How to build a Box-Office Bomb: Base it on a Board Game!

Game Over Man

SSN Insider this month has a great article called: `Shall We Play A Game? Ouija & The RoI Of Past, Present & Future Films Based On Board Games‘ (SSN Insider, Oct 2014). The article notes:

`Only three films based on board games have been theatrically released by major studios. Clue, way back in 1985, grossed $14 million on a budget of $15 million; New Line’s Dungeons & Dragons grossed $33 million; and then there was Battleship — not the greatest examples of a board game film’s ROI prospects.’ (Panosian 2014)

Let’s look at some numbers from Box Office Mojo for Clue, Dungeons & Dragons and Battleship...

Board-Game Movie Loss On Investment

`Board-Game-Based Movie’ Estimated Loss-On-Investment

These figures in the table above are estimates. (Worldwide cinema box-office for Clue is hard to obtain; and Battleship apparently had about $50M in `promotional partnerships’... e.g. Coke Zero, Cisco, etc, according to this article.) The table only includes the estimated Marketing Spends, for each of these movies – as, usually about the same amount as the movie’s `negative cost’ (production budget) is also spent on the Marketing/Advertising Budget, for a major `studio’ movie (see: Entertainment Industry Economics, 8th Edn, Vogel 2011).

As we can see, the average Loss On Investment is 43%. But this is all a conservative estimate. The reason is, as Stanley Kubrick pointed out about how the average movie really needs to earn about three-to-five times its budget to break even. So a 100% RoI isn’t really `break even’. As Kubrick noted, way back in 1983:

`Ciment: Today it is more and more difficult for a film to get its money back. The film rental can be three times the cost of the film.

KubrickMuch more than that. Take a film that costs (USD)$10 million.Today it’s not unusual to spend $8 million on USA advertising, and $4 million on international advertising. On a big film, add $2 million for release prints. Say there is a 20% studio overhead on the budget: that’s $2 million more. Interest on the $10 million production cost, currently at 20% a year, would add an additional $2 million a year, say, for 2 years – that’s another $4 million.

So a $10 million film already costs $30 million. Now you have to get it back. Let’s say an actor takes 10% of the gross, and the distributor takes a worldwide average of a 35% distribution fee. To roughly calculate the break-even figure you have to divide the $30 million by 55% , the percentage left after the actor’s 10%, and the 35% distribution fee.

That comes to $54 million of distributor’s film rental. So a $10 million film may not break even, as far as the producer’s share of the profits are concerned, until 5.4 times its negative cost.

Obviously the actual break-even figure for the distributor is lower since he is taking a 35% distribution fee and has charged overheads.’

(Kubrick in Ciment 1983, p. 197)     

For more on how `movie RoI’ works, see this post.

Notably, the top 20 RoI movies are not `based on board-games’. They’re original screen ideas, though all of them are based on combinations of very old ideas (or, memes).

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

The Top 20 RoI Films – StoryAlity Theory (Velikovsky 2013), data courtesy The-Numbers LLC (http://the-numbers.com/) .

On the other hand – as it happens – many of the Bottom 20 RoI Movies (or, biggest-money-loser movies) are based on existing material (novels, plays, etc)…

StoryAlity Theory - Just make a movie people like.

The Less Than 1% Problem in MoviesStoryAlity Theory suggests – Just make a movie that people like.

At any rate, so, given the evidence, it’s probably a really bad idea (in general) to base a movie on a board game.

This is not to say, that, a great movie couldn’t, one day, ever be made, that was: based on a board game

And, funnily enough – as the (great) SSN article notes, what all these folks looking at board-games for story ideas apparently have, is :

`hopes of making movies built on products with high pre-awareness’… (SSN 2014)

Ironically, all the top 20 RoI Movies are really old ideas (or, memes, ideas of which people have a `high pre-awareness)’, but – those ideas (or, `story units’, or narremes, or memes) are combined in an interesting new way. (Also – the dialog, plot, and character-motivation in the top 20 RoI movies isn’t: retarded.)

Or – maybe, they just want advertise these board games, using the medium of cinema.

(Just kidding. As if that would ever happen. That would be soooooo cynical, to even think that way.)

But – given how creativity works, the `narrative constraints’ of a board game (er, in general) can mean, some `pretty dumb story ideas‘ get generated, by committee…

"Yup - it's officially a turkey, ma'am."

“Your board-game movie, `Battleship’ is a-ready for the pluckin’, folks!”

In short, the art of screen storytelling is no job for a committee. The top 20 RoI movies have one `vision-holder’ as the story/screen idea creator. (I don’t think, it’s just a coincidence.) Take a look at Stanley Kubrick’s work. (Sure, all of them were adaptations – but – Uncle Stanley was in control of herding all of those cats.)

Movie stories are really, really complicated, and, so is storytelling in general. The problem, when lots of what they call “creative producers” get involved in fooling around with a movie narrative (the script), is – almost everyone thinks they’re some kind of `natural-born-genius storyteller’, and, usually has no idea that, mastering any complex creative domain or art-form (e.g. movie storytelling) takes around ten years, on average.


A Movie Critic appraises a typical `Board-Game Based’ Movie

At any rate, let’s see how Monopoly and these other possibly-forthcoming `board-game-based’ movies do, shall we…?


Game Over Man

And – for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see, this book chapter:

StoryAlity #132The 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 #71On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication

And for a more recent example of a bad movie based on a (well, computer) game, see:

Review: ‘Warcraft’ Is The ‘Battlefield Earth’ Of The 21st Century

Duncan Jones’ ambitious video game adaptation is an unmitigated disaster.

Comments, always welcome.


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/



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.

Vogel, HL 2011, Entertainment Industry Economics – A Guide For Financial Analysis, 8th edn, Cambridge University Press, New York.


One thought on “StoryAlity #121 – How to build a Box-Office Bomb: Base it on a Board Game!

  1. Pingback: StoryAlity #17.2 – On the Death of Cinema | StoryAlity

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