Analysis / Comparison – of The Top-20 ROI Films – to: the BOTTOM-20 ROI Films (i.e. The Top 20 Biggest-Money-Losers, Based on Return-On-Investment)


Bottom ROI left tail of the bell curve

Using data compiled from www.The-Numbers.com, the bottom 20 R.O.I. films[1] (at the theatrical box office) are:

Bottom 20 ROI Film List

The Bottom 20 ROI Films List


The following time series shows that these films occur with a surprisingly regular frequency: every 8 months, on average.

Since a new Top 20 ROI Film comes along every 2.05 years, this means Bottom 20 ROI films come along, 3 times as often as Top 20 ROI (or, for every Top ROI film – there are three Bottom-ROI Films.) This also correlates with the doctoral research finding that 7 in 10 movies lose money.

The formula resulting from a linear regression of Bottom ROI films is:

Formula for the frequency of Bottom 20 ROI films

Formula for the Frequency of Emergence of Bottom-20 ROI Films

The time series below also shows a clear pattern, as revealed by the “line of best fit”/trend line:

Bottom 20 ROI Films by Release Year (Velikovsky 2012)

Bottom-20 ROI Films by Release Year, 1999-2012 (Velikovsky 2012)

Note the 4 Bottom 20 ROI films that emerged in 2009, and another 5 in 2010.


For screenwriters and filmmakers aiming to create movies with a wide audience reach/high ROI, it is important to “compare and contrast” the Top 20 ROI Films to the Bottom 20 ROI Films.

What was it about the bottom 20 ROI Films’ Story/s, and their Structure (and: their Budgets) that made them fail?

Why were they not successful memes?

Dead Turkey

– What the hell am I supposed to do with THIS..?

Nassim Taleb points to the reason to “compare and contrast” the Top 20 ROI with the Bottom 20 (and also 20 x RoI-loss `control’ films, i.e. films released at the same time, under the same circumstances, same quality cast & crew, same studio/distributor, etc), in his 2004 paper, The Roots of Unfairness: the Black Swan in Arts and Literature:

So in addition to the preceding cognitive bias, there prevails an information-theoretic one as well, related to the limitations of the information at hand –and the neglect of silent evidence. 

Consider the thousands of writers now completely vanished from consciousness: their record did not enter analyses. We do not see the tons of rejected manuscripts because these have never been published, or the profile of actors who never won an audition –therefore we cannot analyze their attributes. 

To understand successes, the study of traits in failure need to be present. For instance some traits that seem to explain millionaires, like appetite for risk, only appear because one does not study bankruptcies. If one includes bankrupt people in the sample, then risk-taking would not appear to be a valid factor explaining success. 

Any form of analysis of art that does not take into account the silent initial population becomes close to pure verbiage.[2]

Taleb, a former stock market trader, is the author of The Black Swan (2007) and Fooled By Randomness (2001), both of which deal with problems arising from randomness, probability, and uncertainty.

So, possibly the Bottom 20 ROI Films did not go viral because of their Film story attributes and characteristics. It is obviously useful to compare where these are different to the Top 20 ROI Films.


Bottom 20 ROI Films - Characteristics

The Bottom 20 ROI Films: 1999-2012 – Some Attributes & Characteristics Analysis: Velikovsky 2012

Source: http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/budgets.php[1] – Note that these figures reflect theatrical box office ticket sales. This is not counting DVD sales or rentals, nor cable or TV screenings.

Note that: the minimum Production Budget in this list of films is $2m, whereas the average production budget of the Top 20 ROI films is actually less than this, $1.9m.

Importantly, this suggests that as soon as a film budget reaches $2m – there is also massive risk.

Drama Alert


Note that: Drama Genre (and/or Drama-hybrid-Genre) Films are a very statistically significant proportion of The Bottom 20 ROI Films (i.e. 11/20 or, 55% of the 20 Biggest Losers On Investment are either partially or fully in the `Drama’ Genre).

The main problem is that: Drama films are comparatively very difficult to market, to all other Genres. Any other Genre (such as Horror, Sci-Fi, even Comedy, etc.) all have recognizable tropes for an audience to identify.

The Adventures of Badly-Drawn Sci-Fi Guy

The Adventures of Badly-Drawn Sci-Fi Guy

But the core of the `marketing a Drama’ problem is, almost every single Drama film is a “drama” in a different way: In Drama, someone deals with a (often, depressing) problem. But – the number of depressing problems can be infinite. The only common element across all Dramas is that: the Story is depressing.

So, at all costs, if you wish to tell any given film story, avoid the Drama genre.

In short: Drama (and – its sub-genre, Melodrama) is often arguably “Box-Office Poison”.

Another issue is that, if we take Gottschall’s (2012) functional definition of story from the excellent The Storytelling Animal (Gottschall 2012), the premises of these bottom 20 RoI films are mostly a huge downer (i.e. the idea, or the `problem’ being `solved’ is depressing). That is, Gottschall (2012) suggests:  

`Story = Character + Problem + Attempted Extrication’ 

(Gottschall 2012, p. 52)

And later in that excellent book Gottschall (2012) also rephrases it slightly (though it means the same thing), namely that story is:

`Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication’ 

(Gottschall 2012, p. 186)

So – take a look at the key problem being solved in the 20 movies above. The premise is: a downer. From an evolutionary standpoint, these are not problems that it is going to be uplifting to see solved.

The evolutionary view (see; Evolutionary Psychology, Buss 2012) suggests: the key adaptive problems are survival, mating, parenting, kinship, and group living. (Buss 2012, p. xiv)

`Generically Depressing Problems’ would perhaps include: World War II (or war, in general), the mafia (i.e., the mob, who are `cheating’), a spouse having died, having an estranged father, death and taxes (see also, Terror Management Theory), a writer having their idea stolen, adultery, gambling, robbery, and a child (offspring) going missing, or dying. Pretty much all these movie premises below are `horrible-and-hard problems’ in evolution. In short, most people would probably rather not ever think about them, let alone, see how people (characters) try and solve these hard and horrible (and, depressing) problems… Let alone, in a Drama. (People often like to watch movies to escape `real life’, not: be reminded just how truly horrible it can actually be.)

Bottom 20 RoI Movie Story Premise – or “Problem” (from IMDb.com)
All The Queen’s Men (2001) A mismatched team of British Special Services agents led by an American must infiltrate, in disguise, a female-run Enigma factory in Berlin and bring back the decoding device that will end the war.
The Open Road (2009) Movie centers on the adult son of a baseball legend who, together with his girlfriend, embarks on a road trip with his estranged father.
Taxman (1999) A tax investigator chasing a tax evader stumbles over a series of bloody murders and gets involved in an investigation with a rookie cop despite his boss’ orders to stay out of the way.
Ca$h (2010) A man meets up with two “good guys” to recover what is unlawfully his, taking them on his whirlwind ride, doing things they never would have imagined, just to survive.
Harvard Man (2002) A basketball player strikes a deal with the mob to fix a basketball game.
Gentlemen Broncos (2009) A teenager attends a fantasy writers’ convention where he discovers his idea has been stolen by an established novelist.
Fascination (2004) Only a few weeks after her husband’s mysterious death, Maureen returns from a cruise with handsome Brit Oliver Vance in tow. Her son Scott is mortified. He still can’t believe that his father – a world-class athlete – actually drowned.
This Thing Of Ours (2003) Using the Internet and global satellites, a group of gangsters pull off the biggest bank heist in the Mafia’s history.
Southland Tales (2006) During a three day heat wave just before a huge 4th of July celebration, an action star stricken with amnesia meets up with a porn star who is developing her own reality TV project, and a policeman who holds the key to a vast conspiracy.
Edmond (2005) A fortune-tellers teasing rumination sends Edmond Burke lurching into New York City’s hellish underworld.
Outlander (2008) During the reign of the Vikings, Kainan, a man from a far-off world, crash lands on Earth, bringing with him an alien predator known as the Moorwen. Though both man and monster are seeking revenge for violence committed against them, Kainan leads the alliance to kill the Moorwen by fusing his advanced technology with the Viking’s Iron Age weaponry.
A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop [San qiang pai an jing qi] (2009) The owner of a Chinese noodle shop’s scheme to murder his adulterous wife and her lover goes awry.
Imaginary Heroes (2004) The Travis family façade is destroyed by an event incomprehensible to them — an event which will open locked doors and finally reveal the secrets that have haunted them for decades
World’s Greatest Dad (2009) When his son’s body is found in a humiliating accident, a lonely high school teacher inadvertently attracts an overwhelming amount of community and media attention after covering up the truth with a phony suicide note
Welcome To The Rileys (2010) On a business trip to New Orleans, a damaged man seeks salvation by caring for a wayward young woman.
All Good Things (2010) Mr. David Marks was suspected but never tried for killing his wife Katie who disappeared in 1982, but the truth is eventually revealed.
Winter Passing (2005) Actress Reese Holden has been offered a small fortune by a book editor if she can secure for publication the love letters that her father, a reclusive novelist, wrote to her mother, who has since passed away. Returning to Michigan, Reese finds that an ex-grad student and a would-be musician have moved in with her father, who cares more about his new friends than he does about his own health and well-being.
Eye See You [D-Tox] (2002) Stallone plays a cop who comes undone after witnessing a brutal scene on the job. He checks into a rehab clinic that specializes in treating law enforcement officials. Soon, he finds that his fellow patients are being murdered one by one.
The Gambler (1997) It’s about a guy who gambles. That’s pretty much it.
I Come With The Rain (2009) Ex-Los Angeles cop turned private eye travels to Hong Kong in search of the missing son of a billionaire.

(The Plot Synopses above are taken from IMDb.com).

Notably also, Oscars (both nominations, and wins) only have a significant effect on Dramas, no other Genres. Other Genres (in terms of box office) are mostly unaffected by Oscar nominations or wins.

Also, it is likely that: Dramas only ever do get an Oscar boost, because – usually, only Dramas ever get nominations or awards.

For evidence of this, see Best Picture Oscars list at Box Office Mojo: http://boxofficemojo.com/oscar/bestpichist.htm?view=bymovie&p=.htm

Awards Money or What

Note that `Genre pictures’ start in earnest at about #90 down in the list… (with `Avatar‘, 2009)

And – note where all the `Genre’ movies are (all `down the bottom of the list’, when sorted by `effect’)

That is to say – the further down the `Best Picture’ Oscars list we go, the more intensely “Genre” the movies get: they become more Sci-Fi, more Horror, more Action (e.g. Inglourious Basterds, 2009)

Essentially, these `Bottom 20 ROI Films’ are the opposite of viral memes. Their story characteristics are worth avoiding if a screenwriter / filmmaker wants their film to go viral, and achieve a high audience reach.

McKee spots a film turd


Coming Up Next: A Vaguely-Remarkable Finding…!

Right before your very eyes




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] Source: http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/budgets.php[1] – Note that these figures reflect theatrical box office ticket sales. This is not counting DVD sales or rentals, nor cable or TV screenings.

[2] Taleb, N. N. (2004) “Roots of Unfairness” Literary Research / Recherche Littéraire. 21 (41–42): pp. 241–254

6 thoughts on “StoryAlity #57 – What Are The `Biggest-Money-Loser’ Movies?

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