The “Less-Than-One-Percent” Problem – in Movies (or `Cinema’, if you prefer)
In science, Darwin, Einstein and Newton; in music, Mozart and more recently, Prince Rogers Nelson; in painting, Picasso.
Stanley Kubrick was an eminent genius of cinema.
Kubrick’s first (and, short!) movie, Day of the Fight (1951, 16 mins).
And, note the statistics in the opening narration of the full, 16-minute version of the film (LoBrutto 1997, p. 64):
“It’s a living.
For some, not much of a living.
There are six thousand men like these in America – professional prizefighters.
Only six hundred will make a living at all – and of these only sixty will make a good living.
One out of one hundred.”
So – similarly, another `unlovely’ truth:
99% of movie screenplays submitted to producers don’t get made.
Also, 99% of past species on Earth have gone extinct.
…Why does this “one in a hundred” number keep appearing?
First let’s briefly talk about: Evolution.
When Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both co-published their papers on Evolution to the Linnean Society in 1858, Darwin noted (in a letter to Asa Gray) that “Only a few of those annually born can live to propagate their kind.” (see: Darwin p. 51)
Mayr in What Evolution Is (2001) notes that 99% of species have gone extinct, over Earth’s history…
Likewise, in The Slaughterhouse of Literature, Moretti (2000) notes that only 99% of novels do not become canon.
As a system, the `environment’ deselects about 99% of `units’ (systems) within it. About 1% are selected, and retained.
So – similarly, I have identified a serious real-world problem in the domain of Film (or, “movies” – or – in narrative fiction feature films)…
I call it: The “Less-Than-1%” Problem.
When we examine this problem closely, it has three parts to it.
(1) 98% of screenplays presented to producers go unmade*… (and then, wind up, sitting in a bottom-drawer, gathering dust… Ouch!) *
(2) Of the 2% of movie screenplays that ARE made, only 30% of them break even, i.e., actually make a Return on Investment (aka, a `profit’), as a movie.**
(3) This ultimately means that: There is a [.6 of 1% chance] of a screenplay `succeeding’ as a film, where “success” is defined as, a `break-even’ film…!!!
So – the hard and unlovely truth is, 99% of screenwriters fail.
Those are very bad odds.
Screenwriting – and Movies – are a very tricky creative domain…
I also just want to note, this problem has existed since at least 1911 in the movie business. Let’s look at 3 examples.
(1) Let’s take a look at an excerpt from the first Screenwriting Manual, The Photo-Play: A book of Valuable Information for Those Who Would Enter A Field of Unlimited Endeavour (by Ralph P Stoddard, 1911).
Here’s what Ralph said, back in 1911:
`A Chicago film manufacturer reports that out of five thousand received as a result of an expensive advertising campaign, only fifty Scenarios were accepted.
This one per cent, is probably a fair average of copy accepted and paid for by all of the manufacturers.
Of the ninety-nine per cent of Scenarios rejected, a large majority contain ideas that could be made into a good Photo-Play.‘
(Stoddard 1911, p. 1)
(2) Now let’s examine a passage from the excellent book The Screenplay: Authorship, Theory and Criticism (Price 2010):
`From the beginning, Hollywood was developing a story-gathering organisation and analysing the results generically, and soon began the systematic combing of the world story market.
America was producing two thousand five hundred films a year by 1910, six thousand five hundred by 1915, and with the Western European powers crippled by war, `by 1917 the American industry was making nearly all the world’s motion pictures’.
The producer Dore Schary reported that in the 1940s the readers at Loew’s offices in New York, Paris and London would, between them, provide synopses of almost 25,000 items per year; of these, just thirty to fifty would go into production.’ (Price 2010, pp. 132-3)
Note how many, 50 movies are, out of 25,000 possible stories. (i.e., Less than 1 percent. It’s actually one fifth of one percent, or: 0.2 of a percent.)
Those are some very `crunchy’ numbers…
(3) Also – Macdonald (2004, 2013)* also shows, in his excellent research, that professional screen readers (e.g. movie-story analysts) report that 99% of screenplays they assess, do not get made.
This problem hasn’t ever gone away…
So, the `Less-Than-One-Percent Problem’ in the domain of movies is a very-serious real-world problem.
IF, YOU ARE ONE OF THE SCREENWRITERS, IN `THE 99%’, WHO GET THEIR SCREENPLAYS: REJECTED…
…You really want to be in the 1% who get their stuff (i.e. movie screenplays) MADE. Into: movies.
Screenplays are written to be made into movies.
Okay, so… What can be done about it-?
…And so, the real (i.e. best) Question, is:
What Are The <1% Of Screenplays That Succeed… Doing Right-?
For some possible answers, see: the StoryAlity Theory of high-RoI films:
The StoryAlity theory emerged from a study of the top 20 RoI movies of the past 70 years:
Perhaps, one key point to remember is that: Most screenplay `systems’ – as great as they are [I like all screenplay systems, they are all helpful, in some way] – are not consilient (i.e., they don’t use Science, nor Social Science, to examine success, in The Arts.)
Whereas, StoryAlity Theory is a new scientific approach to examining success in: story, screenplay, film).
Another key point is that: there is an ecology of the film system. It is a bio-cultural ecosystem.
The Field of film is: a holon-parton and a holarchy.
A holon-parton is something that is both a part and a whole (Koestler 1978); it is a very special type of hierarchy…
You are probably familiar with this one:
(Note – Not all hierarchies are holon-partons, by the way.)
But – for example, a film story is also a holon-parton. And – it is a meme.
And, thanks to Physics, Chemistry and Biology and Culture (yes, seriously) –
There are 3 Laws of Holarchies (see: Koestler 1978).:
Holon-partons on the same level:
(1) Compete – and/or – co-operate with each other
(2) Look to integrate into the holon-parton above, and
(3) Look to command and control the holon-partons on the level below them.
(Koestler 1964, 1967, 1978)
And then — there is also the holarchy-partarchy of the Film Domain…
i.e…. Ever feel like you’re competing with other screenwriters..?
Or – that your screenplay is competing with other screenplays?
…(Like say, the other 99%?)
Note how the 3 Laws apply, on each level, in the model below:
Note that – Culture (or, the `meme pool’, i.e. all the ideas, processes and products) is at both the top and bottom of this model… It is an iterative and recursive systems loop (see: Cybernetics).
In the film industry (see the Film holarchy diagram above), as everyone knows – Screenplays compete (and sometimes, co-operate) with other screenplays – for attention, and for production finance.
Screenwriters compete (and sometimes, co-operate) with other screenwriters.
Producers compete (and sometimes, co-operate) with other Producers.
Movies then compete with each other at the box office, for audience attention. (And thus: for box-office ticket-dollars…)
This is: the evolutionary algorithm in action.
It is both: Natural – and Artificial – Selection, in action.
So, Culture, like Biology, is: a `Darwin Machine’ (see also: Boyd, 2009 for more on Darwin Machines.)
The competition in Culture is every bit just as as intense as in Biology, and note also that, 98% of species that have existed on Earth, are now extinct…***
Anyway – 98% of screenplays also do not get made and basically, `die’ (…so, not exactly `extinct’, but a similar concept).
But – as a screenwriter / screen storyteller – presumably – You want your movie story to reach the widest audience possible, and for the least film cost.
(Well, unless you’re re-making `Springtime For Hitler’ as a tax write-off, maybe. But every `creative problem’ with films is different, of course! Depending on the circumstances.)
(StoryAlity Theory applies, even if, that film production cost is from as low as say $7,000 – or even up to $40 million. There are actually not just one, but two films in the top 20 RoI list, that were made for $7,000 each. Seriously. Primer  and El Mariachi . Both are simply wonderful films. Both are incredibly viral films.)
But so – what is `the same all over’, is: the struggle for survival among movies – and especially, among screenplays.
– This is all known as: a cost-benefit ratio, for artists and audiences.
Every choice made in Evolution (in both Biology, and Culture) has: a cost–benefit ratio attached…
(And see Brian Boyd’s monumental work, On The Origin of Stories (Boyd 2009) and also, his amazing chapter in Evolution, Literature, and Film (2010) for more on “cost-benefit ratios” for artists and audiences. It arguably applies to all artists, and, I also consider filmmakers to be creative artists…)
Q: So, What can be done to improve those odds, that your movie screenplay will become one of the <1% of movies that do break even?
A: I don’t know. Probability is really tough. All you can really hope for, I guess, is what Bourdieu (1993) called “possible winning strategies”; there are certainly no guarantees in anything in Life… (e.g.: A large piece of space-junk could fall on you right now. We don’t usually think about it.)
But, perhaps, see StoryAlity Theory; as a result of a study of the highest cost-benefit ratio films, it results in 30 `suggested guidelines’, for Screenwriters and / or Filmmakers. They may increase the probability of your story/screenplay/film becoming a super-viral movie… I really have no idea. – It’s really up to you. Also, maybe you have no talent – in which case, don’t blame me, if your movie bombs.
Note: You do not have to adhere to all 30 of the StoryAlity Guidelines, if you prefer, but – the less you adhere to them all, the less viral characteristics your film will then share, with the top 20 most-viral films.
The Story you tell in your film however, is: totally up to you.
– It all comes down to Probability.
That’s actually: How Evolution Works.
(But – we silly old humans usually forget that. The reason for this, is called `ecological rationality’, and see Evolutionary Psychology for more on all that. – Basically, we have `inherited’ minds – that are designed in a certain way. We basically: think much like a cave-person from the Pleistocene Era, or, what Tooby & Cosmides – and many others in the domain of Ev Psych – call, the EEA: the `Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness’.
Mostly, we humans are just not very good at Statistics, and Probability, and, at Discrete Mathematics.In fact, it seems that most people are actually allergic to Maths… Weird; I happen to love it… Maybe, that’s why I love the movie Primer, and, all of Stanley Kubrick’s films so much. But – anyway.)
And – also of course, anyone can use the StoryAlity system, in combination with any – and every – other `Screenplay System’ that they like. – It is not an exclusive Theory of Film Story; it can and does certainly `compete’ with other Screenplay Systems (if you choose to use it exclusively, but – that is your decision) – but – it is also more than happy to co-operate with them all, too-!
Interestingly. note also that the word `co-operate‘ has an interesting double meaning. i.e., -Operate (or, work)..Co- (i.e. together, or in combination)…
But – as the great Sir Karl Popper often said, definitions of words are not important. Reality is. Thus: StoryAlity.
In fact – words are very messy and even often totally ambiguous; Speaking as someone who has been a professional writer across almost-all media for over 20 years – words are in fact, a very clumsy, inaccurate, and badly-designed technology. Language is a very quick-and-dirty solution to the problem of social communication.
Then again – what do you expect? It was a technology invented by a bunch of dumb cavemen…!
(And, some really smart cave-women too, probably. In fact maybe females invented Language; they certainly seem better at communicating verbally, than males. In which case – I’ll also stop bagging Language now.)
Of course, Language has evolved, somewhat (though, not that much) since cave-women (and cave-men of course) first `invented’ it… (or wait, maybe, let’s say – it emerged, shall we…?)
*But* – if you accept it has emerged (as a communication technology) – and, then evolved, then – you probably might also accept that, Culture – in general – i.e. memes (ideas, processes, products) evolve over time, too…
And, if so (if you like reading about Evolution and Culture) – you might even find these posts below of interest: (and, sorry that they are written, using Language, it wasn’t my idea. On the bright side, there are a lot of diagrams, which, are only slightly less-worse than Language, as an abstract symbolic system of communication. I actually much prefer film to: language, and words.)
STORYALITY RESEARCH WEBLOG – On Cultural Evolution – and Memes
- StoryAlity #44 – Biological Evolution, Cultural Evolution, and Creativity: Film
- StoryAlity #45 – On Movie Memes and Memetics (and: How Memes Work)
- StoryAlity #45B – On Tracking Memes in The Meme Pool
- StoryAlity #46 – On Mayans, Memes, Creativity, Darwin and Dawkins
- StoryAlity #47 – Why are some Screenplays/Films more `viral’ Memes?
- StoryAlity #47B – More on Memes & Film (and: 3 solved problems in Memetics?)
On Holon-Partons and Holarchies
- StoryAlity #48 – On Film Holons and Holarchies – and How Holarchies Work
- StoryAlity #49 – On Movie Screenplays, Viral Memes, and Cultural Evolution
And, actually – if you are interested in Evolutionary Epistemology, you might even want to look at this survey, on “Schools of Thought, in the Arts / Humanities”!
(NB – Though – it is only a draft survey. But – by all means feel free to take it, if you like that sort of thing… i.e. Taking Surveys-!)
Note: Some Animals, Also Have Language. (And, I bet they don’t get hung up on definitions 🙂At any rate, so, that’s: The <1% Problem, in the Domain of Film.
And – If anyone has any better ideas for solutions, then please do let me know!
I would personally prefer that 100% of films were successful, 100% of the time.
It would sure make life a lot easier, for us Creatives…
Seriously. I just don’t like seeing bad films.
Nor, seeing: nice, honest, hardworking people, devote around 10 years of their precious lives as creatives to: learning screenwriting (and/or film), only to fail with their first attempt at making a film… (Double-Ouch!)
I don’t care so much what happens with your second film, you can go make some self-indulgent arthouse nonsense, with that one. And – you know what? I’ll probably love it. (i.e. – I’m usually not a personal fan of mainstream movie fare – as I usually find the Story to be very dull and uninteresting. And – not terribly profound, or, relevant to the Human Condition. But – that’s just me. You should write/make, whatever you want.)
(Just: make sure it makes a profit, so that you can keep on writing / making more films… I would actually prefer everyone’s film to be in the 1% that breaks even. So that, we all then get to make another film. And another. And another… And another…)
Anyway, if you want to read a really great book on Screenwriting/Film, read this one:
(It’s not a screenplay manual, but, it will teach you all about Creativity in Screenwriting and Film though). It’s amazing.
Also, in my view, a really amazing article is:
Novrup Redvall, E (2012), ‘A systems view of film-making as a creative practice’, Northern Lights Yearbook of Film and Media Studies [Film and Media Production: Convergence, Creativity and Collaboration]. Vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 57-73.
Novrup Redvall, E (2009), ‘Collaborative Problem Finding and Problem Solving: Understanding Screenwriting as a Creative Process’, Medie Kultur, vol. 25 no. 46, pp. 16-21.
And – that’s about all the Evolution (i.e. Creativity) I can handle today.
…Over & Out.
– Comments, always welcome.
And – for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see, this book chapter:
StoryAlity #132 – The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)
And for a great consilience & creativity & evolution reading list, see:
StoryAlity #71 – On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication
Comments, always welcome.
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/
Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.‘ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.
As an aside, you may also find this interesting:
[* – This figure, namely that 98% of screenplays presented to producers go unmade, comes from Dr Ian W. Macdonald’s excellent 2004 PhD dissertation, on screenwriting. See also his excellent new (2013) book, Screenwriting Poetics and The Screen Idea.] In Screenwriting Poetics and the Screen Idea (Macdonald 2013) the figure is actually: 1% or less of screen ideas presented to producers are produced, rather than, 2% or less (from 2003, 2004), as, the earlier figure of 2% may be overestimated.
[** – This figure (that only 30% of films break-even, or better) comes from Vogel (1990, 2011, 2014), Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide For Financial Analysis.]
[*** Both Natural and Artificial (and even, Sexual) Selection are: `a hard marker’! Sadly, most don’t make the cut. (But nobody ever said evolution was nice. It is: an unlovely truth. Yet it also creates incredibly beauty, and even morality in biological specimens. See: Hierarchy In The Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behaviour, Boehm, 1999]
(If you haven’t heard of `artificial selection’, maybe read Chapter One of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species, 1859. There is not just Natural Selection, there is Artificial – and Sexual – and even Group selection as well. Evolution is not what most people think it is :)
Likewise, “Creativity is not what most people think it is.” (see: McIntyre, 2012, p.3)
And interestingly, Evolution is Creativity. They actually work the same way. i.e.: Selection, Variation, and Transmission-with-heredity. For more, see:
On the structure of the Meme (the unit of culture) – and: Towards a true Science of Memetics
- StoryAlity #100 – The Holonic Structure of the Meme – the unit of culture (Velikovsky 2013)
- StoryAlity #101 – A Science of Memetic Culturology (Velikovsky 2013)
- StoryAlity #132 – The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)