Writing the High ROI Screenplay (Part 8)

This week we continue with part eight 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 – from the analysis in my doctoral thesis – here are some of the key ideas (memes) that were in the Top 20 ROI Films: (and – multiple spoiler alerts…)




Paranormal ActivityA young suburban couple set up a video camera in their bedroom to discover whether their house is haunted.Writer Oren Peli and his then-girlfriend heard spooky noises in their house at night, and were inspired to create a demon-haunted-house-story by this idea. Sacks 2009.


Mad MaxWhen a violent biker gang murders a cop’s family, he sets about taking bloody revenge.Co-writer James McCausland was inspired by the 1973 oil crisis. McCausland 2006. George Miller used many ideas from his time in a hospital ER, as a surgeon for road trauma victims.


The Blair Witch ProjectThree film students go missing while shooting a documentary about the legendary “Blair Witch”.Co-writers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick were inspired by the Salem witch trials, the classic play The Crucible, and the Tennessee “Bell Witch” legend. Britton 2010. The #3 ROI film also bears very strong similarities to the films The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980).


El MariachiWhen a travelling musician is mistaken for a hetman, he must evade a violent gang who aim to avenge some of their members’ deaths.Writer Robert Rodriguez was inspired by Hitchcock (mistaken identity, in North By Northwest), early Spielberg and Scorsese films. Broderick 1993.


Night of the Living DeadWhen a passing satellite causes flesh-eating undead human “ghouls” to rampage across America, 7 survivors barricade themselves inside a rural farmhouse.Co-writers George Romero and John Russo took inspiration from Richard Matheson’s popular novel I Am Legend. Russo 1985: 6-7.


RockyA washed-up boxer gets a chance to fight the heavyweight champ.Writer Sylvester Stallone was inspired by his own experiences as a strugglingactor aiming to get `a shot at the title’ – and his experiencein gyms, and by the 1975 Muhammad Ali – Chuck Wepner heavyweight bout. Sanello 1998: 63.


HalloweenA criminally insane psychopath escapes from an institution and returns to his old neighbourhood to kill again on Halloween.Producer Irwin Yablans suggested a story about `babysitters being stalked by a psychopath on Halloween night’. McCarty 2003.


American GraffitiIn 1962, a group of small-town high school graduates spend one last night cruising the streets before they go off to college.Writer George Lucas was inspired by his own experiences cruising the strip/the `dating scene’ in small-town Modesto, as well as his fascination with radio DJ Wolfman Jack (who actually appears in American Graffiti), and the Italian coming-of-age film I, Vitelloni (1953).


ClerksA day in the life of two store clerks, Dante and Randall, in which Dante rekindles his relationship with an ex-girlfriend.Writer Kevin Smith was inspired by the film Slacker(1991) and his own job – as a convenience-store clerk.


OnceA Dublin busker and a Czech immigrant flower-seller with broken relationships make music, and record an album together.Writer John Carney was inspired by his own experiences as a musician, and by the songs of Glen Hansard (of the Irish folk-rock band The Frames).


Napoleon DynamiteA geeky nerd helps his new friend win class presidency while coping with his own bizarre family.Co-writer Jared Hess was inspired by his own life experiences, and – by family and friends, growing up in Preston, Idaho. Epstein 2004.


Open WaterA couple are accidentally left far in shark-infested ocean waters by a scuba-diving charter boat.Writer Chris Kentis was inspired by the true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan who were left at sea by a scuba-diving charter boat in 1998, and his own scuba-diving experiences with wife Laura Lau.


Friday the 13thWhen a “cursed” summer camp is refurbished for re-opening, seven camp counsellors are stalked by an unknown killer.Director Sean S Cunningham was inspired by Halloween to create a slasher/horror film, and the concept began with the title, Friday the 13th. Writer Victor Miller created Jason and his mother, and the shock end dream-sequence was inspired by the movie Carrie(1976).


SawTwo men wake up trapped in a room with a dead body and must follow the rules of a bizarre and deadly `game’ if they are to survive.Co-writers Wan and Whannell were inspired by The Blair Witch Project and Pi (note: two of the top 23 ROI movies ever). They initially had the idea of people trapped (by `Jigsaw’) inside an elevator, due to budget constraints. The idea of the Jigsaw character occurred to Whannell when he suffered migraines, and suspected he had a brain tumour, inspiring the idea of Jigsaw as a villain with a terminal illness.


PrimerTwo men accidentally invent a time machine – and use it to cheat the stock market – but in their greed, soon turn on each other.Writer Shane Carruth is has a degree in mathematics, and is a former engineer. He was inspired by the time-travel ideas of physicist Richard Feynman, and the notion that most ground-breaking scientific discoveries by scientists occur by accident, in unglamorous locations, such as:in garages.


The Evil DeadFive college-student friends go to a cabin in the woods, and accidentally become possessed by flesh-eating demons.Writer Sam Raimi was inspired by drive-in horror films, such as Massacre at Central High and Revenge of the Cheerleaders, and especially H P Lovecraft’s The Necronomicon, asreferenced in various short stories and novellas by Lovecraft.


ET: The Extra-TerrestrialWhen a young boy discovers E.T., a stranded alien, he must help to conceal E.T. from the authorities and return him to his home planet.John Sayles wrote a semi-sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind called ‘Night Skies’, about hostile aliens who terrorize a family barricaded inside a farmhouse. Spielberg abandoned the project, but redeveloped a subplot – about the relationship between the lone (`good’/friendly) alien and an autistic boy – as the film “E.T.”. IMDb.com 2012.


The Full MontySix out-of-work steel workers in Sheffield UK form an unlikely “Chippendales”-style male striptease act, but soon realize, they must strip down to totally nude.Producer UbertoPasolini conceived the idea and hired writer Simon Beaufoy to write the screenplay and Peter Cattaneo to direct. Controversially, New Zealand playwrights Anthony McCarten and Stephen Sinclair filed a £180,000,000 lawsuit against the producers of The Full Monty in 1998, claiming that the movie blatantly infringed on their 1987 play Ladies Night, which toured both Britain and New Zealand. BBCNews 1998.


Star WarsA top-gun pilot/farm boy joins terrorist rebel forces to rescue a kidnapped princess and destroy the Galactic Empire’s planet-destroying weapon, The Death Star.Writer George Lucas was unable to afford the rights to the 1930’s film serials of Flash Gordon. In writing Star Wars, he was inspired by the serialsFlash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Dune (the novel by Frank Herbert), and (among others) the films The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Metropolis, 633 Squadron, The Dam-Busters, The Wizard of Oz, and of course Joseph Campbell’s anthropological narratology text, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. (Lucas studied Anthropology in college, and this book is a major `set text’.)


My Big Fat Greek WeddingWhen a plain young Greek woman falls for a non-Greek American man, she must reinvent herself; win his love; and then integrate him into her eccentric and excessively-Greek family.When she was unable to get film work as an actor, comedy revue writer-performer Nia Vardalos wrote a one-woman comedy show about her Greek family, and – adapted it into a film screenplay.


One lesson from all this is, clearly:`Write What You Know’.

Note how many of the above stories are based in the life experience of the writer.

These are essentially: personal films.

So,then –are `viral’ films necessarily `new’ ideas..?

(Hardly… Look at how `classic’ many of the ideas/memes above are. However – they involve combinations of popular memes, resulting in hybrid vigor for the memes of the final film story.)

Next month’s post:

Part 9: Some strikingGenre and Frequency patterns – 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

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