How to pick a box office winner

Robocop will hit Australian screens next week. Does it have what it takes to deliver a record-breaking return on investment? Kerry Hayes/Columbia Pictures Industries Inc and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

Can we predict which films will turn a massive profit? Studio honchos would surely like to think so. In fact, an empirical and scientific study of the feature films that returned the highest rate of profit on investment reveals common elements in the form, structure content of these 20 films, and enables novel scientific predictions about future high return-on-investment (RoI) feature films.

The Return on Investment bell-curve. StoryAlity

I’ve termed the resulting thesis and set of probability guidelines for filmmakers and screenwriters StoryAlity Theory. One prediction of StoryAlity Theory is that a new top 20 RoI film should emerge from the international film system right now, in January 2014.

Top 20 RoI – or audience reach divided by budget – films have emerged every 2.05 years on average since 1968, with almost clockwork regularity. This suggests that a top 20 RoI film is due to emerge from the international film system in the very near future, and implies probabilities of at least ten of its specific characteristics.

The big winners so far

The top 20 Return on Investment films. StoryAlity

The above data set enables us to examine the frequency of how often a film enters the top 20 RoI list. A time-series plot of the emergence of top 20 RoI films reveals the following pattern:

The top 20 RoI (Return on Investment) feature films of the past 70 years by release year. StoryAlity

From this data, I draw two inferences:

1) as mentioned, a new top 20 RoI film apparently enters the list every 2.05 years on average

2) a market correction in the film system appears - given the 10-year gap from 1983 to 1993, and then the four “missing” films appear all at once in 2002, wherein the film system then returns to normal frequency.

The prediction that a new feature film emerges in the top 20 RoI list every 2.05 years on average was confirmed by the arrival two years ago - in January 2012 - of the top 20 RoI film The Devil Inside (2012). This low-budget American horror film had a production budget of US$1 million, and subsequently made US$99.7 million at the box office.

This suggests that, all things being equal, in January 2014 – right about now – a new top 20 RoI film should emerge from the international feature film system.

To enter the Top 20 RoI list, a film currently needs to make greater than a 7,234% RoI – or more than 72 times its production budget. Notably none of the top 20 RoI films are adaptations of pre-existing literature, such as novels, plays or short stories. (Night of the Living Dead (1968) was inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend.)

Bang for your buck

RoI really means: audience-reach – relative to production means. What we’re talking about is a kind of cost/benefit ratio.

A theatrical box office figure for any given film, when divided by an average global cinema ticket-price figure (say, $10) gives an approximate figure for the number of audience members.

In other words – the box office figure gives an estimate of the number of individual people who paid to view the film while it was on theatrical release. Importantly, the above RoI statistics do not include marketing spend/ prints and advertising expenses or distribution costs.

The RoI percentage in the calculations above is obtained by dividing the film’s box office total by the film’s production budget. What this RoI metric reflects then, is the audience reach of a film – compared to its production budget.

The predicted characteristics of the next top 20 RoI film are therefore as follows:

Some predicted characteristics of the Top 20 RoI Film due in January 2014. StoryAlity

In light of this prediction, it’s worth keeping an eye on the figures for the month. A contender may already be emerging. What’s more, if a film does not make more than 72-times its budget in January 2014 (and we’re getting a little late in the piece) it is possible another gap and a later market correction is then expected.

Does this mean we all (as filmmakers) should now write/make horror films?

No. Creativity isn’t quite that easy. You should write/ make whatever you know and love - and probably also, consider combining two or more genres that you know and love.