Key Findings – from The StoryAlity PhD on High-RoI Movies (Velikovsky 2016)
(Note: `RoI’ = Return-on-Investment, or Most Profitable Movies)
A Question that many screenwriters – and filmmakers – never consider – or study properly – is:
Why are some movies successful (i.e. “new and useful” i.e. creative) – and others, not?
Because – the brutal truth is: 70% of movies lose money.
And, 98% of screenplays never get made.
This results in: The Less Than 1% Problem.
Namely – Less than 1% of screenplays succeed, as a movie. So worth studying: What do the 1% do right, that everyone else is doing wrong? So – Compare the top and bottom 20 RoI movies.
So – after 20 years as a screenwriter/director/producer/actor in the screen industries (e.g., my CV), for my PhD, I studied 15 x key elements, in the Top 20 RoI Movies and by comparison, also in the bottom 20 RoI – i.e. the biggest money-losing movies.
So – in the PhD, I have 30 x new Findings, for the benefit of all screen storytellers.
These study findings from the StoryAlity PhD actually change a lot of Movie Screenwriting, as we know it.
And – as we teach it (in film schools and in universities).
(More About Me: I’m also a Screenwriting Teacher, and a Creative Consultant for High RoI Movies)
Having the right information (and the right movie data-sets) can mean the difference between success and failure, as a screen storyteller.
In short, most of the popular screenwriting `guru’ manuals – are only half-right…
They suggest broadly `what to do’, (but – based on what data? On random cherry-picked examples?) but they do not tell you: What to avoid – namely, the dangerous pitfalls.
So – below, FYI – is a `bare minimum summary’ of some of my 30 x Findings, from the 5-year fulltime study that resulted in: The StoryAlity PhD.
But – I do suggest reading the whole PhD (it is free, online, here) as – it is all fairly complex and detailed, and a Summary (like this blog-post!) means the key information is, also: unduly compressed.
For example – Let me now give a simple answer to a simple question:
Q: How do you safely get to the moon?
A: Easy; just build a rocket, fly it upwards, and try not to miss the moon!
(…But – maybe ask someone at NASA – and, it is all a bit more complex and specific than my highly-compressed answer here.)
So another Q: How are you going to solve the Problem that Less Than 1% of screenplays succeed as movies?
As there is so much information in a movie, I also think a lot about information compression and expansion, as – apart from being a million-selling Transmedia Writer (for movies, TV, videogames, novels, etc.) – I am an Information Scientist. (I discovered The Structure of the Meme, the unit of culture.) Same thing in Culture, as Nobel Prize winners Watson and Crick did (back in 1953) in Biology.
Also – as a screenwriter you need to compress a 90-minute movie, down to a 20-page Treatment, and down to a 3-page Outline – and even to a 25-word Logline-! (That is some serious Information Compression 🙂 Or, information expansion – if you go the other way.
So – stories (narratives of any kind, movies, novels, jokes) are just: information.
And – Story Structure is actually quite simple:
When and how do you release certain key information to the audience, so as to place them on an entertaining and engaging journey with a narrative?
But in movies, some strategies are vastly more successful than – others…!
At any rate – so, as promised – below is, a highly-compressed Summary of some of the key findings of the PhD study:
Check out this cool table below, from pages 307-8 of the PhD thesis (free online)
And here, is:
15 of the Key Findings, from my StoryAlity PhD study –
- Key Findings on Story Premise (in the top and bottom 20 RoI movies)
`Premise’ means: A character(s) has a problem, and tries to solve it!
In the Top 20 RoI Movies: It is always an interesting problem! (See the PhD, for more details.)
In the Bottom 20 RoI movies: It is typically, a depressing or offputting problem! E.g. Typically, the Bottom 20 movies were `Dramas’ about: Grief over a family-member’s suicide, etc… Real “downers”.
(The Moral, there: Some problems are much more interesting to see solved in a story! Thus they make much better movie Premises! …Movie audiences – generally – want `thrills and entertainment’, not `sniffles and tears’. …Not every movie needs a `happy ending’ though!)
- Key Findings on: Theme (in the top and bottom 20 RoI movies)
Evolutionary Themes dominate the top 20 RoI, as the most gripping. E.g. Issues and Themes and Problems of:
(1) Survival (`Life and Death’ issues), and
(2) Family/Community, and
Why? …We humanimals have evolved (via: survival and reproduction) to find these concepts, the most compelling. And – for obvious reasons! – If you – as an organism – don’t have the right information then YOU MAY DIE – and/or MAY DIE CHILDLESS…(!)
Evolution wants more from Species than: going extinct… In the survivors, it has hardwired-in, certain “IF / THEN” loops within your Evolutionary Psychology (your brain, i.e. your mind, and thus your behaviour and instincts and preferences, and likes and dislikes, etc).
- Key Findings on: Genres (in the top and bottom 20 RoI movies)
The Horror genre dominates the top 20 RoI, as half of the top 20 RoI are Horror. There are also Sci-Fi, and RomCom, even a Musical, and a Gangster-movie in there.
But – beware! The `Drama’ Genre is problematic! There are NO DRAMAS the Top 20 RoI, while there are plenty of `Dramas’ in the Bottom 20 RoI! So a caution – beware the DRAMA genre! It tends to lose money as a movie genre!
Also check out this cool infographic (note: it’s not from my PhD; but makes the same points, so I like it.)
Source: `Infographic Breaks Down Film Genre Popularity of the Past 100 Years (1910-2018)’ (Aldredge 2019, online)
- Key Findings on: Story Settings (Spatial) (in the Top and Bottom 20 RoI movies)
The top 20 RoI are mostly set in the USA, and at Urban (and: use, minimal) locations… Versus, the Bottom 20 RoI. Note – A few German films or co-productions, in the Bottom 20 RoI! What’s up with that.
- Key Findings on Story Settings (Temporal) (in the top and bottom 20 RoI movies)
The Top 20 RoI Movies are (overwhelmingly) set in the `Present Day’ – and, by contrast there are Period (e.g. Historical) Pieces, in the Bottom 20 RoI (these are expensive! Thus more likely to lose money – or harder to make money!)
- Key Findings on Plot (in the Top and Bottom 20 RoI Movies)
The problem is, the popular`How-To Screenwriting Manual’ plot-templates (e.g. Syd Field, McKee, etc) are in: both high- and aso low-RoI films! So – those are not enough to have success!
- Key Findings on Character Types (in the top and bottom 20 RoI movies)
The Top 20 RoI Movies = typically, Male protagonist/s, and in their 20s-30s, and The Villains are typically 10 years older.
There are a range of ages for Characters in Bottom 20 RoI movies (see the PhD for details).
- Key Findings on Character `Arcs’ (in the top and bottom 20 RoI movies)
Guess what – So-called – `Character Arcs’ are: totally optional for movie story success!
In 6 of the Top 20 movies – the heroes die!!!
So many screenplay guru books go on about Character Arcs. No need to listen!
- Key Findings on Story Structure (in the top and bottom 20 RoI movies)
One problem is, all movies (both good and bad) have 3 x `Acts’! (see also: Truby 2009, who slams `3-Act’ structure). 3 Acts does not make the difference between success and failure.
See also the alternate `act structure’ models within the PhD.
- Key Findings on Dialog (in the top and bottom 20 RoI movies)
The top and bottom 20 RoI movies all correlate quite well with the `popular’ screenwriting manual `guru’ guidelines… Some Bottom 20 RoIs still have very bad dialog! We have evolved listening to language and bad dialog is mostly obvious to you after 10 years of practise as a screenwriter. (See The Room  for some very bad, rookie dialog mistakes.)
- Key Findings on Duration / Length of the Movie (and Screenplay)
The average of the top 20 RoI movies is: 90 minutes or 90 screenplay pages (and not: 120 mins/pages as the guru manuals suggest!). The bottom 20 RoI – on average – are 10 mins longer than 90 mins (at: 100 mins, on average). The bottom 20 RoI are all cases of bad screen storytelling – and there is too much of it!
- Key Findings on The Number of Scenes (in the top – and also in the bottom 20 RoI movies)
The StoryAlity PhD Study found that the Top 20 RoI movies have 119 scenes on average, (and not `40-70’ scenes – as the popular screenplay gurus wrongly suggest!) The average Scene Length for a Top 20 RoI = 50 seconds, or about ¾ of a screenplay page… Note: This is only an average. See the PhD for details.)
- Key Findings on `Dramatic principles’ (in the top and bottom 20 RoI movies)
Stories are about characters with problems, so `conflict’ & the agonistic structure obviously dominates. (BUT – when plotted as a graph of `Scene Wins and Losses’, in the top 20 RoI movies, typically the `Villain’ actually wins! See also: Villain Triumphant stories.)
- Key Findings on Creativity (in the top and bottom 20 RoI movies)
Within the scientific study of creativity (since the 1950s), the “6 x Ps of creativity” are well known:
So to understand how the top 20 RoI filmmakers did it (achieved the improbable) – we need to study, the creative :
1) Person(ality) (e.g.: the writer/filmmaker’s Psychology, and Background). Creative Personalities are all alike, whether in Science – or the Arts/Media..
and secondly, we need to examine, their creative
2) Potential (e.g.: Did they show early talent?)
3) Creative Process (How do they conceive, write and make, their movies? Note – This is complex!)
4) Creative Product (their successful screenplay &/or film),
5) Creative Place, (where did they do it? Are some Places more conducive to creativity?)
and – finally, their creative
6) Persuasion (Why do people find this specific top 20 RoI movie so good? Hiow did they create a “new and useful”, aka “original and effective” (thus: creative) movie? …What persuaded the audience about the movie? Also – How did the creative person [the filmmaker] persuade a team to finance it – and make (using: group creatvity) and – release – their movie in cinemas?)…
A Side Note – one Big Finding – of the 30 x New Findings – of the StoryAlity PhD study was:
All top 20 RoI movies involve: Writer-hyphenates…(!)
i.e. Writer-Directors, or Writer-Actors, or Writer-Producers, and sometimes – all 4 at once: a Writer-Director-Actor-Producer ! (e.g. see Primer, 2004). …One key person has to have a vision.
This is also known as: Writeur Theory. (See: The StoryAlity PhD for more details).
And finally, here: (in this Summary) –
- Key Findings on: `Human Nature’ (in the top and bottom 20 RoI movies)
Namely – What do the top 20 RoI – and also, the bottom 20 RoI movies – tell us, about: Human Nature?
After all – a timeless philosophical question is – What does it mean, to be human?
What do we humans like? What do we hate? Why?
What do we fear, and What do we value? Why?
Or – What exactly are humans most interested in seeing, onscreen?
For detailed answers, see: Evolutionary Psychology (and see also – Consilience and Evocriticism, e.g. David Bordwell, Brian Boyd. Joe Carroll, Jon Gottschall, etc!) E.g. A really great book is: Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader (2010)
At any rate, see The StoryAlity PhD, for full details on all of the above.
As a screen storyteller – it should help you succeed – and. importantly, also: NOT-FAIL!
(As – succeeding and also NOT-FAILING are: not exactly the same thing, ironically.)
Movies are complex. Getting them right (so that, they are successful) is: hard!
So – make sure that you have all the right information, (about the actual causes of movie failure and of movie success) before you actually start.
…It is not enough to say: “I have a great idea for a movie!”
For e.g., See also, The Anna Karenina Principle… There are lots of things to get right, and – getting just one of them wrong, can sink the whole movie! (See: the Bottom 20 RoI Movies – the biggest money losers!)
Most of the screenplay (so-called `guru’) manuals don’t tell you this – but 70% of movies lose money – and so, making another movie after that is: hard! Avoid that problem, if you can.
Also – the full Index of this, the StoryAlity PhD blog has much more, on all of this.
E.g. Causal success factors – like: Casting, Actor-performance, movie-Titles, and, Music, and Sound Design, “Writer’s Voice”, and Tone, Mood and Atmosphere, etc… Lots more things that you also need to get right in a movie – and also: not get wrong!
Also here is a cool diagram from the PhD:
And – here is another cool diagram. It isn’t in the PhD, but it’s still cool 🙂
Comments, always welcome.
Some Related Posts:
- StoryAlity #53 – The StoryAlity High-RoI Film Story & Screenplay Checklist
- StoryAlity #54 – StoryAlity Screenwriting Guidelines – for any aspiring Writer of High-RoI Films
- The Tree of Culture
Update: The StoryAlity Theory of High-RoI Movies: Not Yet Falsified (by: 2018)
So: this currently being 2019 –
Question: Has the Top 20 RoI Movies list changed at all, since the StoryAlity PhD study was done (i.e., since: 2012-2016)…?
Answer: No! It hasn’t changed…
(But: If it makes over 71 times its budget, a movie could well enter the Top 20 RoI list, and if it doesn’t have the 30 high-RoI movie-criteria of StoryAlity Theory, it then could also falsify the StoryAlity Theory, at any time…(!) …That’s how Science works… See Karl Popper, for more!)
Anyway – so it seems, the StoryAlity Theory is better than: any other theory of high-RoI movies.
Mainly because: there aren’t any others. This one is: It.
Eureka – It works! (…Lots of great: Insights.)
(Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech – Mars Insight lander)
“According to Party Casino, which calculated the top 15 films’ returns on investment (ROIs) using the films’ budgets and worldwide gross figures from Box Office Mojo, the suspense film has an ROI of 55.58. Get Out was made for only $4.5 million and has grossed $254,600,000.”(Source: Forbes 2018, online)
JT Velikovsky, PhD – High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie & Transmedia Researcher
& Human & Computer Creativity Researcher
& Evolutionary Systems Analyst
See the research in my 2017 doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is reproduced here for the benefit of fellow bio-cultural scholars, and screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see also https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky
JT Velikovsky is a million-selling Transmedia writer-director-producer and game designer & writer. He has also been a professional Story Analyst for major movie studios, film funding organizations, and also for the national writer’s guild. He is also a judge for the writers guild and the director’s guild.
For more, see also the Transmedia-Writing weblog: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/
Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema: A comparative study of the top 20 Return-on-Investment (RoI) Movies and the Doxa of Screenwriting’. PhD Thesis, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, Australia. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1959.13/1324018
Velikovsky, J. T. (2017). Chapter 405: The Holon/Parton Structure of the Meme, or, The Unit Of Culture. In M. Khosrow-Pour (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, Fourth Edition (pp. 4666-4678). New York: IGI Global.