In 2016, then-doctoral candidate Joe Velikovsky published his Ph.D thesis "Twenty-Four Open Problems In The Movie Screenwriting Domain", which was based on David Hilbert's 23 Mathematical Problems from 1900. An expanded version of the original idea appears on his website with forty-three items. Joe's work is extraordinary, in an unusual part of academia. He estimates the academic field of screenwriting (https://screenwritingresearch.com/) - only established a decade ago in 2012 - is about a century behind mathematics.
Some of it, of course, is a bunch of social science folly. And a classic example of how academics go horribly wrong when interacting with real life with naive assumptions and idealised notions. It's a great start for the facts, but the understanding of problems in the domain itself is broadly incorrect.
It's worth noting it is social science parlance to "problematise" everything. Every situation anywhere is "problematic" to the humanities. It's not a helpful way to do things. Let's run through them and see where Velikovsky goes wrong.
The Twenty-Four Problems
Some of these are brutal, and comprise the original issues in the dissertation. Many of them are valid, but few of them are "screenwriting problems".
1. 98% of screenplays disappear, and only 2% are ever made
A consilient study (e.g.: empirical surveys) of `most frequently encountered reasons for screenplay rejection might go towards exploring - and solving - this problem.
Probably the most profound statistic in the entire industry. The issue is of where they should then end up, if not on screen. The filmmaking process is competitive, risky, and expensive. Is this problem solvable?
Moreover, is this yet another academic who can't understand the Pareto Distribution?
2. US theory and practice dominates everything
The screenwriting convention , or orthodoxy doxa) of screenworks is a discourse currently dominated by perceived US practice, and by prescriptive advice presented in US screenplay manuals. (Macdonald, 2004, p. 85)
Is this true in Mumbai, Paris, or Lagos?
RED FLAG: communist-style Franz Fanon "cultural imperialism" being smuggled in here about "prescribed" orthodoxy. Biggest industry dominates: that's the rule.
3. Aristotle's ideas from Poetics dominate everything
Aristotle possibly invented - rather than `discovered - the guidelines prescribed in Poetics in c335 BCE (Aristotle, Baxter, & Atherton, 1997). Greek tragedy plays and contemporary cinema screenplays (and their story structures, and storytelling modes) are two distinctly different forms that are often conflated.
Writers are ignorant of issues with Aristotle. True.
Answer: education in literary theory, and qualifications.
4. Nobody seems to understand the Three-Act structure
this three-act structure has been conflated to Aristotelian three-act structure in the screenwriting convention by various screenplay gurus. In my own survey of various translations of Poetics, I find no reference to three-act structure.
Beginning, middle, end. That's it. Ditto problem: solve with education.
5. Scene length averages are inflexible
Screenplay gurus such as McKee in Story (McKee, 1997) prescribe that scenes in a screenplay on average be no longer than 2 minutes 30 seconds (Macdonald, 2004, p. 94).
"Gurus" are full of shit. Ignore them.
6. Favourite characters rarely transform through an "arc"
it can be argued that most, if not all, protagonists in the top twenty return on investment films do not have transformational character arcs.
Correct. This bullshit is spread through books by those "gurus" and idiots in the Netflix writers' room who think talking about screenwriting is the same as being able to do it.
7. Monomyth "hero's journey" stories regularly fail
the hero s journey monomyth underpins many of the screenwriting manuals (Macdonald, 2004, p. 102). However quite obviously, not all successful film stories are hero s journeys. Furthermore Campbell has stated that the hero s journey is a particularly masculine discourse.
Ditto. Campbell's stupid ideas are part of his own dissertation on religion, not movies.
RED FLAG: communist agitprop about "masculine discourse".
8. There's no universal language/grammar for the screen
Another alternative solution, however, is to use Systems Theory, to view films as `units of culture , a.k.a. memes (see: Velikovsky, 2016) and which are structured as holon/partons.
Does it actually hold anything back? Was it a useless evolutionary adaptation left behind by the market?
9. The UK and US relationship is strange
It's not clear why this is a "problem".
10. Americans and TV broadcasters dominate UK production
Local or global crowdfunding is now one potential alternative; other solutions might be identified by researchers.
Completely true. More specifically, it's controlled by the bourgeoise Oxbridge class whose mates' got them cushy jobs at the BBC and FilmFour because they have a friend who works in the City.
11. No-one can define what "unique and original" means
Screenwork readers (such as producers, script assessors, directors, actors)
say they want unique and original , yet they also cannot define what that
Yes, they can. Study Hollywood. They want a remake: a copy of something everyone knows, packaged up in a new way. This can be understood by realising no-one in the studio system has any creative ability whatsoever.
This industry created Cinderella 2, and wanted to make a sequel to Titanic.
12. There's no one standard for a "good" script
film industry producers and financiers with economic capital use personal preference, intuition and gut feeling to make decisions about story changes, without providing convincing empirical or scientific evidence.
Because art is subjective, and producers have experience in what sells. A good script is the same as a good book: something you can't put down, where you need to find out what is on the next page.
13. Financiers dumb-down scripts for audiences
Admiration consecration in Bourdieu s phraseology) is given to screenworks that demonstrate elements such as those identified by Brunsdon (1990) and Ellis (2000);
Which they couldn't do, if writers published like playwrights.
14. There's no methodology for studying successful movies
The screenwriting convention incorporates the tautological argument that something is de facto good if it is admired; the question then becomes one of identifying what it is that makes it good. (Macdonald, 2004, p. 177)
15. Industry people still think stars, marketing, reviews, etc are responsible for success
In Hollywood Economics (2004), using the evolutionary survival tournaments view of movies, De Vany et al have shown that a film s marketing spend, star power (or, A-list actor casting) and film reviews do not affect the success of a film (De Vany, 2004, p. 4). Further to this, De Vany identifies story alone as the reason a film succeeds or fails.
This is such a profound idea it cannot be overstated. It's the entire reason for Hollywood's collapse. The audience has been telling this industry they despise politicisation of cast and film. They want good stories. However, try releasing a film without Tom Cruise in it and see how you do.
16. Producers and finance people overrule writers
Producers and financiers sometimes overrule screenwriters for illogical reasons, or simply: because they can.
Which they couldn't do, if writers published their work like playwrights and charged royalities for changes.
17. Writing is not done with a practical budget in mind
the producer should from the earliest stage have in mind an estimation of the value of the film and, together with the director, steer the writer to work within achievable boundaries…. (Relph in Macdonald, 2004, p. 214)
This is a misunderstanding. The first draft includes all, and pre-production refines it. Writers only ever had to worry about a theatre stage and basic props, and shouldn't have to deal with other costs like green screens.
18. Writers are the most important element, but at the bottom of the list
contractually awarding the writer approval over creative decisions (placing them in an Executive Producing role) might circumvent this problem.
Because writers are idiots. And have been idiots for a century. They can fix it in five minutes, but they're beggars and cowards. How? By publishing their work and licensing it instead of selling it.
19. Writers don't speak the same language as their consumers
A Romantic rather than a rational view of creativity by screenplay gurus and therefore by readers in screen storytelling means that screenwriters are speaking a different language to financiers, producers, and screenwork readers.
Wrong. Many writers are also directors. And many others are profoundly engaged with their readers.
20. The terminology people use is inconsistent
One potential solution is provided by Dr Paolo Russo s proposed Encyclopaedia of Screenwriting project, as proposed at the 5th Words and Images Screenwriting conference in Sydney, 2012
The academic jargon is, perhaps. Everyone on a film set knows what a day-out-of-days is. And nobody gives a shit about peer-reviewed anything.
21. Some postmodern word salad nonsense
a linear, micro, structuralist view, which for the most part ignores the bigger picture - that the screen industry is a set of overlapping
Dear God, who knows.
22. Writing and production are separated
our understanding of screenwriting (along with other aspects of film production) has been shaped by the idea of a separation of conception and execution. (Maras, 2009, p. 179)
In the larger-scale productions, but not in the smaller ones or in TV series' like "24" who run 6 episodes at a time as-they-go. The "problem" refutes itself by citing writer-director pairings.
23. The screenplay format could be superseded by something better
Two of the top twenty RoI films (Paranormal Activity, 2009 and The Blair Witch Project, 1999) did not use screenplays, but were improvised from outlines;
True. It's showing its age in the era of video games and V/A/(X)/R.
24. 70% of films lose money
As Vogel states in Entertainment Industry Economics (8th Ed., 2011) …of any ten major theatrical films produced, on the average, six or seven may be broadly characterized as unprofitable and one might break even. (Vogel, 2011, p. 71) This ratio has remained constant for the past twenty years, as research reveals that likewise in 1990 on average 2 in 10 films made money, 1 in 10 films broke even and 7 in 10 films lost money (Vogel, 1990, p.2770).
This isn't a screenwriting problem. But it should be at the front of every investor pitch deck: this is a casino, and 7/10 people lose.
The Additional Problems
Velikovsky wises omits many of these from his thesis (although many were formulated afterwards), because they are non-problems perfectly exemplifying the disparate error of trying to "problematise" everything.
1. Women are under-represented
Women screenwriters have been – and still are being – under-represented/obstructed/held-back, in industry – and also in academia (media / screenwriting).
Straight-out social science nonsense. Women are also under-represented as oil rig workers and sewage engineers. Standard stuff to get your paper rubber-stamped by the faculty lounge, but deranged outside it.
- Are they as interested as men in this discipline, generally-speaking?
- Do the sexes write and/or watch the same kinds of movies?
- Are female-authored movies as popular?
- Is female non-aggression effective in an aggressive market?
2. Academia and industry don't talk enough
There is a gap, between some (or: even, much?) of the discourse on screenwriting in “academia/theory” and, in “the industry/practice”.
Because nobody cares. There is nothing to be learned from a journal the hell of making a movie will teach you more effectively, The term "gap" here implies there should be parity.
3. Writers are only paid 5% of the film budget
A standard Screenwriters’ fee (Australia) is 3% of a feature film budget. In the US, it is 5%.
Because they allow themselves to be. If they published their work, they could demand royalties. The problem here is the existence of the unions themselves. There is no need for them.
4. Writers only have two methods of recourse
to refuse to sell the screen idea as proposed, or to insist on the removal of his/her name from the credits on the screenwork.
Unless they publish their work. Like playwrights do. But that would require communist unions and guilds to acknowledge private property, and lose control of writers.
5. Movies need written scripts, but they're visual
Screen ideas require scripts (words) whereas, screenworks are primarily visual and audio.
True. But we also use illustrations and motion capture now. It's the best we have, so far.
6. Goldman's Law, “Nobody knows anything”, stops conversations
this phrase is invoked when one person wishes to abruptly end a discussion with another about any issue within a screen idea. This viral meme (“Nobody knows anything”) is a huge problem in the domain of screenwriting.
We don't know "lots" about this. Goldman's adage is true: almost everyone in Hollywood is completely full of shit.
7. There is no peer-reviewed `Encyclopedia of Screenwriting’
definitions (problematic as they are, see Popper 1999, All Life is Problem Solving) are not even standardized (or, consensus-based) in the academic Domain/Field of screenwriting.
Nobody cares, and no-one wants or needs it. If we did, we'd write it. Peer review is a joke, and a gatekeeping mechanism. This is the same argument as the "unwritten constitution" issue of jurisprudence.
8. The official definition of Creativity is not used
The standard definition of Creativity, from the scientific study of Creativity in the Domain of Psychology (see: Runco & Jaeger 2012 “The Standard Definition of Creativity”) is not used in Screenwriting discourse on Creativity
It's not needed. We all know it when we see it.
9. "Independent" film has a blurry definition
The definition of `independent’ feature film is blurry, and problematic.
Not really. It means a film made outside the studio financing system.
10. People haven't read social science
Problem: Though the word interdisciplinary gets mentioned a lot, not very many people in the Screenwriting field seem to have read Creativity’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1996) [from the discipline of Psychology] nor Great Flicks’ (Simonton 2011) [psychology/sociology], nor Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge’ (Wilson 1998).
This is totally irrelevant to anything.
11. All the professors are male
Screenwriting Departments with 100% male Professors, for 50/50 (male/female) students – or a Production Department with 100% male Profs and few female Lecturers in addition.
RED FLAG: more communist theory of quotas and equal outcomes. How things morally "should" be, with no rational basis.
- Does it cause actual injury to anyone?
- Are the sexes equally interested?
- Are there equal numbers of applicants?
12. Lots of important women are forgotten
In film history, some very important women are often forgotten/not mentioned, such as: Alice Guy-Blaché, Maya Deren
RED FLAG: communist agitprop. Are they, really? How exactly is this "telepathy" of their neglect by the population operated and measured?
13. "A film by..." credit should be abolished
Possessory Credits’should be abolished, as they ignore (and thus, devalue) the contribution of the `initiators’ of the screen: (1) Idea, (2) Story, (3) Screenplay.
Good luck with that in a sea of the worst narcissism on planet earth.
14. Postmodern theory is useless for movies
a really great (and, easily-readable) list of `Things You Can Actually Use, As A Practising Screenwriter, From The Corpus of Academic and Scholarly Writing on Deconstructionism / Postmodernism / Post-Structuralism’)
Postmodern ideas and literature are useless for anything at all. Quite literally the entire "canon" of this post-1945 garbage - "Postmodernist, Deconstructionist and Post-Structuralist texts" - could be thrown out without anyone knowing anything different, and our culture being all the better for it.
RED FLAG: Quasi-Marxist chatter about "Theory" and "Practice".
15. Nobody knows what "culture" is
There are hundreds of definitions of `Culture’ (see Kroeber & Kluckhohn 1952) but no consensus across Domains or Disciplines.
That's an academic problem, not a screenwriting problem.
16. There is no accepted theory of Character within "narrotology"
(Frow 1986; Margolin 1990)” (see: p19 of Dr Radha O’Meara’s PhD dissertation, Episodic Poetics: Narrative Fragmentation and Cohesion in Serial Television and Film, 2011).
"Narrotology" sounds like a New Age reiki practice, and everyone knows what a character is: a representation of personhood.
17. There is no "theory of everything" in the arts
no theorist has – as yet – united all of the Schools of Thought in the Arts/ Humanities under the umbrella of the Evolutionary paradigm.
RED FLAG: this "interdisciplinary" idea was what Marcuse did with Marx and Freud. We don't need this. Mostly because there is no "thought" in the humanities of any real worth.
18. Player freedom destroys characters in video games
see also Ernest W Adams’ excellent 2013 PhD dissertation on Problems in Videogame Storytelling
Genuinely an interesting problem. If you let viewers guide themselves through worlds, the story is over. Films are the director's "eye" guiding your viewpoint through a set of situations.
19. Nobody knows how many shorts are made
How many shorts go on to win (major) awards, at major film festivals? How many (short) film festivals are there, in the world? What are the major ones?
Well, IMDB kinda does now, because everyone wants those credits. Do we need to know how many paintings are done every year?
20. Does success correlate with the 150-person-group rule?
Over the course of evolutionary history, humans most likely evolved in small groups containing perhaps fifty to two hundred individuals (Dunbar 1993).’ (Buss 2012, p. 161)
No. Some have one character, or two. Obviously, they don't.
21. Do romantic movies conform to human mating preferences?
Something like `Graphing Jane Austen’ (2012) but using romcom movies. Such a study would likely result in a useful set of heuristics for romcom-movie-screenwriters aiming to create a successful romcom movie story.
No. Rom-coms are idiotic, idealised, and melodramatic folly which have no resemblance of real life mating choices/behaviour. People are trying to escape reality, which is what makes them successful.
A Note On Bad Social Science Ideas
This crap creeps into everything like an unwelcome invasive species, and it's generally because the social "soft" sciences are vapid and attempting to obscure they don't have a lot to say. It's a vanity trip to make things sound more impressive than they are.
The art of screenwriting is the opposite to this. It is is about compressing the most evocative language into the smallest space in the most powerful way.
The #1 guaranteed way of spotting this kind of rot is the mention of invisible "systems" or "structures", or phrases such as "power relations", "power dynamics". That's where it goes completely off the rails.
A great example from the website:
18 Problem: Producers (and Financiers / Studios) sometimes overrule screenwriters (change the film story) for illogical or personal reasons, or simply because they can, given the power structures in the film industry (i.e. economic capital, social capital, cultural capital, symbolic capital, and, for more see: Bourdieu 1976-1993).
RED FLAG: a bunch of Marxian communist theory is smuggled into this document.
This situation is a direct result of communist theory and Marxist politics: unions and guilds in the early century struggling for power over the Moguls, instead of encouraging the PUBLISHING of writers' private property as playwrights.
Copyright Law was what due to counter-balance the Goliath of studios to the writers' David. Instead, communist guild organisers rounded writers up as freelancers under unionised control, rather than doing as Jack Warner suggested in terms of publishing "plays" for the screen. Such is the reason for "power structures".
In terms of jargon, consider Problem #21.
The current dominant view of screenwriting theory and practice in the screenwriting convention is a linear, micro, structuralist view, which for the most part ignores the bigger picture - that the screen industry is a set of overlapping bio-psycho-socio-geo-politico-cultural systems (see Hennessy & Amabile 2010), and also largely ignores Bourdieuian concepts of social trajectories, habitus, field, and agency and structure.
On the website edition, it gets much worse.
36 Big Problem: Postmodernist, Deconstructionist and Post-Structuralist texts (say) seem not to have anything in them, that working (or aspiring) a screenwriter (in practice) can use. [Related to Problem #2, above – a perceived Gap between Theory’ and Practice’] (Someone might well solve this Domain Problem in Screenwriting, by reading all of those texts, or even just the most highly-cited ones, and, compiling a really great (and, easily-readable) list of Things You Can Actually Use, As A Practising Screenwriter, From The Corpus of Academic and Scholarly Writing on Deconstructionism / Postmodernism / Post-Structuralism’). On the other hand, maybe those Deconstructionist’ texts never were intended as such (in fact maybe they were intended as, the opposite?). (And therefore: Is this why, there is a perceived Gap in Theory’ and Practice’ ? And – why, exactly, does this issue make so many people, so angry, and/or defensive? And – does consilience’ [eg EO Wilson (1998), Consilience’] go partway, to perhaps, solving this problem? Or – not?)
Of course, because all those "texts" and "ideas" are utter garbage. They exist to DESTROY literature.
Some Actual Real-Life Problems In the Screenwriting Domain
There are thousands of these. But if academics really want to help, some simple attention to reality would be preferred over whether "post-structuralist discourse" has any relevance to anything.
Problem: Writers are solitary and cowardly
Yes, they are. Always victimised, always whining, pitiful, and constantly going on about how they get screwed. The fundamental problem is they are poor, unable to stand up for themselves, and dig their own graves.
Problem: Writers think they can only sell or option their source code
They can publish it and license it as playwrights do. And the reason they don't, is because they are lazy and don't ask how playwrights do it. Software developers not sell their source to Google in order for it to be listed on the app store.
Problem: Academics wrongly assume the industry wants to evolve and optimise like Big Tech
Nobody wants to do things better here. They want to obtain and preserve gatekeeper control over the filmmaking process. They don't want electronic marketplaces or new shiny SaaS applications. They want to increase the existing dysfunction which serves them.
Problem: Big Tech controls the approval process now
Amazon bought the last studio. The production houses work directly for the subscription platforms: Netflix, Amazon, Google, Apple, and so on. Writers don't know the soulless creep nerds they work for anymore. The rules and goalposts have changed. They are more ruthless, more communist, with a turnover of trillions.
Problem: How do you write for smartphone screens?
It's six inches wide. Tiny. How do you tell a story in a small handheld device which you can't hear properly without headphones?
Problem: Screenwriting students are brainwashed with Critical Theory and can't tell the difference between story and sociology
Nothing has been written for the last 20 years which is any good. It's all nonsense crap "analysing" social situations rather than actually telling a recognisable story.
Problem: Writers can't get a job in a writers' room unless they self-censor and endure Maoist struggle session groupthink
$7500 a week, and all you have to do to get in is dye your hair blue, complain constantly, take "diversity training" every quarter - and most importantly, repeat the mantras and groupthink. Or be blackballed. Be a good communist for your food. And it's EVERY writers' room.
Problem: Sex differences: boys like cars, girls like romance
It's true, and if you don't understand that, you haven't left the faculty lounge. Boys pay for dates; girls fall asleep 10mins in from cuddling. Fast cars are more exciting spectacles than "one woman's journey" in a lakeside cottage. There's always exceptions to the rule and absolutely nothing wrong with any of it at all. It is not a "problem" which needs to be addressed by androgynous feminist lesbian professors.
Problem: The WGA needs to die
Authors publish their work as private property, or co-publish with big publishing companies. The law protects them. Writers do not need communist unions bargaining for them and organising their healthcare. Did the Strike help anyone?
What's the alternative? Forming your own LLC, publishing your work legally, and licensing it for revenue from ongoing royalties. Arrange your own healthcare.
Problem: Computers (inc. AI) can't understand or interpret screenplays
Unless you're using ScreenJSON (created by this author, ahem), how do you store a screenplay in MongoDB, or train a machine learning model who is missing from the scene?
Problem: The quality of a screenplay has little to do with whether it gets made
It's about whether someone's nephew wrote it, what the person is willing to do sexually for the person holding the cash, how much of their own money a person is willing to lose, or how terrified the producer is of GLAAD. Sad, but true.
Problem: The writer is middle class, the audience is working class
What exactly is the screenplay author have in common with the person watching the film?
Problem: Studios exhaust writers through court delays
Some screenwriters have spent 20 years in lawsuits. Every successful one has a case pending. The studios throw lawyers at it, write down the cost into the budget, and string it out as long as possible in the hope the plaintiff gives up.
Problem: Idea theft and document transfer are rampant
You pitch your script. We love it! It gets dropped. 18 months later, a script goes into production which is eerily similar, but not similar enough for a lawsuit; just a different time period or landscape. How do you log in to a PDF, anyway?
Problem: Artists cannot understate the legal line between controversy and obscenity
If you want to write movies about holocaust denial, bodily fluids, or pedophilia, you need to understand why the audience will be more likely to despise you than love you. Conservatives - 55% of the country - are more sensitive to disgust.
Problem: Unsolicited submissions get people sued
You're making a sci-fi. Someone sends a sci-fi script in the mail. 6 months later, you wrap on your movie. The mailer sends another note: a lawsuit.
Problem: How does a short movie maker find a screenwriter to help them?
Where can you find a screenwriter or contact them? Can you hire them like contract work-for-hire programmers?
Problem: Do film festivals technically collaborate with APIs?
Do they publish and share data together about the videos they are showing and the audience response?
Problem: Movies are the most powerful vehicles of propaganda
Stalin was obsessed. The CCP are obsessed. Governments acknowledge they form the national mythology. Film is the most effective and profoundly powerful form of psychological perception ever created. How can a writer ever be independent when producers have a different goal?
Problem: How do you write an encrypted screenplay in Arabic, Hebrew, Cyrillic, or Chinese?
In terms of format, how does it work from right-to-left with non-English characters you don't want anyone to print off without authorisation?
Problem: Movies are written for the international market, including censorious China
Films make ~50% of their money domestically, and the rest is international. How does one citizen of a country write for all countries? And how does one write for a country which removes black people, gay people, and Taiwan-support from the small quota they allow in each year?