So – What Actually Makes A Movie Successful?

Is there just one thing? (e.g. – “The Story”?)

Yes. Please see my doctoral research study.

Of course the `conventional wisdom’ is: “Nobody really knows…” *

Confused Crowd

So, a comprehensive literature of The Economics Of Movies (McKenzie 2012) reveals a vast array of literature: despite that the literature survey is excellent, none of the literature/research surveyed, tells us very much of any specific use to screenwriters about what makes a movie successful.

Almost all studies conclude, as does De Vany in Hollywood Economics (2004), it is THE STORY ALONE:

`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)

 The Abstract of McKenzie’s (excellent) Literature Review:

 Abstract – The Economics Of Movies (McKenzie 2012)

`The film industry provides a myriad of interesting problems for economic contemplation. From the initial concept of an idea through production, distribution, and finally exhibition there are many aspects to the film project and the film industry that present new and interesting puzzles worthy of investigation.Add to this the high level of data availability, and it is little wonder that an increasing number of researchers are being attracted to this industry. To date, however, there are no comprehensive surveys on the contribution of economists to this literature. This lecture attempts to fill this void and unify what is known about this industry. It will also identify and discuss potential areas for new research.’ 

(McKenzie 2012)

Simonton’s great book, Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics is also excellent review of the scientific studies of movie success.

But – Simonton (2011)’s focus (in Great Flicks) is on Oscars, Critical Reviews and overall Box Office. (While brilliant and necessary research, this is not useful in practice to 99% of screenwriters – as: they will never get an Oscar, and especially not useful to: early- or mid- career filmmakers…)

Most extant movie research (i.e. McKenzie’s super-excellent lit review, mentioned above) does not tell us exactly why some films are more powerful memes than others, i.e. Why they go more viral; why people want to see them so much.

Arguably – this is exactly what all filmmakers need to know, (to say nothing of film financiers / investors ! )

( – How else do they know what to look for in a screenplay? …They don’t! They have to guess… And 7 times in 10 – they are wrong.) (…I have also worked as a reader for major film studios.)

Which is why: everyone then throws up their hands in surrender – and shrugs, and uses that cop-out, created by the otherwise brilliant William Goldman (1983): “Nobody knows anything”.) (…I hate that phrase – more than anything…)

Note that, in the excellent Great Flicks (2011), Simonton also points to the fact that: a study really needs to be done (on examining the cause of film success), that includes 1000 films in the data sample.

He notes that – there have been 2 major studies on direct content analysis: on `Protagonists’ (Beckwith, 2009) and on `Storyline’ (Eliashberg, Hui, and Zhang, 2007). (Simonton 2011: 108-09).

But – I have read these studies (and also, Eliashberg, Hui, and Zhang, 2010) and they are problematic. To anyone who knows anything about films, the findings of The Wharton School of Marketing (2007 and 2010) with regard to `Film Story and RoI’ are not only obvious, but – even worse – they reinforce the current `screenwriting convention’ – which is part of the reason why: 7 in 10 films currently lose money.)

So – Simonton notes, no other comprehensive empirical scientific studies like this (with 1000 films) have been done, and that the sample size should actually be 1000 films. (Simonton 2011: 107-08) …No-one has attempted this as yet. I don’t know who will. (…Not me.)


Many of the major elements/factors/metrics that (it has been proposed) may cause a film to be successful have been examined in the past, by other researchers (without finding many heuristics that are practical and/or useful to a Screenwriter, Filmmaker or in fact – anyone actually working in the film industry) include:

  1. Production Finance Source (i.e. say, Independent vs. Major Studio financing)
  2. The Production Budget
  3. The Genre
  4. The MPAA Rating
  5. Sequelity / Adaptationality / Originality
  6. “Star power” (Cast)
  7. Director marquee value (`branding’)
  8. Country of origin
  9. Timing (with regards to holidays, seasons)
  10. Number of screens the film opened on
  11. Opening weekend figures
  12. Oscars (nominations and wins)
  13. Reviews
  14. Social Media
  15. Marketing Spend
  16. (etc etc etc…)

But the problem is: all of these things, do not make any difference to a Screenwriter/ Filmmaker(!)

The Reasons Why: (Let me go through them, one by one… bear with me.)

1. Production Finance Source (i.e. say, Independent vs Major Studio)

Not important. A filmmaker could care less – if a major studio or independent backers finance their film, all that matters is that it DOES; the Story is the same Story that they were always wanting to tell, regardless, right? But – I note – on the serious downside: if a major studio decides to finance your film – there are then going to be many financial stakeholders. Sooooo many more cooks spoiling the broth, and unfortunately, most of them are suits: with no idea of how story works, or, why. Their background is not in a Narrative Discipline.

So – the bad news: with a major studio attached, the chances of your story being made exactly as you wrote it, are much much less. (Despite McKee stating in Story (1997) that – you will have `surprisingly minimal interference’ if a studio picks up your film/script. No evidence provided there, and there is a lot of evidence to the contrary. For one thing, see: http://storynotesfromhell.tumblr.com/ and for another, see also Ian Macdonald’s excellent PhD thesis, here.)

Also note: Only 3 of the films in the top 20 RoI films data-set were financed by major film studios(!) – the rest (18/20 films!) are independent, “one-off” productions, including Australian, UK, Irish and Mexican films!

So – since both types of financing are included in the data set, the principles discovered by this doctoral research apply to both independent and studio feature film productions.

2.     The Production Budget 

Studies that try to determine whether a bigger-budget film is necessarily going to be more successful than a smaller-budget film are misguided; they completely miss the point: THE STORY IS THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS. You can tell a lousy story on film for a huge budget, or a brilliant story on film for a tiny budget (Take a close look at the budgets of the Top 20 RoI films, they average under $2m!)

 3.     The Genre

Irrelevant. – As a filmmaker/storyteller, who the hell cares which genre is “in general” more profitable? Storytelling – and the psychology of storytellersdoes not work that way. Example: If you grew up loving horror films, and you become a screenwriter, you will probably want to tell a horror story (or: insert your favourite genre). And – Why? It’s what you know. Conversely, there is nothing more pathetic than: reading a script by someone who obviously doesn’t know, understand and love a particular Genre, but – who is clearly trying to make some fast bucks. Their knowledge of the Genre memes, tropes and conventions shows up (embarrassingly) right on page 1 of the screenplay. – It makes the Reader want to force-feed the crappy, genre-illiterate screenplay back to the writer, along with the `top 10 classics of the genre’ on laserdisk. (i.e. the really big ones, that are hard to fit into someone’s mouth.)

As a writer, Your Genre is “your genre” because you are passionate about it. – If someone tells you “Oh, well, westerns about sharks don’t usually make money” you should punch them. If you are passionate about `westerns with sharks in them’, then – yours is a lot more likely to be brilliant; the first one that “works”. Telling someone that (say) “Rom-Coms are down this year” is not going to get in the way of someone’s passion for their Rom-Com they have been diligently writing/developing for 5 years or more! Get real-!!!

 4.     The MPAA Rating

So: an R-rated film’s potential audience is more limited than a G-rated film. So what? See the above point. – If the story requires an R-rating, then – the story requires an R-rating. Story is everything, and the film has to have story integrity. You can tell when a movie has been `watered down’ from a higher to a lower Rating. (i.e. It starts to suck.)

5. Sequelity / Adaptationality / Originality

So: Films that are adapted from some previous source (novel, short story, whatever) or – are sequels – are more likely to find an audience, as there already is an audience… But – they are also vastly more expensive 99% of the time (as, you have to acquire the rights, and often they are sprawling epics of some kind, etc). – Look at the top 20 RoI films: NONE OF THEM ARE BASED ON PREVIOUS MATERIAL. All are original cinema stories.

6.     “Star power” (Cast)

De Vany has (empirically and scientifically) found that: casting stars makes a movie lose money. (De Vany 2004: 4).So: Can you put big “stars” in a film, and make it successful that way? Sadly, no. Many films with big film stars in them flop at the box office. Lesson: If the story isn’t great, then Audiences won’t care, even if they are a fan of that film star. In fact (get this again) – Art De Vany and others have proven – in general, film stars actually make a movie lose money! (De Vany 2004: 4).

Also – look at the top 20 RoI films. None of them had stars… That is all the proof you need. Stars are irrelevant. IT IS – EMPIRICALLY – ALL ABOUT THE STORY.

7.     Director `marquee value’ (i.e. – `Director-branding’)

Only 2 of the top 20 RoI films had `name’ directors (Spilberg, and Lucas.) So – what explains the other 18 movies? Director marquee value (`branding’) is not useful. Nobody cares.

8.     Country of origin

Again, so what? If you live in a country – you make films there. Yes, the Top 20 RoI Films are dominated by US films – though they include films that are: Australian, UK, Irish and Mexican (non-English language) films.

Note: Some people see the Top 20 RoI data set – and assume this is “Hollywood films”. It is not. The reason US-made English-language films dominate the data set is that US culture and the English language are the most virulent memes, (regarding culture and language.)

9.     Timing (with regards to holidays, seasons, etc)

This is a no-brainer right? Films released in the holidays will naturally do better? Wrong. Films with a great story (see the top 20 RoI films) will do better, it makes no difference when they are released. Please stop studying this. Study and analyse the successful film stories. Practice Theory Narratology is one way to do this.

10. Number of screens the film opened on

Irrelevant. – Look at the top 20 RoI films. Everyone at the studio thought Star Wars was a huge bomb. Primer played on 4 screens! This is not the point, it’s: THE STORY. THAT IS ALL THAT MATTERS.

11. Opening weekend figures

Again, why even look at these numbers? If a film story is great – it takes time for word-of-mouth. The opening weekend indicates: nothing useful. If anything – it shows whether the story-memes in the poster and the trailer worked in `attracting an initial audience’.

But again — that is actually all still the story (!) It may seem like `The Marketing’ – but it isn’t. The story provides what there is, to market. (Nonetheless – the Marketers usually manage to mess up the marketing of most films – as – they have little to no idea what memes will work and `spread virulently’ in the culture. High-RoI films succeed despite their marketing. As do: all films.) It’s …THE STORY…

12. Oscars (nominations and wins)

Who cares about Oscars? It’s not like you can “set out to get one” as your goal and expect it to work. – How many of the Top 20 RoI films won Oscars? Just one. (Rocky.) Anyway – the Oscars is political – and uses a complex voting system that favours Dramasthe least-successful RoI genre. This is also because: Dramas are the hardest to form of film do right. The Academy recognizes this and `rewards those underdogs’. A drama does not have cool gadgets and stuff – like a sci-fi film does – to `fall back on’, in case the story sucks.

13. Reviews

Reviews affect so little they can be discounted.  The Top 20 RoI stats (the aggregated Metacritic scores) show that: Critical reviews perfectly-reflect Consumer opinions (both are 73%). So – on the one hand, “Reviews mean everything”. On the other hand – they are totally superfluous and unnecessary. (Note – If you are a reviewer, your work is an important barometer of public taste – but will not affect whether more or less people go and see the film.) The story alone determines this by itself.

14. Social Media

Marketers have tried to see if social media like Twitter predicts box office. But: It’s too late by then! – The writer has already struggled and worked hard for years to write/develop the screenplay – and the film has already been made – and released. This stuff is all after the fact. – This will not help a writer or filmmaker.

15. Marketing Spend

This affects nothing. (Except if – Marketers don’t spend the bare minimum needed, to let the public know that this new film story exists. See De Vany’s finding, below.)

So at the risk of repeating myself:

As Arthur De Vany states in his excellent study, and collection of research papers, Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes the Film Industry (2004):

“The frightening thing about trying to manage this [film] business is that there are no tangible means to reliably change the odds that a movie will succeed or fail. Marketing can’t change the odds. There is no evidence to show that marketing has much to do with a film’s success. Marketing is mostly defensive anyway; a studio has to market its films draw attention in a field where everyone is shouting. If you don’t shout too, you will be drowned out and may not be noticed.”

(De Vany 2004: 4 – emphasis mine) 

 As McKenzie points out in The Economics of Movies: A Literature Survey (2012):

(1) each motion picture is unique and cannot be duplicated,

(2) demand is unpredictable,

(3) a motion picture needs time on the screen to build an audience, and

(4) most of the costs of production and distribution occur before a film can be shown and are sunk. (Field 1979: 43, emphasis mine)

However the top 5 factors are absolutely worth examining here, within our specific data-set: the Top 20 RoI films.

Some important points to note, with regard to the key elements of The Top 20 RoI films:



Production Independence 18 of the Top 20 films were independently financed/produced (not via a major, mini-major or minor studio)
The Production Budget As soon as you go over $1.9m, it becomes super-risky! The average is $1.9 and all films in the bottom 20 RoI are over $2m budget. KEEP YOUR BUDGET UNDER $2m. HOLLYWOOD! THIS MEANS YOU – MAKE 100 GREAT FILMS FOR $2M EACH, NOT ONE TRANSFORMERS OR BATTLESHIP. EVERYONE WILL BE HAPPIER (AUDIENCE, FILMMAKERS, YOU) AND: YOU WILL MAKE MORE MONEY OVERALL
Star power Means nothing, as – none of the Top 20 RoI films have stars
The Genre Note: None of the top 20 RoI films are Children’s films, nor Dramas.
MPAA Rating None of them (the top 20 RoI films) are rated G!
Country of Origin 15/20 of them are from the US. The other 5 are Mad Max (Australia), Once (Ireland) The Full Monty (UK), El Mariachi (Mexico) and Canada (My Big Fat Greek Wedding).
Originality / Sequelity / Adaptationality None of the Top 20 RoI films are sequels; all are Original ideas (not based on licensed underlying literary material – such as a novel or a play[1])
Timing (with regards to holidays) This is irrelevant, almost all these films had random timing
Number of screens the film opened on Irrelevant, Star Wars opened on 30 screens, (Primer played on 4 screens, and is still a top 20 RoI film!)
Opening weekend Not relevant. All of these were “sleeper” hits. (Slow build, due to word of mouth, because of: The Story in each of them)
Oscars (nominations, wins) Not relevant (there is only 1 Oscar-winning film, in the top 20, i.e. Rocky)
Reviews These have no causal link with success either. (Also – some of these films, e.g. SAW, got many terrible Reviews. Who cares?)
Social Media Most of these films occurred before the rise of Social Media (e.g. Twitter) however: Social Media is just another form of word-of-mouth anyway, so – this is a moot point.
Marketing Spend For the data I can locate, these films all had an “average” Marketing Spend (an average of approx. $1m each). And that is all you need.

So – for a Writer or Filmmaker – none of these things (Marketing, Opening weekend, and any of that) matter.

They won’t help you write your screenplay – and – make your movie.

What matters is (empirically): The Story – and the Screenplay.

So – the top 20 RoI (and bottom 20 RoI) films’ evidence reveals: none of these above elements contribute significantly.

And – in fact, in most cases the exact opposite is true.

Hollywood – this means you: make 100 x $2m movies with fantastic stories. Not all these big, dumb “blockbusters”. (7 out of 10 of which, lose money). And, my advice to Hollywood Middle-Management – please get out of the way of the real storytellers: the writer-hyphenates. (One of the many key findings of my doctoral research study: all top 20 RoI films are by writer-hyphenates.)

Naked Philosophy Guy realizes: Nobody Knows Anything (except him)

Naked Philosophy Guy realizes: Nobody Knows Anything (except maybe him, but – how can we know that?)

…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/


* (Unless of course – we include my doctoral research study; as – its results are quite clear…)


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.

Field, Syd (1979), Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (A Delta book; New York: Dell Pub. Co.) 212 p.

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).

[1] Note that Nia Vardalos actually wrote the screenplay of My Big Fat Greek Wedding before the one-woman play.

9 thoughts on “StoryAlity #22 – So – What Actually Makes A Movie Successful?

  1. Pingback: StoryAlity #49 – On Movie Screenplays, Viral Memes, and Cultural Evolution | StoryAlity

  2. You’re more than welcome – and, seriously, thank you for your support for all the filmmakers (established or, like me, aspiring) who care about film and story and who still need to know (and show) that, given a chance, their passion is financially viable.


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

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

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

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