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On Character and Story – in the Top 20 RoI Films

So in my doctoral study, I did an empirical analysis of Character and Story in the Top 20 RoI Films, across various categories.

(I mean, after all: Story `IS’ Character – and – Character is part of the memeplex holarchy of Story – but: so it goes. Also – major spoiler alerts, below)

In the study, I empirically examined / analyzed:

1) How many Characters in each Film?

2) Typical Occupations?

3) Story Stakes for the Main Characters (i.e. the `good guys’)? (Note: I didn’t say `protagonist’.)

4) Details of the `Villain Triumphant’ Story trope, in each case.?(Note: All are `Villain Triumphant’)

5) `Transformational Character Arcs’ of `the good guys’? (Note –  Overwhelmingly: the Top 20 ROI Films don’t have them.)

6) Plot Trajectory: Hero vs. Villain.

A Character holarchy

An example Character holarchy

And – Here are the results of that empirical `Character’ study, for your edification:

———————————————————————————————————————————

How many Main Characters are there, in a typical High-ROI film?

#

MOVIE

# of

MAIN CHARACTERS

HEROES

VILLAINS /

PROTAGONISTS

1

Paranormal Activity

2

Micah, Katie

The Demon

2

Mad Max

5

Max, Jessie, Goose

Nightrider, Toecutter

3

The Blair Witch Project

4

Heather, Mike, Josh

The Witch

4

El Mariachi

3

Mariachi, Domino

El Moco

5

Night of the Living Dead

7

Ben, Barbra, Helen, Harry, Tom, Judy, Karen,

Ghouls (ghouls)

6

Rocky

4

Rocky, Adrian, Paulie

Apollo Creed

7

Halloween

4

Laurie, Annie,

Dr Loomis

Michael Myers

8

American Graffiti

5

Curt, Steve, John, Laurie, Toad

The Pharaohs,

the police

9

Clerks

2

Dante, Randal

Customers

10

Once

2

Guy, Girl

Their partners

11

Napoleon Dynamite

2

Napoleon, Pedro, Deb, Kip, Uncle Ricoh

Summer Wheatley,

the jocks

12

Open Water

2

Susan, Daniel

Sharks

13

Friday the 13th

9

Annie, Alice, Bill, Marcie, Jack, Brenda, Steve, Ned

Mrs Voorhees

14

Saw

5

Adam, Lawrence, Detectives Tapp & Sing

Jigsaw

15

Primer

2

Abe, Aaron

Themselves

16

The Evil Dead

5

Ash, Cheryl, Scott, Linda, Shelley

The Demons

17

ET: The Extra-Terrestrial

6

Elliot, E.T., Mary, Michael, Gertie

Keys

18

The Full Monty

7

Gaz, Dave, Nathan, Lomper, Gerald, Horse, Guy

Mandy (Gaz’s ex-wife) and her partner Barry,  Al the Club Owner, and, themselves

19

Star Wars

8

Luke, Han, Chewie, Leia, R2-D2, C-3PO, Ben

Darth Vader, Tarkin,

the Empire

20

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

4

Toula, Ian

Gus, Maria

What does this mean?

The law of probabilities suggests: an average of 4 characters is best. (i.e. 3 heroes, and 1 villain.)

———————————————————————————————————————————

The Seventh Seal (1957)

The Seventh Seal (1957). I don’t know why this picture is here.

Okay – so what about Character Occupations in the Top 20 ROI Films?

Random side story: When I was back at film school, I once read in an Encyclopedia of Film Facts (unfortunately, the author, publisher and date escapes me… this was like 10 years ago or whatever) and, the book noted that, the 2 most common occupations in feature films were: cop and lawyer.

– This pretty much makes sense – as, those 2 occupations are (probably) the most likely to encounter “drama” (while still being `relatable’ characters, i.e. common memes), and – moreover – we only need to look at the popularity of procedural cop shows, and `courtroom drama’ shows on TV to see, this is obviously pretty ripe territory for dramatic exploitation.

As it happens though, only 1 of the Top 20 RoI Films has a cop in it, as the main character/hero (Mad Max). And – he doesn’t really stay a cop that long, anyway.

Anyway, here are the results:  

———————————————————————————————————————————

What are the typical Occupations of the Main Character/s in High RoI films?

#

MOVIE

MAIN CHARACTER/S

OCCUPATION

ANTAGONIST’S

`ROLE’

1

Paranormal Activity

Micah / Katie

Stock trader /

Katie (student, English major)

Demon

2

Mad Max

Max

Highway patrol cop

Bike gang leader

3

The Blair Witch Project

Heather, Mike, Josh

Film students

Witch

4

El Mariachi

Mariachi / Domino

Travelling Musician/

Bar owner

Gangster

5

Night of the Living Dead

Ben, Barbra, Helen, Harry, Tom, Judy, Karen

Various

“Ghouls”

(ghouls)

6

Rocky

Rocky

Boxer

Apollo Creed (heavyweight champ)

7

Halloween

Laurie

Student, Babysitter

Psychopath

8

American Graffiti

Curt, Steve, John, Laurie, Toad

Various

Street gang,

and

Police

9

Clerks

Dante / Randal

Store clerks

Customers

10

Once

Guy / Girl

Vacuum cleaner repairman /

flower-seller

Their partners

11

Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon, Pedro, Deb, Kip, Uncle Ricoh

Students /various

Prom Queen,

and jocks

12

Open Water

Susan / Daniel

Engineer / Filmmaker

Sharks

13

Friday the 13th

Annie, Alice, Bill, Marcie, Jack, Brenda, Steve, Ned

Camp counsellors

Mrs Voorhees

14

Saw

Adam, Lawrence, Detectives Tapp & Sing

Doctor / Private Detective / Detectives

Psychopath

15

Primer

Abe / Aaron

Electronic engineers

Their clones

16

The Evil Dead

Ash, Cheryl, Scott, Linda, Shelley

Students

Demons

17

ET: The Extra-Terrestrial

Elliot, E.T., Mary, Michael, Gertie

School kids

FBI Agent

18

The Full Monty

Gaz, Dave, Nathan, Lomper, Gerald, Horse, Guy

Unemployed steel workers

Mandy, and also Al the Club Owner

19

Star Wars

Luke, Han, Chewie, Leia, R2-D2, C-3PO, Ben

Farm boy, Mercenary, Princess, robots, retired Jedi Knight

Sith Lord

20

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Toula / Ian

Waitress

Toula’s parents/

Restaurateurs

So. What does this mean, for someone aiming to write a High RoI film?

That working class characters are the most popular in the top 20 RoI films.

I also looked at the Stakes in the stories of all 20 of the Top 20 RoI Films:

———————————————————————————————————————————

What are “The Story Stakes” in the Top 20 RoI Movies?

 

#

MOVIE

THE STAKES

1

Paranormal Activity Katie and Micah’s house – and, their lives (previously, the demon that is stalking Katie burned her house down while trying to kill her)

2

Mad Max Max and his family (and Goose’s) health, and lives

3

The Blair Witch Project The 3 students’ documentary, the 16mm camera equipment, their health and their lives

4

El Mariachi Mariachi’s guitar, Mariachi and Domino’s lives (and health, i.e. Mariachi’s hand)

5

Night of the Living Dead The lives of all normal (humans) on Earth, and those of the 6 main characters

6

Rocky Rocky’s health (and possibly, life)

7

Halloween The lives of anyone/everyone engaging in sexual activity in Michael’s old neighbourhood

8

American Graffiti Steve’s car, Curt and Steve’s future job prospects and economic lives (if they stay in Modesto, like John) – also John’s life (in the drag race)

9

Clerks Dante’s health (he is tired), their hockey game, Dante and Ronnie’s future romantic happiness

10

Once Guy and Girl’s future romantic happiness

11

Napoleon Dynamite Napoleon, Deb, Kip, LeFawndah and Pedro’s romantic  happiness and social popularity

12

Open Water Daniel and Susan’s relationship, health, lives, and the jobs of the Dive supervisors

13

Friday the 13th The Steve Christy and the camp counsellors’ lives

14

Saw Adam and Dr Lawrence’s lives, and health

15

Primer Abe and Aaron’s lives, sanity and physical and psychological health (also that of their doubles)

16

The Evil Dead The five friends lives, and, souls

17

ET: The Extra-Terrestrial ET’s life, and ET, Elliot and Mike’s freedom (ET may be captured and forced to share his advanced alien knowledge with the human race – and the boys may be imprisoned for obstructing an FBI Investigation with potentially-massive positive ramifications for Earth’s wellbeing), and also: the stakes include the smooth execution of the aliens’ plant-stealing program

18

The Full Monty Gaz’s joint custody of his son, Nathan (the $700 alimony payment to Mandy)

19

Star Wars The lives of the Rebel Alliance, Alderaan, a moon of Yavin.

20

My Big Fat Greek Wedding Toula and Ian’s future romantic happiness.

 What does this mean?

In 15/20 cases, the stakes are “life and death”. In 5/20 cases, the stakes are “future romantic/family happiness”.

Note that these stakes actually correlate directly with the bottom 3 “rungs” on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

Abraham Maslow's HIERARCHY OF NEEDS. [*Note: This also applies to other people, not just him] (Maslow 1970)

Abraham Maslow’s HIERARCHY OF NEEDS. [*Note: These needs also apply to other people, and: not just Abraham Maslow]…   (Maslow 1970)

Also Maslow later added a few more rungs. Like “Transcendence”. See this post.

———————————————————————————————————————————

What are the typical “Character Arc/s” in a High-ROI film Story? 

Dead War Guy

“Must not all things at the last, be swallowed up in death?” – Plato

(Jeez, lighten up Plato, it’s only a movie…) 

Note that – apart from the 3 “Hollywood”-style films (Star Wars, ET and My Big Fat Greek Wedding) the Top 20 RoI films all have no Character Arcs.

The main characters are: the same at the end of the Story as they are at the beginning. (In many cases, they are simply: dead.)

They have not learnt / grown / developed as a person/character. (The Top 20 ROI films are not “about” that.)

#

MOVIE

MAIN CHARACTER/S

AT START OF MOVIE

AT END OF MOVIE

1

Paranormal Activity

Micah / Katie

Skeptical of the supernatural /

A believer

Dead / Possessed

2

Mad Max

Max

An angry cop

A widowed angry cop

3

The Blair Witch Project

Heather, Mike, Josh

Skeptical of the supernatural

Dead

4

El Mariachi

Mariachi / Domino

Single & homeless / a gangster’s moll

Single & homeless, missing a hand / Dead

5

Night of the Living Dead

Ben, Barbra, Helen, Harry, Tom, Judy, Karen

Terrified

Dead

6

Rocky

Rocky

A loser

A loser with a girlfriend

7

Halloween

Laurie

Smart, shy about boys

Smart, shy about boys

8

American Graffiti

Curt, Steve, John, Laurie, Toad

Young, angsty, fun-loving

Young, angsty, fun-loving

9

Clerks

Dante / Randal

Cynical about women / realistic

Cynical about women / realistic

10

Once

Guy / Girl

In broken relationships

Reconciled with their unappreciative/ill-suited partners

11

Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon, Pedro, Deb, Kip, Uncle Ricoh

A group of socially awkward super-nerds

A group of socially awkward super-nerds (though Pedro is now President)

12

Open Water

Susan, Daniel

Unhappy in their tense relationship and stressful lives

Dead

13

Friday the 13th

Annie, Alice, Bill, Marcie, Jack, Brenda, Steve, Ned

Carefree, fun-loving

Dead

14

Saw

Adam / Lawrence / Detectives Tapp & Sing

Alive

Dead / Lawrence is likely dead from blood loss / Tapp & Sing are older

15

Primer

Abe, Aaron

Geniuses – but morally bankrupt

Geniuses – but morally bankrupt

16

The Evil Dead

Ash, Cheryl, Scott, Linda, Shelley

Carefree, fun-loving

Dead – or, undead /possessed by evil

17

ET: The Extra-Terrestrial

Elliot, E.T., Mary, Michael, Gertie

Regular privileged white folk

Elliot, Michael, Gertie and Keys all are sad ET is gone

18

The Full Monty

Gaz, Dave, Nathan, Lomper, Gerald, Horse, Guy

Unemployed

Unemployed, and Gaz still does not have the $700 (he only has $666).

19

Star Wars

Luke, Han, Chewie, Leia, R2-D2, C-3PO, Ben

Ace pilot (in a T-16 back home)/ Mercenaries / Rebel terrorists

Ace pilot (in an X-wing); also an Academy dropout / Mercenaries / Rebel terrorists

20

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Toula / Ian

Single plain woman oppressed by Greek family

Married plain woman, oppressed by Greek family

*Note that – in the original ending (i.e. as scripted, shot and edited) of Clerks, Dante is shot and killed at the end. (see the DVD Extras for the original ending of the film).

Also, if you (personally) want to argue that any of the protagonists in the 20 films above undergo a `meaningful psychological change’, (as – some people insist that Rocky for example does `change’) then – count up how many films they `change’ in – and say you feel that in 3/20 films the characters `change’, note that is still just 15% of the top 20 RoI films, meaning that the other 85% do not involve character change… which – is still a decisive majority. StoryAlity Theory is about probability not `absolutes’. (ie Absolutes would be deterministic, and that is a mistake.) Note that: 7 in 10 films also lose money… So even if most films (of the 500,000 in existence) do actually involve `character change’, then ask: But, is that really necessary for a high RoI film?

———————————————————————————————————————————

How High-ROI Film Stories tend to “End”: THE VILLAIN TRIUMPHANT

Game Over Man

“There must always remain something that is antagonistic to good.” – Plato

Arguably, all of the Top 20 RoI films are “Villain Triumphant” films.

Either: the villain wins, and escapes, or – at any rate, the Good Guys do not win.

In 3/20 cases, all the Good Guys are simply dead at the end. In 11/20 (55% of) cases, at least one of the good guys is dead.)

This finding runs contrary to the “widely-accepted screenwriting wisdom” that: “the Good Guys must win”.

(This also suggests: as a Writer – you do not need pay any attention to that so-called “screenwriting wisdom”, if you want to create/ write / make a High-ROI Film Story…)

i.e. Again – if you (personally) feel that, any of these 20 films are not Villain Triumphant stories, then, count how many of the 20 are not. Even if you find that say, 5/20 are not, then that is 25% and (still) means the other 75% still are. So – do you need `the good guys’ to win, for a high-RoI film? No. Again, it is all about: the probabilities.

#

MOVIE

VILLAIN/S

STORY END

END RESULT

1

Paranormal Activity

The Demon

Micah is dead; Katie is possessed

The Demon wins

2

Mad Max

Nightrider, Toecutter

Max’s wife and child are dead

Toecutter is dead; the gangs still exist

3

The Blair Witch Project

The Witch

Heather, Mike and Josh are dead

The Witch wins

4

El Mariachi

El Moco

Mariachi lost a hand, Domino is dead

El Moco is dead but gangs still exist

5

Night of the Living Dead

Ghouls (ghouls)

Ben, Barbra, Helen, Harry, Tom, Judy, Karen all dead

The ghouls are all dead, but countless lives were lost

6

Rocky

Apollo Creed

Rocky loses the fight

Apollo Creed wins

7

Halloween

Michael Myers

Laurie traumatized, Annie dead

Michael Myers wins and escapes

8

American Graffiti

The Pharaohs,

the police

Curt leaves/goes to college, John dies in Vietnam

Nobody wins

9

Clerks

Customers

Dante worked on his day off, closes up the store[1]

Nothing has changed, Dante still in an average relationship

10

Once

Their partners

Guy and Girl go back to their wrong partners

Their ill-suited partners “win”

11

Napoleon Dynamite

Summer Wheatley,

the jocks

Napoleon is still a weirdo, Kip is now married to an unsuitable woman

Napoleon is still socially awkward

12

Open Water

Sharks

Susan and Daniel are dead

The sharks win

13

Friday the 13th

Mrs Voorhees

Teens almost all dead, Alice traumatized

Jason Voorhees still at large

14

Saw

Jigsaw

Adam is dead Lawrence probably dead

Jigsaw wins and evades capture

15

Primer

Abe and Aaron

Abe and Aaron hate each other

Greed wins

16

The Evil Dead

The Demons

Cheryl, Scott, Linda, and Shelley are dead, Ash possessed

The Demons win / The Necronomicon still remains a huge danger

17

ET: The Extra-Terrestrial

Keys

ET leaves, without giving any benefit to Earth whatsoever, making Elliot and family sad

Keys’ life is wasted, as he has spent his whole life searching for alien intelligence and ET simply leaves

18

The Full Monty

Al, the Club Owner

Gaz, Dave, Lomper, Horse, and Guy are still unemployed, and Gaz will not get to keep his beloved son.

If you do the sums, 400 tickets sold, at $10 = $4000.
Even if Al only keeps the bar takings, that’s $666 each for the 6 guys. So Gaz therefore does not have the $700 to keep joint custody of his son…

19

Star Wars

Darth Vader

Luke, Han, Chewie, Leia, R2-D2, C-3PO, Ben

Darth Vader escapes, only to rebuild a bigger Death Star

20

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Gus, Maria

Toula and Ian are married, and living right next to their overbearing Greek family

Gus and Maria have even more leverage/control over Toula and Ian (they gave them a house) 

What about the Plot Trajectory of: The Hero vs. The Villain?

In the StoryAlity system, when we plot the conflict between the Hero and the Villain in the Top 20 ROI films, we observe the results in the StoryAlity Story Charts, below:

Plot Trajectories: Hero vs Villain - The Top 20 ROI Films (Velikovsky 2012)

Plot Trajectories: Hero vs. Villain – The Top 20 ROI Films. [Hero = blue, Villain = red.] (Velikovsky 2012)

It might help to explain it another way: in the charts of the Top 20 ROI Films above, What you are looking at, is: the trajectory of the Hero (blue line) and the Villain (red line) showing whether they `win’ each scene. The reason the graph-lines (Hero vs Villain) exhibit symmetry is that – mostly – when the Hero `wins’ a scene, the Villain also `loses’ that scene, and vice-versa. Note how the Villain line (the red line) always ends up on top.

The way these StoryAlity Story Charts `work’ (i.e. were created), is:

  • Both the Hero and Villain begin on an equal footing (with the same nominal `baseline score’).
  • Every time the Hero “wins a scene” (i.e. achieves their goal/objective at the end of the scene) we add 1 `point’ to their Status. (i.e. Things improve/“get better” for the Hero)
  • Conversely, if they lose that scene, they lose a point from their Status. (i.e. “Things get worse.”)
  • Scores run likewise for the Villain (measuring: if things are better, or worse, for the Villain at the end of each scene)
  • If the Hero or Villain neither `wins’ nor `loses’ any given scene, their Status (score) remains the same for that scene.
  • Finally, the overall scores (plot trajectories) are both adjusted overall by the same factor, so that the Hero ends up at `0′ baseline (for example, when the hero dies at the end, it makes sense their Status is `0’ at the end of the film story).

Note how – in the Top 20 ROI Film charts – the Villain’s status is always: equal to or greater than the Hero’s status at the end (Given that these are “Villain Triumphant” stories, this also `makes sense’ logically/mathematically. Also in some cases the hero is: just plain dead.)

—————————————————————————————————————————–

An example of one chart might help:

StoryAlity Story Chart: #1 Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity - Story Chart (Velikovsky 2012)

Paranormal Activity – Story Chart (Velikovsky 2012)

Note how in the early scenes of Paranormal Activity, Micah and Katie are succeeding in their initial goal – to find proof of the demon (i.e. the titular `paranormal activity’) haunting their house (or in fact, haunting Katie, as it later emerges).

However – when Katie’s keys “move by themselves” (Scene 15), and as the demon then succeeds in unsettling/intimidating/scaring/terrifying both Micah and Katie, the Hero and Villain trajectories show a clear and consistent divergence, until the film story’s conclusion. 

————————————————————————————————————————————–

It is also perhaps worth comparing this StoryAlity Story film system – with specific regard to Character – with Robert McKee’s “story value” system. McKee uses a concept called “Controlling Idea”, and whether characters move `toward’ or `away’ from these values. Overall, as a system – McKee’s approach is qualitative, open to `interpretation’ – and,most importantly, it is not empirical nor scientific; McKee clearly states on Page 1 of Story (1997) that his examples are chosen to illustrate his story `principles’. – That is to say, there is currently no empirical evidence that those story `principles’ actually work. – And, don’t just take my word for this; please check it for yourself; check the ROI of film stories developed, using the McKee system, or the screenwriting convention in general.

Note also – there is also evidence to the contrary: note that John Carter (2012) is the biggest money loser in theatrical cinema history (as at: EOY 2012), and, that Pixar has stated that McKee’s book Story is their `bible’.

Biggest Money Losers, Based On Absolute Loss On Worldwide Gross - Source: http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/budgets.php (Nash Information Services 2012) - accessed 31 Dec 2012

Biggest Money Losers, Based On Absolute Loss On Worldwide Gross – Source: http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/budgets.php (Nash Information Services 2012) – accessed 31 Dec 2012

So – the whole McKee `story principles’ situation appears deeply problematic. i.e. probabilities throw things in a different light.

– If you like it, by all means use McKee’s story `principles’ to write a screenplay. There are probably some very good ideas in there. Also I certainly do not mean to single out McKee’s system here… as, most screenwriting systems are not empirical… rather, they tend to use “proof by example” which – is deeply problematic.

So – as an alternative – I would suggest, maybe also looking elsewhere, for a more empirical and scientific film story system.

i.e. – There must be others (scientific and empirical film story systems) out there; surely-??

Confused Crowd

Just sayin’…

Right before your very eyes

Creativity, dagnabbit-! Always just slightly to the left of where you think it is.

——————————————–

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/

————————————

NOTES

[1] Note that in the original cut of the film Clerks, Dante is dead at the end of the film.

REFERENCES

Maslow, A. (1970) Motivation and Personality (2nd Edn.) (New York: Harper & Row)

Biggest Money Losers, Based On Absolute Loss On Worldwide Gross – Source: http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/budgets.php (Nash Information Services 2012) – accessed 31 Dec 2012

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5 thoughts on “StoryAlity #60 – On Character and Story – in the Top 20 ROI Films

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