Writing the High ROI Screenplay (Part 2)

This week we continue with part two in a twelve part series of JT Velikovsky’s doctoral thesis: “Understanding And Exploring The Relationship Between: Creativity; Theories Of Narratology; Screenwriting; And Narrative Fiction Feature Film-Making Practices.”

By JT Velikovsky

So, whenever I’m asked, my own `general advice’ to any – and all – screenwriters/filmmakers, always includes, as 3 general `rules’:

1) Write 10 feature screenplays. It takes about that long to master feature screenwriting.

2) Always be writing 2 different screenplays. An expensive one and a cheap one.

3) Try writing the same film story: as an `expensive’ one – and, as a `cheap’ one.




Allow me to elaborate:

1) You probably actually have to write about 10 features before your first one is optioned/sells/gets made.

Csikszentmihalyi says, for most creative domains (film, art, writing, music, science, maths, etc) it takes roughly ten years to internalize the domain (learn ‘the rules of the game’, and practice your craft) and then – you might produce something `creative’. (Something that: the audience likes a lot.)

And Malcolm Gladwell also supports this view in “Outliers”. (Gladwell 2008)




What this means is: it takes about 10 years to acquire enough habitus (in Bourdieu’s terms, habitus means “a feel for the game”) to be Creative.

(That is, to produce a work that will be judged “creative” by the field, i.e. the audience, the critics, the film industry.)

Side Note: “Creative” means “novel and appropriate.”

And: after 10 years of learning – and practice – what screenwriter wants to risk having their film story fail? (70% of films actually lose money…)

At any rate – This “10-year rule” is also totally borne out by evidence, from the field.

In Chapter 23 of The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters (Iglesias 2001), six successful screenwriters verify this finding:


Jim Kouf [writer of the films Rush Hour, Gang Related, Operation Dumbo Drop, Disorganized Crime, Stakeout, Miracles, The Hidden, Secret Admirer, American Dreamer, Class, Up The Creek]: “I wrote 11 TV specs before I got someone to take me seriously and then it took 6 feature scripts before I wrote one that was good enough.”

Michael Schiffer [writer of the films The Four Feathers, The Peacemaker, Crimson Tide, Lean On Me, Colors]: “Developing craft is a very slow process. If you were playing the violin, you wouldn’t expect to pick it up and then go to Carnegie Hall within 6 months. And yet people expect their first or second script to sell and become a hit movie. It’s a bit delusional. Sure, there may be instances of this happening, but I think generally it’s a craft that takes 5 to 20 years to develop.”

Tom Schulman [writer of Holy Man, Eight Heads In A Duffel Bag, Medicine Man, What About Bob? Dead Poets Society, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, Second Sight]: “We all hear stories of overnight successes. But almost every one of those successes will tell you that it was an overnight success that took 10 to 20 years. This is by far the rule.”

Scott Rosenberg [writer of Con Air, High Fidelity, Gone In 60 Seconds]: “I wrote ten scripts before I got my first agent, wrote another two before my first sale and another three before anything got made… I look back at those ten scripts and they suck… And these kids, with their lottery mentality think they just wrote The Terminator, and it’s ridiculous.”

Nicholas Kazan [writer of Enough, Bicentennial Man, Fallen, Matilda, Dream Lover, Reversal of Fortune, At Close Range, Patty Hearst, Frances]: “The trick is knowing which category you fall into. Are you someone who’ll make it eventually? Or are you someone who’ll work at it for 20 years and never make it?”

Frank Darabont [A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, The Blob, The Fly 2, The Shawshank Redemption, Frankenstein, The Walking Dead]: “There are potentially more talented writers and directors than I, working in shoe stores and Burger Kings across the nation. The difference is I was willing to put in the nine years of effort and they weren’t.” (Iglesias 2001: 211-20)

In Creativity studies, this is known as `The Ten-Year Rule’.

For more, see the 10-to-11 minutes mark, of this (excellent) TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, arguably one of the top world experts on the scientific and empirical study of Creativity itself.

i.e. He mentions “The Ten-Year Rule”about halfway through (10 mins) here.

And also, see this definition/explanation here.

The Ten-Year Rule


Though – some people do get very lucky, and `crack it’ before the 10th screenplay/10th year.

But,after all – there surely are, lots of things to `get right’ in a feature film screenplay, including:

Premise, Theme, Character, Plot, Genre, Structure, Dialog, Tone, Style, Voice.

(Also,of course – if say, it’s a Comedy, it’s gottaactually be funny. Or, if it’s in the Terror genre, it’s gotta be: terrifying.)

So – it usually takes about 10 screenplays (or maybe, around 10 years) before you `master’ every single element of the art and craft of screenwriting.

But –on the bright side – if you really love doing it, that ten years actually goes by very quickly.

The `flow’ state is like that. When you’re in `flow’ (“in the zone”), eight hours feels like eight minutes. Ever been so `lost’ (immersed) in what you’re writing, that you reach for your coffee and find: it’s not only cold, it also has some kind of dead moths that have apparently also been breeding in it?

If so – then You have probably been in the `flow’ state.

(For more on `Creativity – and Flow’ see the excellent book: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).



Next month’s post:

Part 3: `General Screenwriting Advice, Number 2 and even 3’

– JT Velikovsky


Photo Credits: JT Velikovsky

3 thoughts on “Writing the High ROI Screenplay (Part 2)”

    • Thanks Frank – great to hear – I was hoping that would be the case… (ie easy to read). My thesis also has lots of pictures, charts, and graphs too – I think that always helps :) – I am also real big on diagrams… words are so far `abstracted from Reality’ sometimes :) – i’m not big on `dry academic text’ – and – if absorbing the domain (ie – learning more about Screenwriting) isn’t fun – it kind of “defeats its own purpose” (…my fave line from `Raging Bull’ :), cheers, JT


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