On – The new `RoI’ numbers – at The-Numbers.com…

Some Breaking News… in November 2013 (And I should point out, up front – I am in no way commercially – or otherwise – affiliated with Bruce Nash, and, The-Numbers.com. But – I’m certainly a very big fan of their work.)

So – that Breaking News, then:

Recently (i.e.: this month, November 2013 – the list of the Top 20 RoI films (Most Profitable Movies, Based on Return on Investment) was radically altered (and even, dramatically altered, pun intended), at http://the-numbers.com/movie/budgets/

So – this is how the list used to look (archived on Oct 15th 2013, by Wayback Machine):

See: http://web.archive.org/web/20131015111141/http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/budgets.php

Most Profitable Movies, Based on Return on Investment
Release Date Movie Distributor Budget Worldwide Gross Percentage Return
1 9/25/2009 Paranormal Activity $15,000 $196,681,656 655,505.52%
2 3/21/1980 Mad Max Filmways $200,000 $99,750,000 24,837.50%
3 5/7/2004 Super Size Me IDP/Sam Goldwyn $65,000 $29,529,368 22,614.90%
4 7/14/1999 The Blair Witch Project Artisan $600,000 $248,300,000 20,591.67%
5 2/26/1993 El Mariachi Columbia $7,000 $2,041,928 14,485.20%
6 10/1/1968 Night of the Living Dead $114,000 $30,000,000 13,057.89%
7 11/21/1976 Rocky $1,000,000 $225,000,000 11,150.00%
8 10/17/1978 Halloween $325,000 $70,000,000 10,669.23%
9 8/11/1973 American Graffiti $777,000 $140,000,000 8,909.01%
10 10/19/1994 Clerks Miramax $27,000 $3,894,240 7,111.56%
11 5/16/2007 Once Fox Searchlight $150,000 $18,997,174 6,232.39%
12 7/25/1969 The Stewardesses $200,000 $25,000,000 6,150.00%
13 6/11/2004 Napoleon Dynamite Fox Searchlight $400,000 $46,140,956 5,667.62%
14 8/6/2004 Open Water Lion’s Gate $500,000 $55,116,982 5,411.70%
15 5/9/1980 Friday the 13th Paramount Pictures $550,000 $59,754,601 5,332.24%
16 12/15/1939 Gone with the Wind MGM/UA $3,900,000 $390,525,192 4,906.73%
17 2/8/1915 The Birth of a Nation $110,000 $11,000,000 4,900.00%
18 1/6/2012 Devil Inside The $1,000,000 $99,661,944 4,883.10%
19 1/1/1925 The Big Parade $245,000 $22,000,000 4,389.80%
20 10/29/2004 Saw Lion’s Gate $1,200,000 $103,096,345 4,195.68%

Note: The profit and loss figures are very rough estimates based on the assumption that 50% of box office receipts were returned to the studio. They don’t include ancillary (video, TV etc.) earnings, and serve only as a guide.

(Source: The-Numbers LLC, Oct 15th 2013: http://the-numbers.com/movies/records/budgets.php)

And for the archived copy on Oct 15th 2013, by Wayback Machine – see: http://web.archive.org/web/20131015111141/http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/budgets.php


And now, in November 2013, the `Top 20 RoI List’ at The-Numbers.com looks more like, this:


Most Profitable Movies, Based on Return on Investment

Release Date Movie Approx. Profit Production Budget RoI
1 9/25/2009 Paranormal Activity $89,789,930 $450,000 19,853%
2 1/6/2012 The Devil Inside $36,914,462 $1,000,000 3,591%
3 2/5/1953 Peter Pan $140,081,595 $4,000,000 3,402%
4 6/16/1978 Grease $184,113,656 $6,000,000 2,969%
5 10/20/2010 Paranormal Activity 2 $77,151,241 $3,000,000 2,472%
6 4/1/2011 Insidious $31,630,664 $1,500,000 2,009%
7 6/20/1975 Jaws $219,233,743 $12,000,000 1,727%
8 10/23/1992 Reservoir Dogs $20,553,359 $1,200,000 1,613%
9 11/26/2010 The King’s Speech $187,723,259 $15,000,000 1,151%
10 11/12/2008 Slumdog Millionaire $158,767,157 $14,000,000 1,034%
11 12/3/2010 Black Swan $143,084,098 $13,000,000 1,001%
12 6/5/2009 The Hangover $369,255,261 $35,000,000 955%
13 8/27/2010 The Last Exorcism $18,950,274 $1,800,000 953%
14 6/5/2009 The Hangover $363,331,399 $35,000,000 938%
15 5/25/2012 Chernobyl Diaries $10,201,284 $1,000,000 920%
16 10/19/2012 Paranormal Activity 4 $50,486,604 $5,000,000 910%
17 11/13/1991 Beauty and the Beast $192,713,391 $20,000,000 864%
18 8/17/2007 Superbad $166,158,279 $17,500,000 849%
19 11/21/2008 Twilight $341,668,773 $37,000,000 823%
20 11/20/2009 The Twilight Saga: New Moon $458,178,345 $50,000,000 816%

Note: The profit and loss figures are very rough estimates based on domestic and international box office earnings and domestic video sales, extrapolated to estimate worldwide income to the studio, after deducting retail costs. Estimated expenses are based on the domestic theatrical distribution pattern of the film. More detailed financial analysis of films is available through our research services.

(Source: The-Numbers LLC, http://the-numbers.com/movie/budgets/)


Right before your very eyes

Presto-change-o! There’s new numbers at The-Numbers.com!

(Notably, I have notified Bruce Nash and the team at The-Numbers.com that there’s an error in the new list… i.e. The Hangover appears twice in the new list, at #12 and #14. Am sure that will be rectified ASAP, and was likely, just a duplicate in the data… and – with over 6,000 films in their database, there is bound to be an error… Bruce and the guys are only human, but – in my view – do an utterly-fantastic job for the film industry. Empirical data is more useful than opinions, on: which films are `good’ and `bad’ / `successful’ or: not. Consilience and empirical data is the key.)

So anyway – the reason for the change in the The-Numbers.com list, is that: a new (improved, more accurate) formula has now been employed by Bruce and the (excellent) team at The-Numbers.com.

Previously, the formula being used on the site (The-Numbers.com), to calculate RoI was:

Film Box Office / (Film Production Budget x 2).

While this (old) formula, as used to calculate an estimate of RoI in many cases (for: many films) is a very good `rule of thumb’, it also assumes that, the Marketing Spend (including both P&A, i.e. Film `Prints’ and Advertising Spend) on the specific film – in each individual case – is approximately equal to, the Production Budget. (So – if a film costs $10m to make, it is also entirely reasonable to assume that around $10m will also be spent on P&A for the film…)

This is of course – a fair and reasonable assumption to make – and, when examined, is verified by an examination of the figures and tables in the `textbook’ of film, Entertainment Industry Economics (Vogel 2011).

P & A as a percentage of film negative cost (Vogel 2011: 143)

P & A as a percentage of film negative cost (Vogel 2011: 143) – Film industry revenue and cost trends: MPAA-member production (negative) costs as a percentage of as a percentage of domestic box-office gross receipts and P&A as a percentage of production costs, 1980-2009 MPAA films (Vogel 2011, p. 143)

So, in the Vogel (2011) chart above, P&A (prints and advertising) cost, on average, hovers close to around 50% of the film’s total negative cost of the film.

This means the formula The-Numbers.com was using, prior to November 2013 is – mostly – right.

Not many people use 35mm film any more. `Negative cost' means Production Cost plus P&A cost.

Not many people use 35mm film any more, so the term film `negative’ doesn’t mean as much now. `Negative cost’ means: Production Cost plus P&A Cost.

– We have to remember that the negative cost isn’t just “the cost of the film negative” (and anyway – that harkens back to ye olde `film celluloid’ – and most feature films are now shot on – and projected in – digital, anyway. Thanks to technological – and scientific – and therefore cultural, evolution).

Both Biology and Culture evolve. Try and stop 'em.

Both Biology and Culture evolve. Try and stop ’em.

The “negative cost” of a film – in this sense – means: How much money, a prodco and distributor (or a film studio, if they are acting as both of these) `has to go into the red’ to create a film and then put it in cinemas, so that audiences can view it (or stay away in droves). So, Production Budget Cost plus P&A Cost.

How many people view it all depends how viral it is of course, which – is what StoryAlity Theory examines (film virality).

But – previously, the issue was (and, which I had also discussed with Bruce at The-Numbers over the past few years) that – this older formula is a bit of a `blunt instrument’, when it comes to the extreme end of (cheap-to-produce) low-budget films…

The Film RoI Bell Curve

The Film RoI Bell Curve

For one thing, as an example, though films like Primer and El Mariachi may have cost $7000 to produce, it’s extremely unlikely that only $7000 was then spent on P&A, and in fact – when we then examine those films’ actual P&A costs – it becomes clear that you need at least around $1m as a `basic level of Marketing’, just so that Audiences know that a specific film exists, and that, they can now go see it, in the cinemas…

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, p. 4)

My doctoral research (ie StoryAlity Theory) also clearly shows this to be the case, that Marketing does not affect the virality of a film, (or to be precise, the virality of a film story).

The film story itself is either: viral, or not…

No amount of Marketing can change the inherent virality of a film story.

So – just to state the obvious (one of my hobbies) – People (film audiences) do not use word-of-mouth or mouse (the key mechanism of virality in culture) to convey the notion that “Hey – you must go see Film X, it’s advertising campaign was extremely expensive-!”

They instead, say something more like: “Hey I just saw `Film X’ – and  it’s really great, you should go see it.”

And what they mean by that – is – the story was engaging/compelling/satisfying.

Some people also have other terms for this, ie `information cascade’, or `the multiplier effect’, or `the non-linear progression of increase in positive reviews’ – but essentially it comes down to: films (stories) as viral memes.

StoryAlity Theory (i.e. for all the past posts on it in this weblog, see: https://storyality.wordpress.com/an-index-to-this-blog/) examines – in detail – about 30 aspects that contribute to a film’s virality.

In essence, it all comes down to the film story.

(Of which, the story structure is just one – of 30 – Story elements.)

StoryAlity Story Structure

StoryAlity Story Structure

So – Production Budgets do not matter. (An expensive film can flop horribly, if it is not a viral story. See: the Bottom 20 RoI Films.)

Neither does: Marketing, nor even Stars (i.e. A-list actors) or Directors…

You can `tell’ a super-viral film story for $7000, and not one – but several – of the top 20 RoI films are empirical evidence of this…


Drum roll…

It doesn’t..!

The StoryAlity Theory uses (and has always used) the premise that: to study film virality, we should look at the top 20 films made for the least budget – but which comparatively, had the widest audience reach.

The purpose of the StoryAlity research is to be of practical use to creatives – storytellers, screenwriters, filmmakers.

So the `old’ list at The-Numbers.com is still: that exact-same data-set…

All we need be concerned about, with examining Film Story virality is: comparing the production budget (and NOT including the P&A budget, as: P&A has no effect on film virality – and is therefore: not relevant) to, the film’s audience numbers (which – is directly correlated with: Box Office. ie – Divide the Box Office Total by about $10 – and you get roughly the number of people who saw the movie in cinemas. And yes – I know that ancillary media, ie DVD, BluRay, TV, etc is around 3 x times the box office… That also doesn’t change anything, either).

In short –

Q: As a movie screenwriter – How do you tell a movie story – for the least amount of money, yet then – have that film story go wildly viral in the culture? (This is also known as a `benefit/cost ratio’ for artists and audiences, see: Boyd 2009, Boyd 2010)

A: See the top 20 RoI films, when we compare movie production budget [NOT the `entire negative cost’] to Box Office, which equates to `bums on seats’ in the cinema… or Audience Reach of your movie story)

What this leads directly to – is, Questions about:

– What does it mean, to be human? (See: Evolutionary Psychology)

– Why do humans, en masse, like some stories, in preference to others? (see: De Vany 2004, Hollywood Economics, on “Evolutionary Survival Tournaments” for movies, in the cinema environment)

– What is in those certain `hyper-viral’ film stories, that is *not* in the films that do not go viral-? (e.g. not in the Bottom 20 RoI films, or, the biggest-money-losers?)

Notably – there are about 30 things the top 20 RoI films have in common (read this blog from Post #1 to find out…)

In short, Story is everything.

This leads into Literary Darwinism and Ev psych (ie evolutionary psychology, or sociobiology, or biopoetics).

i.e. People like certain stories because: they tap into our evolved predispositions…

To simplify one of the 30 x elements in StoryAlity Theory:

The viral (or: popular) Themes in these stories (in fact in all viral stories) all come back to (1) Survival (matters of life and death), (2) Reproduction (including sex, family, and community) and (3) Revenge (or, retributive justice).

Screenwriting has been in a pre-paradigm state up till now. See this post for Why.

Pleistocene-Era predispositions still exist, in modern-day audiences. Go figure.

Of course there are at least 29 other things that are equally important… (as important as: Theme.)

But – just sayin’…

Also – the actual StoryAlity Theory data-set uses the top 20 RoI films of the past 70 years, and not “of all time” as the film industry changed (evolved) – when TV came in, in the 1950’s – and also there is The Paramount Antitrust Case, that `skews the playing field’ with cinema attendance/film viewing patterns before the 1950s.

For this reason – 3 films are excluded from the data-set, i.e. Theatrical feature films older than 70 years. So – gone are: Gone With the Wind, The Big Parade and Birth Of A Nation. (You may well want to watch the StoryAlity Theory K-Film i-doc, 20 mins, for more…)

So – this (below) is how the StoryAlity data-set looks, once we exclude films older than 70 years (and The Stewardesses was a 3-D porno movie, and, 3-D pornos are popular/viral for certain `visceral’ reasons other than simply, `The Story’… Though – ironically, as it happens – The Stewardesses still adheres to StoryAlity Theory: i.e. `Villain Triumphant’, etc.)

Also, Super Size Me is a documentary. (I would love to see a consilient doctoral research study dissertation on the common elements in the top 20 RoI documentaries… Super Size Me, An Inconvenient Truth, etc. I would guess that Tarnation would be in there. But – anyway, back to the top 20 RoI films data set of StoryAlity Theory…)

The Top 20 RoI Films - StoryAlity Theory (Velikovsky 2013)

The Top 20 RoI Films – StoryAlity Theory (Velikovsky 2013) – compiled using data from The-Numbers.com


The `new list’ is probably most useful for anyone wanting to check: which movies were the biggest money-makers for the studio/distributor… So – the new RoI list is fantastic – and, fascinating – and doesn’t change anything in StoryAlity Theory, yet – it illuminates and confirms many aspects of it. Notably the top 20 films in the new list overlap with the `old’ list.

(I note, just to be clear – it is not really the `old list’ – as – it still stands, when we compare Production Budget to Audience Reach!) The new list uses a different calculation, one that is more useful for Distributors/Exhibitors than for movie creatives/storytellers. Both lists are still correct, They just use a different points of view. The interests of a Distributor are not necessaerily the same as those of say a movie writer/director and cast and crew.

So, for example, take a look at the number of films in `the new RoI list’ (The-Numbers.com, Nov 2013) that are “Villain Triumphant” stories… (Note how many of `the good guys’/protagonists die… including Black Swan) And – How many are in the Horror film genre? (11 out of 20, if we include the 2 x Twilight movies… vampires and werewolves would seem to belong in the `Horror’ genre… Of course, it’s a hybrid genre film [and novel] series, given the: Melodrama and Fantasy aspects of the Twilight story. But all this is beside the key point, in many ways.)

An Amusing Aside, On `Villain Triumphant’ Stories…

So – wait – Is the movie Grease really a `villain triumphant’ story? i.e.: Don’t Sandy and Danny `get together’ in the end? Doesn’t “love conquer all”, and, all of that good stuff..?

Well – as outrageously-irrelevant as this may (at first) seem – let’s take a quick look at the closing panels of the Mad Magazine parody, of the film Grease (called ‘Cease’). This is pp 4-10 of Mad Magazine #205, March 1979.

Mad Magazine #205, p

Mad Magazine #205, 1979, p10

And just for fun, let’s zoom in close on the 3rd-last panel:

Mad Magazine #205

Mad Magazine #205 p10

And – closer still:

Mad Magazine #205 -- Grease: Sandy states the moral/ the theme/the message

Mad Magazine #205 p 10 – Re: `Grease’: Sandy states the moral/ the theme/the message of the film…

Okay… so – I don’t usually use Mad Magazine to decide `the ultimate meaning/message/theme’ of films…

But – in this case, I’d say the writer and artist (the amazing Stan Hart, and the incredible Mort Drucker), the editor and publisher (Albert B Feldstein and William M Gaines) among others, have a good (in fact, even profound) point here…

Let’s put the March 1979 issue of Mad Magazine aside for a moment…

Although a study of the top 20 RoI list shows `character arcs’ are completely unnecessary for a viral film, this film (Grease) certainly has one: as Sandy does indeed change by the end of the film… Sandy and Danny are portrayed as the protagonists of the (love) story, and the `Pink Ladies’ have been shown to be the antagonists… So the film contrasts the character attributes of `Sandra-Dee’/`Doris-Day’ style virginity (see the song “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee”) with: the more overtly-sexual, and indeed, sexually-promiscuous attributes of the Pink Ladies in the film…

From a Literary Darwinism point of view, this also clearly ties into Darwin’s theory of: sexual selection.

For more on sexual selection, see: On The Origin of Species (Darwin 1859, and – republished with an introduction by Joseph Carroll, 2003):

And for Professor Joe Carroll’s excellent introduction to the above text, see: https://www.academia.edu/226937/On_the_Origin_of_Species_by_Means_of_Natural_Selection

And – also – for a much more detailed treatment of sexual selection – see The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (Darwin 1871)

Anyway – this blog post is getting pretty long – so I’ll save an analysis of other film attributes of “the new RoI list” for some later posts…

But, so – in summary – what `the new RoI list’ at The-Numbers.com is reflecting – much more accurately – is: the amount of profit for the studio, or prodco, or distributor (and exhibitors). (Though – not necessarily for, the film’s creators…)

Also – if Story is (clearly) so all-important, then: Why do Writers only get 3% of the film budget (in Australia) and 5% (in the US)?

(I will leave you to ponder that question. Please Comment below… And yes, I know that if the writer and director got 50% (25% of production budget each) then – yes, many films could not afford to be made, but – `many films’ is not `all’ films… maybe, there needs to be a sliding scale.)

So at any rate – that new RoI (most profit-making) list, is most certainly – interesting and useful information. But it doesn’t impact on this film story virality (and the causes thereof) research. Just in case you wondered.

That is to say – if you (if, anyone) want to discover the films that: reached the widest audience for the least production budget, you will soon find yourself, back with: this exact same-old list again…

The Top 20 RoI Films - StoryAlity Theory (Velikovsky 2013)

The Top 20 RoI Films – StoryAlity Theory (Velikovsky 2013) – compiled using data from The-Numbers.com

So; yeah.


It potentially means – a lot of academic papers (and even books) may actually now need correcting / updating…!

The-Numbers.com is well-respected as a data source, and is therefore, also one of the most academically-cited data source for papers on Film and RoI figures (along with the likes of IMDb.com and BoxOfficeMojo).

Fortunately (for the StoryAlity Theory), I have been working (as a creative, in many roles) in the feature film industry for over 20 years, and have been thinking about – and examining – the question of film story virality for that long, and so – the figures/data in StoryAlity Theory are not affected by the new RoI calculation, nor `the new list’, at The-Numbers.com. ie I didn’t ever base the StoryAlity Theory simply on: the idea of money/profit.

i.e.: Very Importantly – “the profit factor” (or: How To Get Rich Quick In The Movie Biz) has *never* been the primary focus of StoryAlity Theory… that would be oversimplifying (and, conflating) the causes of film story virality.

Commercially-minded films usually stink

Commercially-minded films usually: stink

(If you don’t understand that – you do not understand the StoryAlity Theory, yet.)

Some people still completely misinterpret the StoryAlity Theory

Some assume – (and, totally wrongly) –  that to look at the top 20 RoI films (when we compare: Film Production Budget to Film Audience Reach) that – this is somehow a mercenary `grab for film profit’. They (wrongly) assume that StoryAlity Theory somehow is framed as: a crass-and-tasteless, mercenary “get-rich quick scheme”, or some kind of `magic formula, for making a movie that will rake in the big bucks’ for a filmmaker.

– Nothing could be further from the truth. You have to understand How Creativity Works.

On Creativity:

  1. StoryAlity #6 – What is Creativity and How Does It Work?
  2. StoryAlity #6B – Flow Theory, Creativity and Happiness
  3. StoryAlity #7 – On “the 10-Year Rule” and Creativity
  4. StoryAlity #8 – More on the 10-Year Rule” and Creativity
  5. StoryAlity #9 – How To Be More Creative
  6. StoryAlity #9B – Creativity in Science (and – The Arts, and Film)
  7. StoryAlity #10 – About The Creative Personality
  8. StoryAlity #11 – Wallas and the Creative Process
  9. StoryAlity #12 – Combining Practice Theory – and the Systems Model of Creativity
  10. StoryAlity #13- Creativity and Solved Domain Problems
  11. StoryAlity #14 – On some Romantic myths of Creativity
  12. StoryAlity #14B – Creativity – the missing link between “The Two Cultures”
  13. StoryAlity #14C – Two Crucial American Psychological Association speeches: J P Guilford (1950) and D T Campbell (1975).

On `The Screenwriting Convention’:

  1. StoryAlity #15 – The `Screenwriting Convention’ – Defects of the present view
  2. StoryAlity #16 – On Free Will in screenwriting: Can I write, whatever I like?
  3. StoryAlity #17- On Movie `Blockbusters’, and RoI
  4. StoryAlity #17.B – On `The Death of Cinema

See also the Ten Year Rule in creativity (e.g. Hayes 1989).

So – thankfully – this new RoI list actually clearly illustrates/clarifies this principle… – The whole “get rich quick in the movie biz!” angle has never been the intention (nor the focus, nor even the reason) for the research. None of the top 20 RoI filmmakers `got rich quick’. Their films – and their film storytelling skills – were earned – and honed – over many, many years of hard work. (Check this, for yourself ! )

The StoryAlity Theory research is interested in:

(1) Story Virality, and what that tells us about Human Nature, and – about the act – and the art of successful storytelling itself – and also

(2) StoryAlity Theory is intended to help early-career and mid-career filmmakers in telling their own film story, in order to enable a sustainable film career – in an incredibly competitive film system environment, where: 7 in 10 films lose money – and 98% of screenplays go unmade.

See: StoryAlity #115The `Less-Than-1%’ Problem in the Domain of Film

So – StoryAlity Theory is (and has always been) about: real-world problem-solving…

This is also why – It all comes back to both: biological and cultural evolution.

See this chapter for details:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)

And see: the consilient, bio-cultural approach.

It all has to be grounded in empirical, verifiable, factual data. 

i.e. The `problem’ that everyone in film actually has, is: “I already know what film story I would like to tell but, at the same time – How do I tell a film story that people will like? – How do I reach the widest possible audience with my film story?” (Does anyone ever *not* want this for their movie story?)

(As – if `they’ – the audience – don’t like your film story, and if your feature film does not `break even’, since film is relatively expensive as a storytelling medium – you may never be able to get another film financed, and made, again…)

Naked Philosophy Guy strikes again

Naked Philosophy Guy strikes again

It (StoryAlity Theory) is certainly NOT about: How some simple-minded, mercenary, `money-hungry’ producer can “get rich quick”…!

I would not ever advise `going into film’ as any kind of a `get-rich-quick’ scheme.

Film is about storytelling and passion. i.e. Passion, Patience, Persistence – and importantly – Probability.

StoryAlity Theory is about maximizing the chances (read: probability) of telling a viral film. (And – You can certainly still accidentally screw it all up.)

See: StoryAlity #131 – Why Things (like, some Movies) Are Popular – and – The Anna Karenina principle

Of course, if DO you make an extremely-viral film (by telling an extremely-viral story, on film) then, yes – you may well make some money in the process… And – considering that it takes around 10 years to gain the skills to be an effective film storyteller, then – at least making a living at – seeing SOME return, on investing around 10 years of your life – isn’t exactly: a bad idea…(?)

The key point here, (with StoryAlity Theory) is this: You actually need your film to make (on average, as every film’s budget is different) around a 373% return – to break even / go into profit.

If your last (i.e. your previous) film broke even/made a profit, you will likely find financing your next film a lot easier to do… (Results May Vary… your `next film’ may well be a completely-obscure `arthouse’ film. Who knows?)

My doctoral thesis actually opens with a quote from the master/genius filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, a quote which gets right to the heart of the matter:

`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.’

(Kubrick in Ciment 1999, p. 157)

So – StoryAlity Theory is predicated as a way to make the story `stronger’.

This is all a simple consequence of the fact that: Film investors (like: almost any investors) are: risk-averse.

Then again, if you make a no-budget film, then finding the Production Budget isn’t really a `problem’ that needs solving, right? Note how low-budget most of the top 20 RoI films are… (I mean, the `old list’ if we are talking about The-Numbers.com. And I mean: `the same old list’ if we are talking about StoryAlity Theory, of course.)

So – with some planning, forethought – and these informed storytelling/filmmaking techniques – you can use StoryAlity Theory to increase the probability of your own film going viral.


Right before your very eyes

Well – Yes – it is, indeed, a crucial part of “the magic formula”…

But – there is (at least) one other crucial ingredient, which is: YOU, the film story-TELLER…

This Means YOU

This Means YOU

Just `knowing the formula’ (StoryAlity Theory itself, and the 30 guidelines it offers) and executing it all, won’t necessarily lead to positive – or even predicted – results…

Key Guidelines

As we are now talking about agency and structure.

The StoryAlity Theory gives you the structure, but – You, the agent (i.e. – the filmmaker/writer/film storyteller/s) are: equally as important…

You make the choices within the structure, using your own agency. 

(Just BTW – all this has nothing much to do with your literary `agent’. I do not mean that kind of `Agency’, like say CAA or William Morris.)

Also – If you as the film’s creator/s have no writing or filmmaking talent – or – if you have *not* spent around 10 years (on average) practising your craft, and `internalising the creative domain of film’ – and – if you also don’t “Write what you know” – and – if you don’t know and love the Genre you’re using (or perhaps have even invented, by combining 2 or more other Genres that you already know – and love – very well) then – you have just again lowered the probability of your film story actually: going viral.

Commercially-minded films usually stink

Commercially-minded films usually stink. Virally-minded films are: Top 20 RoI films.

(In short, StoryAlity Theory cannot help you with all of that, if, you are, say: a schmuck.)

So – assumptions are usually what `kills’ everybody…

In short: Never Assume

It seems that a lot of people read about StoryAlity Theory, and they assume (totally wrongly) that – it is supposed to be `a magic formula’ – that somehow, removes the need for: an intelligent, hard-working, thoughtful, talented CREATOR behind it all… when making a film.

So – If, say, an idiot (or someone with little or no talent) uses StoryAlity Theory, then – there is hardly any guarantee that it will work. In fact – in that case it will probably fail… You need to be talented, dedicated, creative and hard-working…

Creative: Person, Process, Product

The 3 key parts of the equation – the Creative: Person, Process, and Product (ie Film)

You really need to examine not just the film itself, but – the creative process that led to it – and – the creative person (people) behind the film… There are common elements.

It is also actually quite remarkable to me, how many people (somehow) think that: “a magic formula” could even exist, for creating films?! ie – A `formula’ which – has no relationship to the creator that is then using that formula…

Film is an incredibly complex, deep and recondite domain…!

The Film Domain: mise en abyme (Domains within Domains)

The Film Domain: mise en abyme (Domains within Domains)

It takes around 10 years to internalize the rules of that domain… (See Creative Practice Theory: What Is It?  for more.)

It is really so funny (even shocking) to me, just how many people (mistakenly):

(1) Assume that: they know “What Creativity is”, and how it works – without ever examining the scientific research on what it is, and how it works… (see: Csikszentmihalyi, Simonton, Sawyer, Boden, Koestler, McIntyre, and loads of other creativity researchers.) Most people don’t even know: Creativity works exactly the same in Science, as it does in the Arts! (Another reason that consilience is crucial, in the Arts and Humanities…)

(2) Assume that: their first, 2nd or 3rd screenplay (and films) will be a masterpiece… It takes around 10 years.

(3) Assume – they know “What makes a successful film”, without ever empirically or scientifically studying, a data-set of successful films – and unsuccessful films – and identifying the common elements, and then testing those criteria – using The Scientific Method.

Most people assume – they just are born knowing all this stuff. – It’s truly bizarre. (It’s also: kind of arrogant, in a way.) I guess – since we all spend so many hours watching films, we then think, that – somehow – that all equates to empirical and scientific knowledge… And makes us an expert. (The core problem is: We Don’t Know, What We Don’t Know… and – we just `assume’ all the rest. Assumptions really are: the key problem.)

(And, maybe I can also illustrate it, this way: If a brilliant recipe for baking a cake was created, and then a drunken idiot starts following that recipe, and `making that cake’, then – exactly how likely is it, the cake will wind up: working / good..?)

Creative Practice Theory (The 10 steps all Top 20 RoI Film Writer-hyphenates went through) (Velikovsky 2012)

Creative Practice Theory (The 10 steps all Top 20 RoI Film Writer-hyphenates went through) (Velikovsky 2012)

But – if you look closely at Creative Practice Theory (which is an integral part of StoryAlity Theory), and you go through all the steps involved in it (in CPT) – and – if everything works… (e.g. Say, if maybe your lead actor dies halfway through the film shoot, then StoryAlity Theory may not be able to help with that), then — you have increased the odds of your film story going viral, when we compare it to the other systems / `theories’ out there.

Particularly – when we note that almost all the screenplay gurus do not use and empirical nor even scientific method to analyze/study films – or screenplays – or even `story’ itself.

This actually comes back to consilience, and why it is important, if you want practical and useful results (in: anything).

So – anyway, let’s (briefly) look more closely at the new RoI list – and see how it relates to StoryAlity Theory

(Remember, the `new RoI list’ at The-Numbers.com has `factored in’, not just `Production Budget x 2‘ to arrive at an estimate of the film’s total negative cost, and therefore its RoI, but – it uses another, new & improved formula which adds in `estimated P&A’, and therefore, reflects more accurately how profitable the film was in real terms. Note that – there is a new column called `APPROXIMATE PROFIT’ in the new list. So – all this, isn’t exactly the same thing as: purely looking at Story Virality, as StoryAlity Theory does.)

So – just for fun, here again, are some of the 30 or so major Findings of StoryAlity Theory: (which is focussed on story virality, and not simply: actual profit, in terms of: money.)

StoryAlity study findings: #1 to #10

StoryAlity study findings: #1 to #10

StoryAlity Findings #11 to #17

StoryAlity Findings #11 to #17

StoryAlity Finding #19 (Future Trends in Screenplay/Film Duration, and Scene Length)

StoryAlity Finding #19 (Future Trends in Screenplay/Film Duration, and Scene Length)

Finding #21 - The Golden Ratio

Finding #20 – The Story and the Golden Ratio

StoryAlity Story Structure

Genre in the Top 20 RoI

Genre in the Top 20 RoI

At any rate, the entire StoryAlity blog goes through the findings in more detail… but – it’s interesting to see, how the StoryAlity Theory top 20 RoI films (purely, comparing Film Production Budget – to Audience Reach) compares to the films in “the new RoI list” at The-Numbers.com – a list, which more simply, reflects: actual profit made, on each movie.

(And – The next Question is: How much of that profit did the writers, directors, actors, crew etc, actually see? ie – Cuo bono? Who benefits..?)

In short, Bruce and the team at The-Numbers.com have done a great job, and, the `new RoI list’ just reflects different data. Data that is more useful for film industry financiers, potentially.

But – for film creatives? As before – see StoryAlity Theory.

The main reason for this post is: I’ve had a lot of questions lately about “What does `the new RoI list’ mean, for StoryAlity Theory-??” and, so – this post is an answer to, many of those questions…

Literal `Film profitability’ is one thing, and Film Story Virality is slightly-different (but obviously, there is still a lot of overlap – as `the top 2 films’ in the `new’ list, are also, in: the `old’ list…)

And, in fact – one of the films in `the new list’ was retrodicted by StoryAlity Theory.)

Right before your very eyes

Nothing up StoryAlity Theory’s sleeves…

Thoughts and Comments, always most welcome.

And – Thanks for reading!


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/



Darwin, C (Carroll, J – Editor) (2003), On The Origin of Species, Broadview Press, Calgary, CA. (with an Introduction by Joseph Carroll)

Darwin, C (2004), The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Penguin, Penguin Classics, London.

De Vany, AS (2004), Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes The Film Industry, Contemporary political economy series, Routledge, London & New York.

MAD Magazine, #205, Issue #1, March (1979), `Cease’ (a parody of `Grease’), William M Gaines Publishing, New York.

Nash Information Services, L 1997-2012, Movie Budget Records – Most Profitable Movies, Based on Return on Investment, Nash Information Services, LLC., viewed 20th Dec 2012, <http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/budgets.php&gt;.

Nash Information Services, L 1997-2013, Movie Budget Records – Most Profitable Movies, Based on Return on Investment, Nash Information Services, LLC., viewed 15th Nov 2013, <http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/budgets.php&gt;.


5 thoughts on “StoryAlity #76 – The `new’ Film RoI numbers at The-Numbers.com

  1. Pingback: How to pick a box office winner | PNCAU

  2. Pingback: StoryAlity #3: The Top 20 RoI Films of the Last 70 Years | StoryAlity

  3. I also enjoy and admire the work of The-Numbers.com, even if their lists aren’t comprehensive. Allow me to add one (for example) that isn’t on their list, but should be. It fits your StoryAlity theory.

    The Full Monty. $3.5 million budget. $258 million box office. That’s over 7,000% RoI.

    I like your site.

    • Many thanks IM – and, a great and very astute comment –
      The-Numbers changed their formula (as the post #76, above, shows) so it (the formula at The-Numbers) now – more or less – reflects: the RoI for producers/film studios, and not so much, RoI (creative `cost-benefit’ ratio) the creatives (eg the screenwriters, filmmakers)
      But – my own interest is in: the films that had the widest audience reach, and for the least production cost… ie What were the most viral films in terms of `cost versus audience reach’ (rather than: actual RoI in dollars / monetary profit received, by the producer/film studio… not a lot of that flows back to the creatives, usually!)
      I assert the reason a film goes viral is the story, as you’d know…
      And – the person(s) who creates the Story is the one who wants that same story to go as far in culture as possible, etc…
      Anyway – many thanks!

  4. Pingback: StoryAlity#150 – Key Findings from the StoryAlity PhD on High-RoI Movies | StoryAlity

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