FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions (about: STORYALITY™ THEORY)
Below are some FAQs. And – some FGA’s. (Frequently Given Answers)
Q: What is StoryAlity™ Theory?
A: StoryAlity™ Theory is a set of 30 guidelines for filmmakers (screenwriters, directors, producers, actors, film crew) which, when used, should enable you to create a feature film (screenplay and film) that has a greater probability of going viral. The Theory emerged from a 2012 doctoral research study of the Top 20 RoI (Return-on-Investment) films of the past 70 years.
Q: But, wait – is RoI (return on investment) any guarantee of quality in film?
A: No – it’s a guarantee of quantity. High-RoI films spread the furthest in the culture (in cinemas) due to word-of-mouth. If you want your story to be widely seen / heard / experienced, then you want it to have: a high RoI. i.e: You want it to be a viral meme.
The quality of the film is entirely up to you, as the writer/filmmaker. As is, the story you choose to tell in your film.
Q: Wait, so JT – are you saying, any movie that loses money is: a bad movie?
A: Not exactly, no. First of all we need to note that – films have to make on average, over 3 times their production budget, to make a profit. (As `the Marketing spend’ is often the same as the film Production Budget – meaning you now need to make a 200% RoI to break even (production budget + marketing costs), and then – there are Distribution, and other expenses. So it’s around 373%, on average, that a film needs to make, to break even)
So – Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) lost money (ie., didn’t make over a 373% RoI) when it was in cinemas. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) also lost money. Casablanca (1942) just barely broke even.
But – were they first (or even, early) career films by those filmmakers? (And, I note: Welles found it hard to get work for years, after Kane.) And likewise, Van Gogh was a creative genius, but – would you want his life? (i.e., A tortured struggling artist?) Look at the early (and especially, the very first) films of successful filmmakers.
Look at the Top 20 RoI Films. Those Top 20 RoI filmmakers all got to make subsequent films. Question being – Do you want to do it all the hard way? Or, the easier way?
i.e. – Isn’t `successful, creative filmmaking’ already hard/difficult/tricky/challenging enough, for you-?
…Think about THAT-!
Q: Okay – So – Can I tell any Story I like, using StoryAlity™ Theory?
A: Yes, you can. StoryAlity™ Theory is just a set of Story, Screenwriting and Filmmaking Guidelines, that may increase the probability of your film story going viral, in theatrical cinema release.
So – the StoryAlity™ Theory only supplies the form, the film story content is up to you.
So – get creative with your film story!
And, have fun!
Q: There are over 2500 books on Screenwriting, and many `screenplay systems’. Why is this StoryAlity™ Theory any `better’ than any of the others?
A: All the other screenplay systems have just as many `rules’ or `guidelines’ – but – they are usually not derived from empirical evidence, using: The Scientific Method.
A side note: I did like, how Linda Seger looked at Oscar-winning screenplays – but I also don’t think the sample size was large enough. To be empirical, let alone scientific – you’d need say, the 20 Best Picture Oscar® (or Best Screenplay) winners from the past 20 years, and then `compare and contrast’ their common elements with their opposite, like the 20 (say) Golden Raspberry Award Winners (or – whatever it is that we might decide is `the opposite’ of The Oscars®).
But – remember, only very experienced filmmakers/writers usually win Oscars® for Best Picture/Best Screenplay anyway. So – that doesn’t really help most early-career – or even mid-career, writers / filmmakers so much.
i.e.: The key question being – How do you break in, and stay in the film industry-? How do you first, get to make a number of films, so that, you then have a shot at: winning awards, with your later films?
Q: What is `Creativity’ anyway?
A: According to Meusburger et al (2009), there are over 100 definitions of `creativity’ in the published (peer-reviewed, academic) literature(!)
And – if you ask a hundred random people on the street to `define creativity’, you will most likely get 100 different answers, unfortunately. Everyone feels they know what Creativity is.
But – the definition of Creativity that appears to be the most widely accepted in the Academy (by which I mean, Academia, the seat of knowledge) is: an idea, process or product that is “novel and appropriate”.
See: http://creativity.netslova.ru/Definitions_of_creativity.html and also Sawyer, Explaining Creativity, 2006: p34)
So, essentially – Creativity is: “Something old, meets something new – and the result is useful”.
The `old’ in this case is the exact `form’ of the Top 20 RoI Films for the past 70 Years.
The `new’ can be the content, or – your film Story idea.
(Which ironically – is probably just: two `old’ ideas, combined. This is why films are often pitched as: `Movie A’ meets `Movie B’.)
Of course, we are not being completely literal here. If you really just mashed two old movies together, to create: a third, then you would likely be infringing copyright.
(And, for more formal – and detailed – definitions of Creativity, see: http://Storyality.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/What-is-Creativity-and-How-does-it-Work/ )
Q: Why even study Creativity?
A: As a working screenwriter and filmmaker for 20 years, the best answer I could provide to this question actually comes directly from R Keith Sawyer in Explaining Creativity (2006):
“Why Explain Creativity?
Years ago, when I began to teach “the psychology of creativity” to college students, I discovered that the scientific study of creativity made some of my students nervous. Students often asked, “Isn’t the whole project just a mistaken attempt to impose the analytic worldview of science onto the arts? Isn’t creativity a mysterious force that will forever resist scientific explanation?” Some of the artists who take the class worry that if they are too analytic, this new approach will interfere with their muse. We’ll see that these worries are unfounded, and that explaining creativity is important for many reasons… ” (Sawyer, 2006, p4)
In that section of the book, Sawyer goes on to elaborate on how:
Explaining creativity can help us identify and realize every person’s unique creative talents
Explaining creativity can help our leaders to respond better to the challenges facing modern society
Explaining creativity can help us all to become better problem solvers
Explaining creativity helps us to realize the importance of positive, peak experiences to mental health
Explaining creativity can help educators to teach more effectively.
(Sawyer, 2006, pp 4-5)
So – I also highly commend that book (Explaining Creativity, Sawyer, 2006 – and also, 2012) to you.
Q: Also – Why do you keep talking about `memes’? Aren’t they those funny `LOLcat’ photos on FaceBook, and stuff?
A: In the excellent work, Creativity (1996), Csikszentmihalyi mentions memes on 7 separate occasions. (So, read that book – it will help with your understanding of both creativity, and of memes.)
Memes are ideas. (They are also products or processes, but – these too are also just `ideas’ anyway, right?).
Tropes (as in Genre Tropes in films) are also memes. They’re copied. They’re selected, and varied (or – not) and transmitted, back into the meme pool (i.e Culture) by writers and filmmakers.
Defining Memes – English ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins defined a meme as “a unit of cultural transmission” (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976, and also 2006: p196).
Memes are an integral component of the systems model of creativity, in the same way that genes are integral in biology:
`The analogy to genes in the evolution of culture are memes… songs, recipes, laws and values are all memes… It is these memes that a creative person changes, and if enough of the right people see the change as an improvement, it will become part of the culture.’
(M. Csikszentmihalyi, 1996: p7).
There is a more detailed book chapter on memes (or, units of culture), here.
For the purposes of StoryAlity™ Theory, if a film story is a meme (a unit of culture), then the systems model of creativity would explain the mechanism by which some films (as: more virulent memes) spread through the culture (the meme pool), exactly like a virus in biological evolution.
StoryAlity™ Theory asserts that certain films have more virulent memes in their Story `DNA’, which means that: the film story itself, then becomes a more virulent meme.
In other words, by studying the 20 most `virulent’ films ever (those films that spread the furthest in the culture – despite the limitations of their production means), we can identify the viral memes (ideas, tropes, structures) within those films that we can infer caused this virulence to occur, and – How screenwriters and filmmakers can use those same successful story memes/ideas (e.g.: (1) A `Villain Triumphant’ story, (2) no `transformational character arcs’, (3) an average film scene length of 50 seconds, (4) a duration of 90 minutes – etc.)
For more on all this (memes, and How Biological and Cultural Evolution Work the Same Way) see: https://storyality.wordpress.com/an-index-to-this-blog/
On Cultural Evolution – and Memes:
Q: Hey but – hasn’t memetics (the study of memes) been criticized by some, as: a `pseudo-science’?
A: Yes it has indeed, but – who was doing the `criticizing’? And: Were they scientists? (And – I still don’t find any of their refutations, convincing at all. Those critics appear not to understand what memes are, nor – how they work in culture.)
Also, if this is of interest, read this excellent article by William Calvin: The Brain as a Darwin Machine. (Nature 330:33-34, 5 November 1987). Calvin, W. H.: http://www.williamcalvin.com/1980s/1987Nature.htm
And – this one too (also by Calvin): http://jom-emit.cfpm.org/1997/vol1/calvin_wh.html
And again, I recommend this book chapter, for details:
So, this research (the StoryAlity study) kick-starts memetics again. In the past, memeticists tried to study how things like jokes (as: memes) spread in the culture, but they often didn’t use an empirical method, and the spread of those things (i.e.: jokes, for example) are hard to measure and track empirically. (Word-of-mouth alone, can be like that…)
But – films at the cinema are very different. Since we now have empirical data (i.e.: box office figures, and yes they are estimates, but – they are still the best estimates we have, right?) we can look at – and can trace, when and where a meme moves around. And, how effective word-of-mouth was, in making a movie go viral.
Just for example, when he was writing the (top 20 RoI) film Rocky (1976), Stallone saw the Chuck Wepner-Muhammad Ali boxing match, and Stallone chose to put that meme (that idea) in the screenplay (and – film, obviously) of Rocky. Look at how the meme then spread virally, in cinemas. And since then, in popular culture. Look at how closely the character and the dialog lines of the character of Apollo Creed resemble Muhammad Ali/Cassius Clay. Note also the similarities between the character of Rocky and (the real life boxer) Chuck Wepner.
We also now have social media (FaceBook and Twitter) and online search engines, that can track memes (i.e.: ideas, and not LOLcats) a whole lot better. Science gets more accurate at measuring and predicting over time, as the technology improves. (Philosophy asks the Questions, Science gives answers).
So, again – if you are still unconvinced that memes (ideas, processes, products) spread in the culture – just like a virus spreads in biology – then I would suggest, reading Creativity by Csikszentmihalyi, and The Selfish Gene by Dawkins, and The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore.
And – see also this post, on Consilience – a Reading List.
Q: So – What do you call a `Creative’ film, anyway?
A: Again, we must be very clear on what Creativity is, and for more, see this post:
So – to be specific:
I see two kinds of empirical Creativity in film:
1) Award-winners – such as Oscars®, Golden Globes, Palm D’Ors, Sundance awards, etc. (One of my films won the Audience Award at the Sydney Film Festival. But that was in 2010, well before I had completed this StoryAlity research.) For more on award-winners, see DK Simonton’s excellent book, Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics (2011).
And also, just as (perhaps even more) importantly – another type of creative film is – this kind:
2) Viral (or: high-RoI) films – (i.e.: films that reach the widest audience – for the least production budget.) These films are more likely to `change the world’. As – they reach a wider audience (compared to: their production budget).
So – these are the 2 main ways that the Film Field (i.e.: the worldwide Audience, which includes Film Critics) `judges’ films.
Usually, these two very different kinds of films have very little overlap (to be clear: award-winning films are usually not the most viral, and, vice versa.) In the Top 20 RoI, Rocky (1976) won the Best Picture Oscar®, and Once (2007) won the Oscar for Best Original Song. But – those are exceptions
In fact – as an aside, here is a more detailed way to break it down (Creativity, in film)…
But let’s just focus on viral (commercial) and critical (awards) success, for now…
DK Simonton does a thoroughly admirable and excellent job of looking at award-winners in Great Flicks (2011), so that (award-winners) all seems `well covered’ for now. Though – there is of course, much more research that can be done in building on Simonton’s (and others’) work. Using the 30 criteria of StoryAlity Theory, researchers could similarly analyse the common elements in the screenplays and stories of the films, that Simonton so brilliantly identifies as judged `creative’ by the Field, in terms of awards and critical reviews.
So – please don’t get me wrong. Both types of films (viral films – and – award-winners) are equally great.
i.e. – Equally: Creative…
(And, though my own opinion here is irrelevant, I personally love award-winning films, and I also love viral films.) And – as I say, many of my own films have also won awards, and some have even gone viral, but – if I have to choose between them, (not that it is a necessarily binary choice) I’d rather my Theme/Message (in my film story) reach the widest audience possible (i.e. go viral). Awards are wonderful, but as a professional screenwriter, I just prefer `Audience Reach’.
Because: You want your film story to be a viral meme, right? (Does anyone NOT want this?) So that the message in your film can go further. Think of it, like a Trojan Horse.
This is why, I examined `Film RoI’ (i.e.: virality) in my doctoral research study. (Some of the results of which, is – this, the StoryAlity Blog, also the book (a screenwriting manual), an 30-minute i-doc (interactive documentary), a game demo, an interactive online Agent-Based Model of the Film Industry, and also, a doctoral thesis).
There is also an 888-page (196k words) StoryAlity Textbook, but – the StoryAlity Screenwriting Manual ebook is more like a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of that manuscript.
Q: So – How can I be more Creative? (When I write my screenplay, and/or make my film?)
A: Since `Creative’ means “novel and appropriate” – an important consideration is, this: If the form of your work (your screenplay or film) is too experimental / radical/ new/ different/ surprising/ `fresh’, one big risk is that: the Audience (`The Film Field’) may well find it `inappropriate’. (i.e: It’s “just too weird.”) And therefore, it may be seen as an `Arthouse’ film – or an `Experimental’ film. (There is nothing wrong with that, but – it also, may not go viral.) So, the safer option is – to use the same (`appropriate’) form that the Top 20 RoI films used, and so – the `Creativity’ usually is in – the content – and, not the form.
Namely – the core creativity is, in `the combination of two old ideas’ (or, memes).
For more detailed information on How To Be More Creative, see: http://Storyality.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/Storyality-9-How-to-be-more-Creative/
And so – be as radical – and `crazy’ as you like, with the ideas/memes in your film story (the content). But – the form (of high-RoI films) is pretty `fixed’. Note how similar the structure and form of the Top 20 RoI Films are. They all have – at least – about 30 things in common in their structure and form. The content may be different, but the form is the same.
Q: So, What is `combinatorial creativity’? (Or, what Koestler in 1967 called: `bisociation’?)
A: Creativity occurs, when 2 old ideas are combined, to form a new one, and – it works. (i.e.: When the Field -ie the Audience – judges the new innovation: `novel and appropriate’.)
E.g. Gutenberg combined a wine-press with a coin-punch, and got: The Printing Press.
Or – combine `a couple in a haunted house’ with `found footage’ and you get: the movie Paranormal Activity. (The #1 RoI film.)
And, for more detail on combinatorial creativity (and: bisociation), see: http://Storyality.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/Storyality-9b-Creativity-in-Science-and-The-Arts-and-Film/
Q: Well, look – I’m sorry – but – I just don’t think that, RoI has anything to do with (film) Story?
A: Okay, so then – think of it this way:
The `overall StoryAlity research’ really just aims to look at: Audience Reach (using the metric of: cinema tickets sold) / Production Budget (i.e.: – not including Marketing or Distribution costs).
i.e. The core Question being:
Why exactly do some films (and: not others) go so viral, due to: word-of-mouth?
And also – the other key question is: How cheaply can you get your Film Story `in the can’ (no matter whether the story is Primer [$7k] – or Star Wars ($11m), or E.T. [$10.5m]) and: still get a cinema release (and ideally, then: go viral in the culture)?
i.e. So – the purpose of the research is not actually focussed on `The Money – and How Much You Can Make’ (as counter-intuitive as that sounds, given the term: Return on Investment.)
i.e. Of course, a side-effect of having a super-viral film story is: there is then a lot of money floating around. But the empirical research here shows – it was the virality of the Story – and nothing else – that actually caused that to happen.
And furthermore – Who actually *gets* that money? i.e.: Who sees, the actual profits? Cui bono? (…Who benefits?) Usually the producer. Not so much the writer, director, or actors.
Anyway, so – the point is not just `to make money’ (not that, there is anything wrong with that; money is great), the point really is:
How to write/make a film that will go: super-viral.
Once you do that – your 2nd (or: subsequent) film will be vastly easier to finance. And perhaps you may choose to be more `novel’ with your second film.
Because – the Writing is actually the easy part, right?
But – 98% of scripts presented to producers go unfinanced, and therefore: those films go unmade.
See: StoryAlity #18 – THE PROBLEM: 7 in 10 films LOSE MONEY (and: 98% of Screenplays Go Unmade)
So – How do you get your screenplay into: the 2% that get made?
This research aims to provide empirical and scientific answers to that question.
As – The biggest issue I have found professionally, having been a story analyst for film studios, and also having had about 15 feature scripts optioned, and having written about another 10 film screenplays on commission – but – only having a few produced, is: The Financing.
i.e. Many Producers may LOVE the script – and may even Option or Purchase it – but then, the Financiers (the guys with the purse strings) all may have *no idea*: What Will Work. – i.e. They often can’t recognize a viral film story, when they read it. (Because: [sarcasm alert] “Nobody knows anything” …right…?)
(Partly, the difficulty some financiers and investors and studio heads have, in judging which story/screenplay will make a viral film is – also due to “words on paper” being such an abstraction. i.e. Movies are: sound and image. Everyone’s imagination is different.)
I also note – there has been some truly great work published in the Journal of Screenwriting on: looking at alternate forms for film scripts. For example – Associate Professor Kathryn Millard’s excellent paper, here. (i.e. `After the typewriter: the screenplay in a digital era’ Millard, K, JOS, Issue 1.1, Jan 2010, Intellect).
i.e., Who says, a film screenplay shouldn’t have pictures? Or, has to be in Courier 12-point, and standard screenplay format? The screenwriting convention’ says so. (And there are already about 1000 `rules’, in the screenwriting convention.) But – what is: `the screenwriting convention’? It is a set of guidelines (or, doxa), agreed on by consensus. And – see Ian W Macdonald’s excellent PhD thesis on this, for more. (Because – every now and then, you need Creative people to come along, with a better idea, and: to change the consensus.)
And also – part of the problem is, everyone (mistakenly) assumes that they understand `Story’, without ever taking about 10 years, to properly study Film Story. Or – without even looking at the Top 20 RoI Film’s Stories – and, what they all share in Common, and also, say: What the Bottom 20 RoI Films do `wrong’, in their Story.
Which – is why – the big studios all just `take a gamble’ – and they finance a slate of 10 films at once. As – the `3 in 10′ will – hopefully – make back all the money they gambled – and so, maybe they won’t go out of business. (Though – many of them still manage to do that.)
So – this research is simply trying to show: What has empirically worked, before… in viral film Story.
(And indeed, not just for the Studios, but – mainly for all the Indie filmmakers… So – I hope it helps you-!)
Q: But wait, surely, by using The StoryAlity™ Screenplay System – eventually, you’d get formulaic, and homogenous, and entirely-predictable storylines? – There would be little or no contrast between one script to the next – because basically, you’d have: `movies by committee’..?
A: But – Hollywood (and most people) already “makes movies by committee” – and most of them empirically suck (as: 7 in 10 of them lose money). – Right?
So – if you really think all that (i.e.: the above) – then maybe you are still missing the key point of StoryAlity™ Theory:
StoryAlity™ supplies the Form – that, empirically, has the highest probability of going viral.
YOU – supply the Content.
(When you create your Story – using StoryAlity™ Theory).
And – if you think of: The Hero’s Journey monomyth (a la Campbell, or Vogler), or – think of Syd Field’s system, or Linda Seger’s system, or Robert McKee’s system (etc.) – Movies are already super-formulaic…
Think of all those popular Screenplay Manuals – that *do not* use the Scientific – nor an Empirical – Method. They contain `principles’ and then use `illustrative examples’.
(If they are right, then: that is actually, a lucky coincidence.)
So – Movies are – already – about the most formulaic form of writing there is! (Apart from haiku, and sonnets perhaps. But it is also hard to make a living from either of those creative forms.)
(If you have assumed you can write a movie simply just to “express yourself” alone, you have perhaps assumed wrong. Movies do not work that way. They are: expen$ive.)
So – part of the reason 7 in 10 films lose money and 98% of screenplays go unmade is that – the other 2500 existing `formulas’ (screenplay manuals) themselves – aren’t actually based on Empirical Facts – nor The Scientific Method.
For more on all that see:
StoryAlity #36 – On EMPIRICAL VS NON-EMPIRICAL FILM STORY RESEARCH.
(And – did I mention that StoryAlity™ totally is?) – ie Empirical, and Scientific?
All of which, is probably why, due to the existing (and: questionable) `screenwriting convention’:
a) 7 in 10 movies lose money
b) 98% of screenplays go unmade.
…Also: people are now making movies using StoryAlity™ Theory. And, so – You can feel free to ignore this knowledge, if you want. Or – you can use the StoryAlity™ system – and increase the probability of your own film going viral, so that:
Your Film’s Theme/Message/Story is seen by: the widest possible Audience.
Q: And hey, anyway – JT, Why are you so down on: “Aristotelian 3-Act Structure”?
A: Because: it’s for people who apparently can’t count past 3. Look down. You (probably) have ten fingers, so use them. The Top 20 RoI Films have 10 Acts. Count ‘em.
Besides which: I have read countless translations of Aristotle’s `Poetics’ and HE NEVER SAID ANYTHING ABOUT `3 ACTS’… (Check this, for yourself.) So – anyone who says he did, or thinks that: old Greek plays from 2,000 years ago have anything to do with movies – is wrong. (I don’t make up the facts; I just report ‘em.)
I am only trying to help you make your film go viral.
You need your film to be a cultural `Trojan Horse’…
To convey your Film’s Theme / Message to the widest possible audience. (i.e. But – You must also have: Something To Say.)
Q: But – but… JT – you can’t mix `Science’ and `The Arts’! (Like you have done, with StoryAlity™ Theory) – That’s impossible! What about “the muse”, and the `mystical and mysterious’ nature of Creativity?
A: That’s all `Romantic myth’ stuff. (Get real!) All that `Romantic’ stuff won’t help you when you have to work to deadlines, and budgets, and stuff.
See also this post, on Consilience.
Also – check the History of Creative breakthroughs. It is exactly when ideas from different Domains combine – such as: `Science meets The Arts’ – that Creativity, historically, occurs.
(By the way, if you think the Arts and Science are separate, you are forgetting Film was created by: Science. And note also the name of AMPAS: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)
And so – if you think Science has no place in The Arts, you also now sound like someone who has a Romantic view of Creativity, as opposed to a Rational view of Creativity, and: good luck with all that… (There is no evidence, supporting the Romantic view.)
Also, maybe read, in this order: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Creativity, 1996), R Keith Sawyer (Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, 2012), DK Simonton (Great Flicks, 2011), and Arthur DeVany (Hollywood Economics, 2004). Examine all the evidence, for yourself…
Q: Hmmm – okay well – JT – since I can’t really argue against empirical and scientific facts, I will now switch from discussing the facts, and will try and attack you personally, JT – in an attempt to undermine your authority… So – You’re just: an award-winning, million-selling, Transmedia writer-director-producer for Film, TV, Games, Books and Comics and digital media, and a judge for the Writer’s and Director’s Guilds, with 20 years of industry experience in Film/TV/Games as a screenwriter… – What the heck would you know?
(JT gets his ad hominem suit of armour on… sigh…)
A: You forgot, also – Story Analyst for major film studios, and I was also the national Games Market Analyst for a while there too. So – yeah, that is all true about me, but – the whole point about empirical and scientific facts (like in StoryAlity™) is that: it doesn’t matter who presents these facts. Anyone and everyone can – and should – check and test them all. And – this in fact has been the exact problem with the Screenwriting/Film Domain, ever since (and: including) Aristotle. Most `screenplay gurus’ make their claims – without empirical evidence…
Look at their data sets. Check the Filmographies in the back (or front) of their `screenwriting handbooks’. Selective and illustrative films, chosen to `illustrate’ their current point, right? So – instead of: using empirical evidence, they adopt a position of “authority” and then state their theories, and they use a few examples.
But – check their facts, and methodology (or lack thereof) – and their arguments fall apart pretty quick.
So – please do – check all the facts in StoryAlity™.
And – If you can find flaws in the arguments and evidence (and – can empirically prove it) then you can have a free copy of my previous Screenwriting Manual: (e.g.: It can be downloaded – free – from here: https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky)
Q: Hey JT – you suddenly sound all `defensive’ about this Theory, and stuff. – What gives?
A: Thanks for noticing. Well, when you present data and evidence as startling and counterintuitive as this, on StoryAlity™ Theory, and on the Top 20 RoI Films – a lot of people suddenly decide to: go on the attack.
Because, here’s the thing. Most people `get it’ straight away, with all this StoryAlity™ Theory stuff. And – they use this knowledge to their own advantage, i.e. in their screenplay, and film projects. (That was the reason I did the research, i.e. to actually help people. – I remember how it was, when I started out as a professional screenwriter 20 years ago. Writing is great fun – but parts of it, like getting your movie financed and made – are HAAARD!!! So – anything that helps – as long as it works – has to be good, right?)
But – there are also: some very harsh critics of this new knowledge. But – the problem is, their criticisms are not actually: valid. (As – it is very hard to argue with: empirical facts.)
So – in the process of presenting this research, I have noticed, some people quickly `decide’ that: this all somehow, very threatening to their own self-identity, and/or `challenges everything they thought they knew’. i.e. People sometimes panic, when they discover “everything you thought was true – is probably: false”. (And I can certainly understand that… Imagine my own surprise, when the data from the research was compared to: the existing screenwriting convention. – I was stunned, shocked and surprised, all at once. But, I quickly got over it.)
Also, there are 2 other important considerations…
1) We have to remember, the academic, scientific study of Creativity is all – relatively – very new. This is an amazing time to be alive. Although this stuff (the Rational view of Creativity) is now taught in many universities (e.g. such as Csikszentmihalyi’s `systems model of creativity’, and Sawyer, and Simonton, etc) it is still finding its way around the knowledge culture.
Amazingly, the study of Creativity is just coming out of its `Dark Ages’. (Note that – The Academic Field of Screenwriting is very new, i.e. less than 10 years old. The academic Screenwriting Research Network only formed in 2006. I am not making this up, see the website of the SRN. See also this post about the 5th annual academic SRN screenwriting conference).
In the Academy (academia), unlike in some other domains, you also must provide evidence, when you make a claim.
And so – the opposite view, i.e. `the Romantic view of Creativity’, is still very widespread. And the two views are in complete contrast. – You really have to pick one or the other.
So, if you have a Romantic view of Creativity, you will likely find all this stuff deeply challenging, and perhaps even: offensive to your artistic sensibilities. (But – importantly: just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean, you’re right.)
So – if you remain unconvinced, examine the Rational view of Creativity. – Look at all the evidence. Decide for yourself.
And so, when people struggle with accepting this knowledge, they sometimes `fight back, with a vengeance’. And – that’s when, they usually switch over from discussing the facts/evidence to: personal attacks. At which point, I usually step away – and simply wish them luck. i.e. I can’t help these people if they won’t accept the facts. (And I am not sure that anyone can help them, until they are ready for: Reality.)
But – just try making a living as a screenwriter for 20 years. `Reality’ catches up pretty quick.
And so – StoryAlity is intended to help with all that.
2) There are a lot of screenplay gurus who actually feel incredibly-threatened by this new scientific and empirical knowledge. It makes them look like: `Emperors Who Wear No Clothes’. (With thanks to Hans Christian Andersen.)
I should note, this was not the intention of the research. It is however seen by some as: an unfortunate side-effect. But – “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” And so – if you take `the long view’, and place this all in a historical context – have a look at the structure of all scientific revolutions. Read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962, and 2012). i.e.: New scientific paradigms are always, initially, `resisted’ by some. The `old guard’ stands to lose, when a `knowledge revolution’ comes along. All the old textbooks have to be thrown out – or rewritten – or both… (And that means: more hard work, for screenplay gurus.)
And so – some of them (the `old guard’) will simply refuse the new knowledge. For one thing – it is hard to admit that, the old ideas/`the old ways’ are now all out-dated, and, for another – some of them actually feel kind of silly, and: they don’t like it. – If they choose to view it a certain way, the new paradigm makes them `look bad’. So – they find it easier to just deny – and ignore – all the new knowledge. (Or else – they go into `fight or flight’ mode, and they then try and make personal attacks, on: whoever delivers it… But, it is always easy to forget: `Don’t Harm The Messenger’..!)
As Kuhn stated:
`Max Planck, surveying his own career in his Scientific Autobiography sadly remarked that
“a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”’
(Kuhn and Hacking, 2012, p.150)
But I also think, that is a slightly-depressing view… i.e.: I don’t like to think of, having to wait till the old guard actually: DIE… – I would instead, hope that they will also understand and embrace this new research, and perhaps – even incorporate its scientific and empirical methodology into their own practise, of analysing screenplays.
And – it’s not even hard…! – It just takes time, to do the work – so that others can benefit by it. All you need to do is: take an empirical data set of `The Top 20 of: *ANY KIND OF FILM*’, and then find the patterns that are common to all 20 films. (e.g. say, The Top 20 Oscar® winners for Best Picture – just as an example.)
Or, say – a study of: The Top 20 Spec Screenplays That Were Made Into Successful Films, And Were Also Written By Previously-Unproduced Feature Film Writers. i.e. What are the common story / screenplay / filmmaking elements? And – What did the writers (and/or filmmakers) all have in common? (It may be, that: their parents were all already powerful people in the film industry. – Nice work, if you can get it.) These would be very useful studies. (I would add this to the list of “PhD’s I’d Like To See”).
Rather than, just look at a selective or illustrative set of films – and then suggest we that as screenwriters all try and emulate them. – The film industry – and filmmaking – doesn’t actually work like that. To think that way is to be fooled by randomness… (for more on that – see Nassim Taleb’s book: Fooled By Randomness.)
Creative Practice Theory shows what the top 20 RoI filmmakers all did, the same…
To be clear: to really understand what Creativity is, and How It Works, it is necessary to understand the Creative (1) Person (2) Process and (3) Product.
Q: Well okay, so JT – if you’re such a `genius’ and all with this StoryAlity™ Theory stuff, then – where is your own Top-20 RoI Film? – Huh? – Huh-?!
A1: See: this movie.
A2: Also please note – the scientific and empirical study of film is all very new-! I’ve been studying all the parts of this stuff (creativity, evolution, screenwriting, RoI, memes, holons, etc.) for around 20 years, but – I only finally put all of this research and work together, in 2012! – It is all new knowledge.
So – Why is nobody else telling you all this stuff..?
…Because I only `figured it all out’, over a 4 year PhD study… (2012-2016) Sheesh, give me time. And – yes, I’m now making loads of films, based on all this stuff. But – feature films usually take a couple of years…So, watch this space. (Or – maybe watch the NEWS section of the StoryAlity Blog.)
And – use all this stuff, if it helps you. (And – if not, then, just ignore it.)
Q: But – Hey – JT – you can’t predict RoI..! – Nobody can…? Otherwise, there would be *no* box-office flops… With all this StoryAlity™ stuff, You are now breaking the old film `rule’ of `NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING’-(?!)
A: Yeah, I know. And: OMG – not that piece of `industry wisdom’ again. (i.e: “Nobody knows anything.” So – William Goldman wrote that in: 1983. And yes – William Goldman is indeed, a genius screenwriter – and – IT WAS INDEED TRUE, BACK THEN…)
But – this is: 2016.
Okay – so, if you really think `Nobody Knows Anything’ – then please, take a look at this article from The New Yorker, in 2006: (i.e.: this is not exactly `new’…)
And see: http://www.epagogix.com/
And also: see the NYT article “Solving The Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data”
Now, tell me again, `Nobody Knows Anything’… (Sheesh.) This also ignores that, after the Theory of Evolution by natural selection was presented by Charles Darwin in 1859, suddenly: we then knew how Evolution worked…
New means new.
Q: So – has anybody else done academic studies on `Film Story and RoI’? Why haven’t I heard about it before?
A: Yes, they have – but sadly the methodology of much of that research is deeply-problematic (i.e.: seriously flawed.)
The Wharton School of Marketing – at the University of Pennsylvania – published two papers on this stuff, one in 2007, and one in 2010.
1) Eliashberg, J, Hui, SK & Zhang, ZJ 2007, ‘From Story Line to Box Office: A New Approach for Green-Lighting Movie Scripts’, Management Science, Vol. 53, no. 6, pp. 881-93.
2) Eliashberg, J, Hui, SK & Zhang, ZJ 2010, ‘Green-lighting Movie Scripts: Revenue Forecasting and Risk Management’, http://www.stern.nyu.edu/cons/groups/content/documents/webasset/uat_024238.pdf
But – there are many problems with that research…
Here are some of the problems with it: They used `Spoilers’ (i.e.: Plot `Summaries’) from the internet (and: not actually the screenplays, or the films themselves); they used a `bag-of-words’ computer analysis (but computers do not have strong artificial intelligence yet – and cannot `analyse/interpret’ information in a dramatic script in the way a human can), and; they also assumed `the existing screenwriting convention’ was: not problematic (as it does not use a scientific or empirical method).
Also – the researchers were in the Marketing Discipline (and not in the discipline of Film/Screenwriting) and Marketing as a discipline comes out of Cultural Studies in the 1950’s – and – as Bourdieu said, Cultural Studies does not use an empirical methodology.
So – Marketing – as a Domain – is in even more of a mess than the Film/Screenwriting Domain. So anyway, yes, someone has tried to research `Film Story and RoI’ before – but – they weren’t very successful. (Read that research, and see for yourself.)
In summary – the researchers, though I am sure they meant well (mistakenly) assumed `the screenwriting convention’ is already correct. (This StoryAlity research empirically shows otherwise.)
Q: Yes – but… but… look – Film Story has nothing to do with RoI. Uh – Surely…?
A: Oh, really? So – when a film goes viral (which only ever happens: due to the Story), then what exactly is RoI? (It’s audience reach – divided by film production budget, right?)
This is what really matters: The Story.
If your film story spreads like a virus in the culture, then it will (incidentally) make a high RoI.
Q: But – didn’t each of the Top 20 RoI films go viral – simply because they were `culturally relevant’? – i.e. Because of: Timing? And – Luck?
A: No. This is `the single cause fallacy’. There is never just one single reason why a film goes viral. Across all time, the Top 20 RoI Films all have about 30 things in common – and so, emulating them, might mean that your own film also goes viral. This is: probability.
Also, we can look at any successful (viral) film, and can find `cultural relevance’, after the fact (i.e. after it is a `hit’). But – equally, we can also look at unsuccessful films (e.g. say, The Bottom 20 RoI Films) and can also find: enormous `cultural relevance’ – (!)
So – it certainly isn’t the cultural relevance / timing that is “the single cause” of a film’s viral success.
As long as a writer pays attention to the cultural zeitgeist / spirit of the times (and – this is impossible not to do, if you communicate with other humans, e.g. watch the news, and/or read the internet, and talk to other people) and, when the writer remembers to “Write what you know” – then the film will always appear to have: Cultural Relevance.
Also – much more importantly – it really helps – if you take two already-popular memes and combine them. Star Wars (1977), for example, is really just a (brilliant) huge `mash-up’ of existing, popular memes.
For more detail on `meme mash-ups’ in the Top 20 RoI Films, see the section in The StoryAlity Screenwriting Manual on “Write What You Know”.
Q: So, wait – are you saying, I should write a Horror Film, as – 9 of the 20 Top 20 RoI Films are Horror? And so, therefore – my film will then have a higher probability of going viral?
A: Not necessarily, no-!!! Write in your own favourite Genre. Write the film you would want to see. And, only write a Horror film, if you really know and love that Genre…
Speaking as a professional story analyst for film studios – when people (screenwriters) who are not familiar with (and/or: do not really understand) the tropes of a Genre (say, Horror – and `How Horror Works’) then, try and write a Horror Film – the screenplay shows it. And – therefore, the `Horror’ in the film story really doesn’t work so well.
Remember – it takes around 10 years (or maybe: 10,000 hours, whichever comes first) to absorb a creative Domain (e.g.: say, the Domain of: Horror Films) – and so, if you haven’t spent around that long, studying and enjoying (and – practising, writing) in the Horror genre, then I would strongly advise not to attempt to write a film in that Genre. (At least, one that you then expect, will get financed and made.)
Only write in the Genre/s you know – and love – really well.
The passion and knowledge and experience all `shows through’, very clearly, in the screenplay/film. You can’t fake it.
Q: And so – What about `Hybrid-Genre’ films?
A: Hybrid-Genre films are great. This is how Creativity works: combine two old ideas.
As Time marches on, and as Culture evolves, and as Genres become `exhausted’, it is only natural for creatives (e.g. writers, filmmakers) to combine two – or even more – Genres.
Arguably, Mad Max (1979) is a hybrid-genre film: the Cop film meets the Western and the Road Movie. Star Wars (1977) is: a Western and a Space Opera. Once (2007) is a Musical and a Love Story. – Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Mix it all up. (If you want to.)
Q: Or, wait, since a few of the Top 20 RoI are `found footage’ films, should I write/make a `found footage’ film?
A: Maybe. But – not necessarily. 3 of the Top 20 RoI films are in the `Found Footage’ genre: Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, and the 2012 top 20 RoI films entry, The Devil Inside.
Found footage films are generally cheaper to make, as – they generally (and obviously) require less `onscreen production values’ than conventional feature films do. But – given how many people are currently making them, the competition is also therefore greater, so – the odds `go back down’ again. (i.e.: You therefore need more Points Of Difference, to `stand out’ in a crowded marketplace.)
But – if you really want to, then: sure… Make a Found Footage film. (Note though, that – the style of camera-coverage, and film Editing is very different to a conventional feature film, and therefore – creates certain `enabling constraints’ on the shooting and editing of a `found footage’ film. Also audiences are now savvy to it all.)
Q: So – does StoryAlity™ Theory only apply to films that are created by: a writer-hyphenate? (a writer-producer, a writer-director, a writer-actor?)
A: Not necessarily. Given the empirical evidence in the Top 20 RoI Films – since all of them were writer-hyphenates – being a writer-hyphenate (i.e.: a Writer-Director, a Writer-Producer, a Writer-Actor) obviously increases the odds of your film going viral, in theatrical release and then becoming a top 20 RoI film.
But – there is no (apparent) reason why a film that is *NOT* by a writer-hyphenate cannot become a Top 20 RoI film. (It is just: much less likely, given probability, within StoryAlity™ theory.)
Q: So – Is StoryAlity™ a `foolproof’ model for commercial success?
A: Not really, no! – If you do all the things that StoryAlity™ Theory suggests, then your film simply has a higher probability of making a RoI. Or even, of becoming a Top 20 RoI film.
So no, it is not `foolproof’. But – it is probably the closest thing there currently is, to “a foolproof model for commercial success”. (The 30 or so StoryAlity Guidelines all seems necessary – but may not be sufficient, to have a Top 20 RoI Film. Or even – just HIGH-RoI film.)
Then again – the StoryAlity™ theory assumes that – the main point of Storytelling is: to reach the widest possible audience, with your film story.
(Even if – `the widest possible audience’ in your own particular case, specifically means – 10,000 people, who just love `Sci-Fi Musical’ films. Or even, who love Westerns, which seem to have gone out of vogue. Or – whatever your chosen/preferred Genre may be.)
So – if using the StoryAlity™ system to tell your screen (film) story also means `commercial success’, then: Great.
But – (news flash) writers and filmmakers are usually not “in it for the money”…
They’re in it for: the passion and the gift and talent they have for Storytelling. (…Right?)
They’re also in it because the act of screenwriting and/or filmmaking put them in the `flow’ state.
(For more, see: Csikszentmihalyi on “flow” theory.)
Because: they love it.
Q: Hey – so, I wrote a film script using the 30 x StoryAlity™ Theory Guidelines – and we made the film, it got a theatrical release, but – then, it didn’t become a Top 20 RoI Film. – Maybe this StoryAlity™ Theory is broken-?
A: As above, the StoryAlity™ Theory provides guidelines – that are intended to increase the probability of your film story going viral.
It does not guarantee the film will go so viral that it then enters the Top 20 RoI List.
But – it just might work.
But, hey – Did your film make a profit?
Well, yes it did. But – not enough profit, to make it a Top 20 RoI Film.
Okay – so the Theory probably still helped, then? And remember – 7 in 10 films lose money, and you still managed to `dodge that bullet’. And, so – do you think StoryAlity™ Theory maybe helped?
Not sure. We may never know…?
True. But – if you know of a better `viral film story’ (i.e. which also means, High RoI) Theory, then: go to it!
(And – tell me about it. I am very interested to know.)
Q: What about those guys at Epagogix? Haven’t they accurately been predicting Film Story/Screenplay RoI, for years now? Since, like 2005?
A: Yes. http://www.epagogix.com/ does indeed, have a method, to calculate North American box office. But – you also need a finished screenplay, for them to analyze.
And so – Where are the guidelines for writing/making a high RoI Film? Here on this blog – and also (in greater detail) in the StoryAlity Screenwriting Manual.
Q: So, I also wrote a film using the StoryAlity™ Theory guidelines – and we made the film, and it got a theatrical release, but then – it didn’t break even (didn’t make a 373% RoI) – Maybe this StoryAlity™ Theory is broken?
A: Again – there are also many reasons why – despite doing right everything that StoryAlity™ Theory suggests – a film can also fail to make a profit.
For example – bad casting, or bad acting, or a Marketing Budget less than around $1m (i.e.: If almost nobody knows that the film exists in the cinemas, then – how are they supposed to go see it, and then let word-of-mouth, make it go viral?)… etc.
So – StoryAlity™ Theory provides certain Guidelines that may help your film go viral.
But – there are also probably about “8 Million Ways To Die” for any film… i.e. What if, a similar (or even: identical) film is released, the week before yours – and so the Distributor then decides, not to release your film?
There are many things you cannot control. (Although – you may be able to carefully keep an eye on the film trade magazines – and see if, any films just like yours are in production at the same time as yours. Even the genius filmmaker Stanley Kubrick got caught out like this – with his passion project, a biopic of Napoleon – but interestingly, Spielberg is now making that script…)
But so – the things that you CAN control – are, exactly all the things that StoryAlity™ Theory suggests that you do in your screenplay and film.
Q: So – is StoryAlity™ Theory `failsafe’-?
A: No. It is a probability calculus. – If you do all 30 things StoryAlity™ suggests, then given all the empirical evidence, your film then has a higher probability of going viral, than – if you do not.
But `black swans’ can always happen. (i.e. Unforeseen events.) – This also is why Life is – mostly – unpredictable.
Also, you may well decide to do only 29 out of the 30 things that StoryAlity™ Theory suggests. (e.g. Maybe you decide: NOT to make it a `Villain Triumphant’ story. – That’s entirely your choice, as a storyteller.)
And – if so, since 29/30 = 97%, and therefore, if you have done 29/30 of the things that increase the likelihood of film virality, you now have: a 97% chance of making a viral (High RoI) Film. – The choice is all yours.
(`Free will’ is good like that. The choice is all yours. See Daniel Dennett’s books Freedom Evolves, 2003 and Elbow Room, 1984, for more on: Free Will.)
Q: So – what about `Transmedia’ in the Top 20 RoI Films?
A: I presented a paper on `Transmedia in the Top 20 RoI films’ at a conference in 2013. A draft of that paper is here, if you’re interested in that sort of thing: http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/research/research-nexus/digital-nexus/global-project-on-transmedia/transmedia-storytelling-and-beyond/conference-programme-papers-and-abstracts/session-14/
There also is more here, on Transmedia: https://storyality.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/Storyality-64-Why-Transmedia-is-Destiny/
Q: As a screenwriter, Why should I read The Journal of Screenwriting (published by Intellect)?
A: Mainly because – it is the only academic, peer-reviewed journal, dedicated to the art and craft of Screenwriting.
For more, see: The Journal of Screenwriting http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-journal,id=182/
And note – this (excellent) journal only started in 2009. This shows quite clearly that: the domain of Screenwriting is in a `pre-paradigm’ state, as – the Academic Field of Screenwriting only formed officially in 2005, with the formation of the Screenwriting Research Network.
The first official SRN Screenwriting Conference was in Leeds, in 2008. Compare to: the domain of Mathematics: the first International Congress of Mathematicians was held in Zurich in 1897. The first major meeting of international psychoanalysts was in 1908. And the first Solvay Conference on Physics was held in 1911.
Screenwriting is around 100 years behind the Sciences…
This is why everyone loves to say “Nobody knows anything”… Screenwriting and Filmmaking is only 100 years old anyway – and Creativity and Filmmaking is emerging from its Dark Ages, right now, in 2013.
(But – with this scientific and empirical research on Film Story, we are certainly `catching up’ all the lost ground.)
Q: So – What proof is there, that any of this StoryAlity™ Theory stuff actually works?
A: The StoryAlity™ Theory guidelines predicted the film: The Devil Inside (2012).
Namely that – a film with the greatest probability of entering the Top 20 RoI Films list, is:
a) The Horror Genre (though not always, obviously… also: Comedies, Sci-Fi, RomComs, Gangster, Sports, etc)
b) Happens around every 2 years…
c) Is a `Villain Triumphant’ story
d) Is made by a writer-hyphenate…
(Etc – See the 30 StoryAlity™ Guidelines for more.)
See also, this post:
Q: What else does the StoryAlity™ Theory predict?
A: Many things…
1) It predicts the Form/Structure of extremely viral films (across about 30 criteria).
2) It also predicts How often they come along. (i.e. Every 2.05 years on average.)
3) It also predicts that: a Drama genre film – will never enter the Top 20 RoI list.
For more predictions of StoryAlity Theory…see: this post.
And – thanks for reading!
I hope all this research helps you, whatever your goals, as a screenwriter, and/or filmmaker.
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/