StoryAlity Screenwriting Guidelines – for any aspiring Writer of High-RoI Movies
The following is derived from my doctoral research study.
For the full high-RoI Guidelines, please see: the full PhD (free online).
(Side Note: RoI = Return on Investment. Another way to view RoI is: “High Audience Reach / Movie Production Cost“). Or – artistic creation `cost-benefit ratio’. (See: On The Origin of Stories, Boyd 2009).
On average, 7 in 10 feature films lose money. And: 98% of screen ideas/screenplays submitted to producers are rejected. See:
StoryAlity #115 – The `Less-Than-1%’ Problem in the Domain of Film
A consilient (empirical and scientific) doctoral research study of the Top 20 RoI FIlms of the last 70 years reveals practical guidelines for any aspiring writers of a viral film.
The primary dataset – The Top 20 RoI Movies of the past 70 years:
So – If you hope to: tell a feature film story – to the widest possible audience (for your film’s budget), i.e. – Write a high RoI screenplay (and from it, make a high RoI Film) – here are the suggested Guidelines, resulting from this empirical study of the Top 20 RoI Films of the last 70 years — a set of Twenty Do’s, and Ten Don’ts.
Please note, these StoryAlity Theory guidelines are: a probability calculus. If any writer/filmmaker desires, they can certainly choose not to use all x 30 of these guidelines… They may choose to use (say) only 29 of the 30 guidelines, (or indeed, use none of the guidelines at all.) For example, a writer/filmmaker may choose to create/use their own film story structure, rather than the StoryAlity story structure (i.e. the Fibonacci sequence…). That is entirely their own choice, given the workings of Agency (choices) and Structure (guidelines).
STORYALITY THEORY GUIDELINES – i.e. HIGH-AUDIENCE-REACH (HIGH-RoI) FILM THEORY:
WRITING – DO’s
1. THE STORY
Remember that – having a GREAT STORY (like all the Top 20 RoI Films do, using The StoryAlity Syntagm) means: Nothing else really matters. You don’t need: `stars’, or `expensive special visual effects’, etc.
What is The Story? It includes the Premise, Characters, Plot, Themes, Structure, Tone, Style, Dialog, Music, Sound, Images, Genre and the Storytelling….
For more see: StoryAlity #131 – Why Things (like, some Movies) Are Popular – and – The Anna Karenina principle
2. THE GENRE
Note that in terms of Genre, Horror is the `safest’ (the least risky) Genre for RoI. Note that 9 of the Top 20 RoI Films are Horror, by far the most -represented Film Genre, in the Top 20 RoI Films.
Note also that Drama, and hybrid-Comedy (e.g. Comedy-Thriller), is the least safest (by far the riskiest.)
In terms of RoI, Drama is the hardest to: write, to finance, to make, and to market. (This is also why the Oscars all predominantly go to: Dramas.)
But of course this does not mean Horror is the genre you should necessarily write. You should write in a Genre (or Genres) that you know and love. Hybrid-genre films also work well, given the notion of bisociation, from Koestler 1964, The Act of Creation (combining two ideas/two or more genres, etc).
Make it a `Villain Triumphant’ story (obviously, this also allows for sequels). Even if you feel that maybe 3 out of the 20 highest-RoI films are not Villain Triumphant stories, the other 17/20 still are. Again, this (StoryAlity Theory) is a probability calculus, and not a hard-and-fast all-inclusive rule – where `no exceptions are allowed’.
Try and restrict the number of Characters (i.e. Actors). 4 x main characters (3 protagonists and an antagonist) is most likely (given: probability) the ideal number – as that is the average of the top 20 RoI films. (But of course `ensemble pictures’ – with many protagonists/`main characters’ are also fine, given: American Graffiti and The Full Monty, and even Star Wars,.)
4. STORY / PLOT STRUCTURE
Recommended: Use the 10-Act StoryAlity™ screenplay syntagm. (See: StoryAlity #50)
Make the story: Linear. (By all means, you can start “30 years ago”, like Halloween and Friday the 13th if you really need some Backstory – but, for now, forget `non-linear structure’, like Rashomon and Pulp Fiction. As great as those films are.)
Also, you can certainly choose not to use this screenplay/film story structure, and use the other 29 x StoryAlity Guidelines. That is your choice… (ie `agency and structure’, again…)
Make the Theme: `Survival, Reproduction, Revenge’ (In other words, the `primal’ or `evolutionary’ themes: (1) Life and Death, (2) Family/Community, and (3) `Justice / Revenge’). There is a great deal of literature from literary Darwinism to suggest these primal themes are what appeals to human nature (given: evolved human psychological predispositions probably dating back to the Pleistocene Era). See for example literature by Brian Boyd, Steven Pinker, Joseph Carroll, Jonathan Gottschall, and Dennis Dutton – among many others. (See the excellent works listed in the post at:
There is a great deal of literature from Evocriticism / literary Darwinism to suggest these `primal’ themes are what appeals to Human Nature (given: evolved human psychological predispositions probably dating back to the Pleistocene Era). See for example literature by Brian Boyd, Steven Pinker, Joseph Carroll, Jonathan Gottschall, and Dennis Dutton – among many others. (For details, see the excellent works listed in the post at: On Consilience in the Arts)
6. LOCATIONS (and `Number of’:)
28 Locations is the ideal. This is the average number of locations, used in a Top 20 RoI Movie.
Of course there is also wide variation – as Paranormal Activity uses one house as the location – and Star Wars 1977 has over 70 locations… But as a suggestion – if you possibly can: Try and set the story/film all in one Location. (Preferably, one you already have access to.) As above, the #1 RoI film (Paranormal Activity, 2009) is all set in one location (i.e. a suburban house).
7. TIME / TEMPORAL SETTING.
ideally, set it in the Present Day. The vast majority of Top 20 RoI films are set in `the present’.
Avoid period pieces. (They tend to be: expensive!)
8. NUMBER OF SCENES
Have about 105 scenes, with an average of 50 to 60 seconds to (i.e. 3/4 of a page, to 1 page) each.This is the average given the top 20 RoI films – and also noting that – high RoI films are likely tending towards: 90 minutes (screenplay pages) and 90 scenes, if we extrapolate.
This is the average given the top 20 RoI films – and also noting that – high RoI films are likely tending towards: 90 minutes (screenplay pages) and 90 scenes, if we extrapolate.
7. SCREENPLAY LENGTH / MOVIE RUNNING TIME
Make the screenplay 90 pages, and the film 90 minutes – or less. This is the average length of a top 20 RoI movie Although, the shortest Top 20 RoI Film is 77 mins (Primer, 2004)
By all means, use `Voice-Over’ – if you want to.
Some of the Top 20 RoI Films do this. (ie Primer, El Mariachi, etc. So – Why not you?)
“Write what you know.”
(The writer-hypenates of the Top 20 films had, for the most part, all `lived’ their stories).
– Although George Lucas possibly didn’t live in “a galaxy far far away” he was only able to do Star Wars (1977), because he first did top 20 RoI movie American Graffiti, which was about his own youth… `Rocky’ was loosely based on Stallone’s own experience, as were `Clerks’, `Primer’, and, most of the top 20 RoI films…
10. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE… BECOME `MASTER OF YOUR OWN DOMAIN’
ie – Write loads of screenplays. Make loads of short films. Learn from all the mistakes.
(That’s what all those Top-20 RoI filmmakers did first.)
FILMMAKING – DO’s
1) Be a Writer-hyphenate (i.e. a Writer-Director, or Writer-Actor, or Writer–Producer, etc.)
All the Top 20 RoI Films were by writer-hyphenates.
2) Keep the budget under $1.9M, which is the average top 20 RoI movie budget (and preferably even as low as $7k)
3) Try and restrict the number of Shooting Days (between 7 and 31 days is apparently, the ideal, given the top 20 RoI.)
4) Try and restrict the number of Crew you need to shoot it… Can you use: available light, existing wardrobe, makeup? (Can you perhaps even make it a silent film – and thus, save on recording/mixing dialog/sound)?
5) Try and do most things on the film, yourself. (Like say Shane Carruth (Primer), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), etc.)
That pretty-much covers the DO’s…
Now, for the:
(If you want to increase the probability of a High Audience-Reach / High-RoI Film…)
If you aim to make a Top 20 RoI film, the guidelines below are what you (most likely, given: probability theory) probably should NOT tend to do, in order to try and help maximize the chances of, actually making a high RoI film: (obviously, the lower the budget, in one sense the easier it is to make a high RoI, or high relative audience-reach when production budget is compared to audience reach – or theatrical box office… notably on average most films make about 3 times their theatrical box-office (in dollar terms) in ancillary media [DVD, BluRay, TV, VOD, etc] but it is difficult to measure audience reach from these figures, as TV ratings of films are difficult to obtain, as is the number of people who view a DVD/BluRay, etc… For these reasons, theatrical box office is taken as the most accurate measure of audience-reach – as we know the approximate number of people who bought a ticket…) It is also worth looking at Brian Boyd’s observations of artists’ cost/benefit ratios… see the post here: On Consilience in the Arts.
1) Probably, don’t write/make a `Drama’. (They’re apparently, the riskiest, just in terms of RoI… or relative audience reach, when compared to the movie budget)
2) Don’t necessarily cast `Stars’. (You don’t need them – as none of the top 20 RoI films had A-list `Stars’ in the cast. And in fact, they will likely cost too much anyway. This may drive up the production budget – which not only possibly makes the film harder to finance, but means a bigger RoI is harder to achieve.)
3) Probably, don’t make an Animation (of any kind: 2D, 3D, etc.). Make it: a live-action film. I only suggest this as none of the top 20 RoI films are animated, but Animation is obviously a wonderful Genre. In fact it is not even a Genre, it is a production methodology, an animated film can obviously be: any story genre.
4) Don’t base it on existing literary material (e.g. a novel, a play, a short story). All the Top 20 RoI films are original story/screenplay, and not an `adapted’ Story – though some were loosely inspired by existing literary material (eg: Night of the Living Dead and “I Am Legend” and The Evil Dead and the `Necronomicon’ lore by HP Lovecraft… )
Well – unless the play was your own, I guess. But then it is worth noting that even David Mamet’s `Edmond’ did not do very well (see: The Bottom 20 RoI Films).
5) Preferably, as a general `rule of thumb’ – Don’t have: car-chases, sex scenes, shootouts or explosions – unless you really need to – and – can somehow do them real cheap. (The average film needs to make a 373% RoI to break even, and 7 in 10 movies lose money.)
6) Probably, don’t have a Story with: hit-men – or gangsters – or the mafia – unless you really have to… A lot of the Bottom 20 RoI Films are about those.
(Yes, The Godfather is amazing, but – for that one great mafia/hit-man film, how many thousands of unsuccessful ones are there? This is not to say an exception/`black swan’ may not occur. it just seems less likely given the historical record.)
7) Ideally, perhaps don’t model yourself (and/or your screenplay/film) on, a film that was not by a first-time feature Writer, or Director. If you really must model yourself on one of the “big famous ones”, then – perhaps look very closely at their first films. (How did they break in? What sort of film project, was it?)
8) Ideally, don’t use lots of: special effects, water (e.g. a film set at sea?), or kids. Or, scenes set at night. They’re all (usually) too expensive. Open Water is an obvious exception… (You have to ideally, aim to keep it under $2m, remember… As soon as the budget goes over $2M, it sees the film is much less likely to be a high RoI film. Also, all the Bottom 20 RoI films are $2M budget or more. Usually, much much more.)
9) Probably, don’t put existing popular songs in there, as they are (generally) expensive to license. (Unless, you can somehow get them cheap / for free.)
10) …Don’t forget to: Have Fun-!
And tell the story you want to tell… that has personal meaning for you.
And: That’s pretty much, the key guidelines – both the suggsted `Do’s’ and `Don’ts’ – for increasingly the likelihood of creating a high-RoI (or even, ideally, a Top 20 RoI) Feature Film. (Given an examination of the top 20, and bottom 20, RoI films).
Time: On average, feature films usually take: 2- 8 years to write/develop, another year to finance/make, and then, another year, to get released. (Bloore 2013)
(Noting that `cultural zeitgeist’ – i.e. historical timing – does not actually appear to be a major factor in the success of high RoI films… ie Would say `Star Wars’ have been a success, released 50 years earlier? Probably, yes – as it was based around Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers… Disciplinary zeitgeist (the evolution of the film form, and see Simonton 2004 on `Creativity In Science’ for more) is another matter, when opposed to Cultural zeitgeist.. i.e. `Hindsight bias’ often leads us to think that films like Star Wars (1977) were successful, because of their `timing’ in the cultural and historical context…. but this is also to ignore the other films – with the same elements – that were also not successful at that time…
And: Break A Leg-!
Also, movies (films) are `units of culture’. For a great book chapter on that, see:
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/
Bloore, P. (2013). The Screenplay Business: Managing Creativity in the Film Industry. London; New York: Routledge.
Brindley, M. (1996) “Writing the Low Budget Feature” from `Low Means Low’ – Papers from the Low Budget Feature Seminar, (Woolloomoolloo: Australian Film Commission, now Screen Australia)
Also it should be noted, these High RoI Film/Screenplay guidelines tend to correlate with screenplay guru Michael Brindley’s (excellent) “The 6 C’s of Low-Budget Filmmaking” (Brindley 1996): Namely – the importance of: Concept, Collaboration, Containment, Cast, Control and Cost. If you aim to write a High RoI Film, I would commend Brindley’s 1996 article on this to you. – The key reason being, all things being equal, as per the Top 20 RoI films: the lower the budget, the more likely the film is to make a high RoI. (This is not `magic’, nor anything mystical; it is simply due to the laws of mathematical probability.)
Related weblog articles:
- StoryAlity #50 – The StoryAlity Screenplay Syntagm (storyality.wordpress.com)
- StoryAlity #51 – The StoryAlity High-ROI Film Story and Screenplay Checklist (storyality.wordpress.com)