While certainly possible, this seems unlikely, given how expensive most storytelling mediums are, and: feature films, especially. They are very very very expensive.)

To return to the question “What makes a film successful?”

In my own view, the most successful films are: those which are the most viral stories.

That is, they reach the widest audience, for the least production budget.

This metric is also known as: R.o.I. (return on investment).

Again – (just in my own view) – therefore, the most successful films are not those that have: won awards, garnered critical acclaim, or even made large sums at the box office, per se.

(Certainly, these are positive results – but: the most successful films are those in which the story went most viral.)

In short: The smaller the film’s production budget, and the greater the number of people who saw the film, the more successful the film.

Nothing else really matters. This is what means you get to keep working, as a filmmaker.

It is for this reason, that I do not regard Oscar winners, AFI winners, BAFTA winners, or critically-acclaimed films as: the most successful. Who cares about that stuff. All that matters is that you can keep working, and don’t have to struggle to make your next project.

Scarily, a film can actually win many awards – and yet, not break even financially – in which case, some or all of the creative team involved in producing it, will most probably experience negative effects. (Their careers may even end, as a result. As Simonton says: “Filmmaking is not for the faint of heart.”)

For this reason, therefore – the Top 20 RoI films are the 20 most successful films to date.

See the actual list of films, here: https://storyality.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/83/

This 20 films is the primary data set, for my doctoral research study.

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

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

My doctoral study asks the research question: What makes a great film story?

i.e.: Why did these 20 films go so viral?

We can note – they did not have:

a)    Stars (A-list actors)

b)    Famous directors (except for one… ET. Remember that Lucas wasn’t world-famous when he made American Graffiti.)

c)    Lots of special effects

d)    Big Marketing budgets

e)    Anything else in common – except: a great Story.

They simply spread through the culture, by themselves – via word-of-mouth.

They were: the most viral feature film memes.

Influenza Nomenclature Diagram

Influenza Nomenclature Diagram

Moreover, they all have a great many common story elements.

So: What are those common film story memes? (And structures)

And: Why do they – empirically – work so well?

And: How can other film storytellers benefit from this knowledge?

It’s exactly this question, that my doctoral research investigates.

Surprisingly, most of this new knowledge contradicts the existing knowledge about “What makes a great film story”.

Furthermore – this all (likely) explains why:

7 in 10 films currently lose money.

So – this is a problem that needs solving.

If you are a filmmaker – this is the most pressing problem in your life.

It is: your livelihood.

And – filmmaking on average takes over 10 years to learn properly. (It is composed of many sub-domains – which all take a long time to master.)

Who the heck wants to spend 10 years, mastering their craft – only to have their first film flop and then: maybe they never get a second chance?

This is also important for: Audiences.

If 7 in 10 films don’t make money, it means: audiences are staying away in droves.

Audiences don’t want to “stay away in droves”.

They want to be great told film stories, and lots of them.

The Bottom Line:

Solving this problem will mean the Domain of cinema will be transformed.

Confused Crowd

…Thoughts? Feedback? Comments?

And for more, see Brian Boyd on `cost-benefit ratios’ for artists, in the excellent On The Origin of Stories (Boyd 2009).


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/



Simonton, Dean Keith (2011), Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press).


2 thoughts on “StoryAlity #20 – What exactly is a `successful’ Film ?

  1. Pingback: StoryAlity #47 – Why are some Screenplays/Films more `viral’ Memes? | StoryAlity

  2. Pingback: StoryAlity #145 – Five Views of the Mono-Myth | StoryAlity

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