What makes a film succeed? The Story.

All things being equal (and – for the Top 20 RoI Films of the past 70 years, they pretty much were), the Story is the reason a film succeeds – or fails – in finding a wide audience.

So here are three quotes about Story in movies:

`However serious your intentions may be, and however important you think are the ideas of the story, the enormous cost of a movie makes it necessary to reach the largest potential audience for that story, in order to give your backers their best chance to get their money back and hopefully make a profit. No one will disagree that a good story is an essential starting point for accomplishing this. But another thing, too, the stronger the story, the more chances you can take with everything else.

(Stanley Kubrick in Ciment 1999, p. 157 – bold emphasis mine)


`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, p. 6 – bold emphasis mine)


Story is the most essential and important, and therefore the most powerful creative, asset in the motion picture industry. It is more powerful than money.

(Lee, JJ & Gillen, AM 2011, p. 18)

So – in Hollywood Economics (2004) De Vany et al also find (empirically, and scientifically) that the story is the primary reason that films succeed:

`It would have been hard to imagine at the outset that by applying high-brow mathematical and statistical science we would end up proving [William] Goldman’s fundamental truth that, in the movies “Nobody knows anything”.

None of our results is more surprising than finding that hard-headed science puts the creative process at the very center of the motion picture universe.

There is no formula. Outcomes cannot be predicted. 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 – emphasis mine)

However – I disagree that there is “no formula”…

My doctoral research clearly indicates otherwise. – There is indeed a formula for a feature film story that will probably be more viral.

However, this does not restrict creativity, a writer/filmmaker can tell any film story they like, within that story framework. The top 20 RoI Films are all different stories – and yet underneath – they are all the same story.

(And, it is not always necessarily `The Hero’s Journey’ monomyth, as researched by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, etc… As excellent as that archetypal structure and form is.)

Likewise, regarding film story as the key determinant of cinematic success, in Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics, (Simonton 2011) DK Simonton finds:

`…only the dramatic cluster [writing, directing, acting, editing] correlates positively with all four criteria of cinematic success [Box Office Gross, Best Picture, Movie Guides, and Metacritic].’

(Simonton 2011: 162)

There has also been a vast amount of research into other determinants of film success (see: McKenzie (2012), ‘The Economics of Movies: A Literature Survey’, in the `References’ below. – Jordi’s survey is excellent).

And yet: despite research into Marketing, Stars (casting), Opening Weekend, Social media, etc – the film Story is the only key determinant of film success.

So, my thesis is: The Story alone – is the reason a feature film succeeds – or fails – at the box office.

…Would you agree?

Another Day at the Office for Philosophy Dude

Naked-Philosophy-Guy Strikes Again

…Thoughts, feedback, comments?

JT Velikovsky


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/



Ciment, M 1999, Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, Faber & Faber, New York.

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.

Lee, JJ & Gillen, AM 2011, The Producer’s Business Handbook: The Roadmap for the Balanced Film Producer, Third edition. edn, Focal Press, Burlington, MA.

McKenzie, Jordi (2012), ‘The Economics of Movies: A Literature Survey’, Journal of Economic Surveys, 26 (1), 42-70.

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



4 thoughts on “StoryAlity #21 – What makes a film succeed? The Story.

  1. Pingback: StoryAlity #47B – More on Memes and Film (and: 3 solved problems in Memetics) | StoryAlity

  2. Pingback: StoryAlity #117 – Velikovsky’s 40 Domain Problems in Screenwriting (or: Consilient PhDs I’d Like To See) | StoryAlity

  3. Pingback: StoryAlity #5B – Almost Everything You Know About Movie Screenwriting is Wrong | StoryAlity

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

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