Writing the High ROI Screenplay (Part 7)

This week we continue with part seven 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 – If these are The Top 20 ROI Films of the Past 70 Years:


Then – okay, so, what’s ROI (Return On Investment) and why should any feature film screenwriter actually care?

That sounds like: `Marketing talk’, right?

Or even: `Accountant-talk’.

i.e. Maths stuff…! (Ugh, right?)


This ROI stuff all sounds like, the polar opposite of: Creativity.

Well, it is – and it isn’t… (Warning: Irony proximity alert…)

Because–overall, it sounds like, we’re now just interested in: making buckets of filthy lucre.

i.e. Making: `empty-headed commercial trash’, right? Rather than `telling great stories’?

Wrong…! (imminent irony alert…)

Because – when you realize that: the filmmakers themselves didn’t necessarily make lots of money from these Top 20 ROI films.

The producers and distributors did.

For example – John Carpenter made $30k on Halloween, and it made: $50 million.

i.e. Filmmaking is not driven by money, it is driven by passion – and innovation.

In a word: Creativity.

Also –note that, The Top 20 ROI films:

1) Didn’t have especially big initial marketing budgets; (usually around $1m-$2m or so…)

2) Didn’t have `stars’ in them;

3) 18 of the 20 films, didn’t even have `name directors’ attached, and:

4) 18 of the 20 were independent films – and not `Hollywood’ films.

Bizarre – but: all true.

So – it means – there must have been some other reason/s (other than, those things above) that they all went so viral… (i.e. reached the widest audience– when we compare their audience-reach at the theatrical cinema box office – to their production budget).

And – what is that reason?

One thing:

The Story – in each and every one them.

Because (as bizarre as this may seem) underneath – they are actually:

All The Same Story.

By that, I mean – we can see the exact same story-structure (think: something vaguely like the Hero’s Journey monomyth – except: it isn’t exactly that, as- not all of them have the Hero’s Journey in them, brilliant though that Story Structure is) and –actually, about 20 other things that they all do the same, that also: the Bottom 20 ROI films tend not to do

Don’t get me wrong, 4 of the top 20 ROI films DO have The Hero’s Journey monomyth in them. And it’s a wonderful story pattern.

It works, and we can thank Joseph Campbell for that.

On that – note also that George Lucas is the only filmmaker with 2 films in the top 20 ROI films.

His first film that entered the list was American Graffiti (1973). But it was of course the later Star Wars 1977 that was the `classic’ hero’s journey film.

Lucas did Anthropology in college, before he became a filmmaker. And – one of the first texts they hand you in that class, is: The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

So Lucas combined that with about 20 other influences and ideas (i.e. memes), to create the story that became Star Wars.

George Lucas was unable to afford the rights to the 1930’s film serials of Flash Gordon. (And – thank goodness for that. Hard to imagine Flash Gordon – even remade by Lucas – being anywhere as cool as Star Wars – 1977)

So – in writing Star Wars, Lucas has said he was inspired by: the serials Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Dune (the novel by Frank Herbert), Asimov’s Foundation trilogy novels, andamong other films: The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Metropolis, 633 Squadron, The Dam-Busters, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz.

In fact – if you watch old Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers episodes, you’ll notice more than a few similarities in Star Wars (1977)… right from the `opening title scroll’, to – the character archetypes, the settings, the scenes, the scenarios (an evil empire – and a rebellion) and even, some of the character names…

And so, next up: some of the Story Memes in the Top 20 ROI films

i.eAll smash-hit films are brand-new `original’ ideas, right?

Irony alert: Nope.

They are usually: two or more very `old’ and `common’ ideas (read: existing, popular memes) combined…

Next month’s post:

Part 8: Some of the key memes in The Top 20 ROI Films.

– 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

3 thoughts on “Writing the High ROI Screenplay (Part 7)”

  1. Many thanks, Night Fox Entertainment –

    I think what surprised me most, was that – nobody had ever done a doctoral research study (ie – with a consilient research methodology, etc), specifically on the Top 20 RoI films, before this study was done in 2012.

    ie – The only other prior academic studies, specifically on `Film Story, and How It Affects RoI’ are: 2 papers by the Wharton School of Marketing (2007 and 2010) – but, they are also problematic, for various reasons…
    (ie – for details of those 2 x academic Wharton School studies, see: http://storyality.wordpress.com/2012/12/21/storyality-39-the-storyality-movie-story-study-methodology/)

    Although – (the legendary) Professor DK Simonton looked at over 200 prior scientific studies of film success, in his research-survey/study/book `Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics’ (2011) – which is an amazing book, but, mainly looks at critical/awards success, rather than: film virality.

    One thing DK notes there is that prior researchers all tend to use different research methods, (and also – look at different things in their studies) so, currently there’s not yet a `solid body of evidence’ that can be compared/correlated (on: film creativity, and film success).

    – At any rate, a lot of new info now comes to light, in this study so at least, that’s something…
    – Hopefully, other academic researchers can also build on it (both Simonton’s work and this study), and – at the end of the day, hopefully it’s helpful, to screenwriters and filmmakers everywhere… (ie – given the real-world problems that: `7 in 10 films lose money’ (Vogel 2011), and, that 98% of screenplays go unmade (Macdonald 2004), etc…)

    It’s certainly a fascinating area…



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