Writing the High ROI Screenplay (Part 3)

This week we continue with part three 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

Taking up from last month, we move on to – `General Screenwriting Advice, Number 2’ – (and also, #3).

Advice # 2 – Always be writing 2 screenplays.

(And – if not at the same time, then: alternately. Sort of like, how directors like Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott tend to alternately,make: `one movie for the studio – and one film for me’…)

And – these 2 (suggested) types of screenplays are:

a) Your any-budget/sky’s-the-limit creative masterpiece – (I am not being sarcastic) where, the budget of the produced film –assuming that it is made – is no object, and: your own Creativity and Imagination are the only limitations.

Dream big. i.e. If you could tell any story you wanted, even if there is not enough money in the world to produce the film – this is `it’. Bigger than Ben-Hur. More Alien even than Avatar. Wetter even than Waterworld. More Martian than John Carter (of Mars). With even more Stars, and even more Wars, than: Star Wars.

And also –the 2nd kind of script – the `opposite’ kind of screenplay, in many ways:

b) An extremely inexpensive/low-budget script to produce. (For example, Paranormal Activity: say, all set in one house/building, and, with a max of say, 4 actors. No explosions, no crazy stunts, no crazy visual-FX that can’t be achieved cheaply.) i.e. Totally `test’ your own Creativity out. i.e. Set yourself some `near-impossible’ parameters…

Example: set the whole film, in a lift. (See: DEVIL or, THE LIFT). And maybe only allow yourself 4 characters: say, maybe 3 `good guys’, and a villain. – If you can make that screenplay work, then – you can probably make any screenplay work: brilliantly. (It doesn’t need to be a `found footage’ film, nor, a horror film…)

Try writing 2 versions of the same story. One `expensive’, and one`cheap’.


Note also that – in the big-budget one, you probably can’t really go nuts with your own personal philosophy, or, with some daring (or crazy) new Theme.

If there is a lot of money involved in making any given film, then the film financiers probably will want to `play it safe’- with `conservative’ themes.

But – in the `cheap’ one? You can put your heart and soul, and whatever `risky’ Theme/Philosophy you dare: Marxism. Anarchy. Polygamy. A POV-shot Colonoscopy. Anything.

Chances are, if it’s very low-budget, the `edgy’ message in the `cheap’ one won’t get filtered out by: The Way That The Financing Works, on medium or big-budget films. (i.e. Say, anything over $2m)

(Although – the movie Fight Club is a notable, incredibly-rare exception: when Rupert Murdoch saw the film – and found out what it was really about – it was actually too late, for Fox not to release it. $60 million had already been spent on, what is, now: an uncontested cinematic masterpiece.)


Fight Club (© 1999 Fox Studios, written by Jim Uhls from the novel by Chuck Palahnuik) – anexceptionally-fine example of: détournement.


For more on détournement – see here and see also: `culture jamming’.

And – I even go so far as to advise this (though – this one is only for the truly daring / the crazy-brave narratologists among us):

3) Just for the exercise, try and tell the same story in those two different screenplays: one `expensive movie’ screenplay; and one, `super-cheap movie’ screenplay.

– It will soon make you think very deeply about the Story you want to tell, and, Why you really want to tell it

i.e. To illustrate – a (totally crazy) hypothetical question – Could you tell the story of Avatar (2009), all set in one room?

(Actually – Yes… It could be all set in a single boardroom, with the `company man’ Selfridge – and the hard-assed security chief Quaritch, interrogating Jake and Grace, for 3 hours. And, they could explain `exactly what happened on Pandora’. Sure – it isn’t anywhere near as visually – nor viscerally – `exciting’ as Avatar. But – see a film like 1998 Australian thriller THE INTERVIEW or maybe K-PAX (2001) for how that might work.)

And – for an extreme example of minimalist cinematic storytelling – see: BURIED (2010).

You can actually set a feature film: entirely inside acoffin, with one guy (and, a snake). And still: tell a great cinematic story. (i.e. Does the `typical’ number of: scenes, settings, and locations – and even cast – all really matter, as much as we might usually think..?)

Good thing this guy doesn’t fear confined spaces, the dark, snakes or being buried alive.

Buried (© 2010 Lionsgate (US) Warner Bros. (Spain) Icon Entertainment International (UK/Australia)) Written by Chris Sparling.

So – whether or not you even choose to risk/dare with `Option #3’ above:

If you are `always writing 2 scripts’ – with these sorts of parameters (i.e. 1) no parameters whatsoever, in the first instance – and –2) with loads of self-imposed production budget constraints in the second), and – you write 5 screenplays of the first kind – and 5 screenplays of the second kind, the odds are then higher that one of those 5 `inexpensive’ scripts may well be snapped up, and made.

Note: You probably won’t become rich from it –nor, buy a Hollywood mansion from the proceeds of that script, but:

You’ll then be a produced/credited screenwriter.

And – this is usually a very good thing.

And: Why..?

Next month’s post:

Part 4: `Why it’s good to be a produced screenwriter.’

– JT Velikovsky


image020JT Velikovsky is a million-selling transmedia writer and consultant (films, games, TV, comix, novels) and produced feature film writer.

His doctoral thesis research on Film/Story/Screenplays of The Top 20 ROI Films can be found here.

Photo Credits: JT Velikovsky

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

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