Category Archives: Genre

Genre trends at the US box office, 1991 to 2010

UPDATE: A revised version of this article has been published as Genre trends at the US box office, 1991 to 2010, European Journal of American Culture 31 (2) 2012: 145-167. DOI: 10.1386/ejac.31.2.145_1.

To carry on the theme of some recent posts, this week I present the first draft of  analysis of the genre trends at the US box office over the past twenty years.

The pdf can be accessed here: Nick Redfern – Genre trends at the US box office

Abstract

This paper examines genre trends in the top 50 grossing films at the US box office each year from 1991 to 2010, focussing on the frequency and rank of different genres, the box office gross and release patterns of films in different genres, and the release profile of Hollywood studios. The results show a narrowing of the range of genres at the highest rankings, with fantasy/science fiction movies coming to dominate at the expense of comedy, crime/thriller, and drama films. There are also marginal increases in action/adventure and family films.   Analysis of the opening and total gross for each film reveals that different genres are characterized by different release patterns, and noted the importance of awards in contributing to the box office gross of drama films. With one notable exception, there is no evidence of genre specialization among film studios in contemporary Hollywood cinema.

Box office and genre in three countries

Given the fundamental role genre play sin the film industry and the extensive range of genre studies produced by film scholars it is surprising that there are so few pieces of research to track the box office performance of genres over time. One such study, which looks at the top 20 films at the US box office from 1967 to 2008 can be found here:

Ji  S and Waterman D 2010 Production Technology and Trends in Movie Content: An Empirical Study, Working paper, Dept. of Telecommunications, Indiana University, December 2010.

Given that the theory of national cinemas is as central to film studies as genre, it is also surprising that there have been no comparative studies looking at the box office performance of different genres in different countries. This post presents a quick and simple comparison of the top 50 films at the Australian, UK, ans US box office from 2008 to 2010, inclusive.

The total sample is 150 films for each country, and these were divided into nine genres: action/adventure, comedy, crime/thriller, drama, family, fantasy/science fiction, horror, romance, and other (which is mostly musicals and concert films, but also includes war films, westerns, and documentaries). The box office data was collected from Box Office Mojo, and for ease of comparison all values are in US dollars and have been adjusted for inflation to 2010. Films were ranked according to their box office gross, with the highest grossing film given a rank of 1, the second highest a rank of 2, and so on.

Tables 1 through 3 present the summary information for each country, including the number of films in each genre; the minimum, median, and maximum ranks of the box office grosses (no data is provided for very small classes); and the number of films from each genre in the top 10, top 25m top 50, and top 100 films.

Table 1 Genre frequency and box office ranks of the top 50 films in each year from 2008 to 2010, inclusive, at the Australian box office

Table 2 Genre frequency and box office ranks of the top 50 films in each year from 2008 to 2010, inclusive, at the United Kingdom box office

Table 3 Genre frequency and box office ranks of the top 50 films in each year from 2008 to 2010, inclusive, at the United States box office

From the information in the above tables, we can see that there is little difference between these three countries – not at all unsurprising given the dominance of Hollywood films in all three markets. In fact, these tables largely represent the same group of films in three different markets and so the comparisons between countries are pretty direct. The main results are:

  • Four genres – action/adventure, comedy, family, and fantasy/science fiction – account for approximately 70% of all films in each country.
  • The top 25 and top 50 films are almost entirely composed of only three of these genres. Comedy, despite accounting for such a large proportion of films in each sample perform poorly by comparison, and rarely make it into the top third grossing films. Only one comedy film in the UK and the US, and none in Australia, made it into the top 25.
  • The majority of the top 10 grossing films over this period in the US are accounted for by action/adventure films, whereas the dominant genre in Australia and the UK is fantasy/science fiction.
  • In the working paper referenced above, the thriller is described as one of the most popular genres at the US box office, but it is clear from this data that in recent years crime/thriller films are few and far between and perform substantially worse than the main four genres.
  • These results do support the conclusion of the above paper that drama does not account for a significant proportion of the highest grossing films. Drama does appear to perform slightly worse in the UK compared to Australia and the US, with less than half the films to make it into the top 100.
  • Horror accounts for only a handful of films, and these rank very lowly in the sample for each country.
  • Romance films account for less than 10% of the films in each sample, but they do seem to perform well at the box office. All of the romance films in the Australian data made it into the top 100, and most of the films from this genre also achieved this result in the other two countries.

The differences in the rankings of the four major genres – action/adventure, comedy, family, and fantasy/science fiction – can be seen clearly if we plot the cumulative proportion of films less than or equal to a rank 𝑥 (Figures 1 through 3).

Figure 1 Cumulative proportion by rank of four genres at the Australian box office, 2008 to 2010

Figure 2 Cumulative proportion by rank of four genres at the UK box office, 2008 to 2010

Figure 3 Cumulative proportion of by rank four genres at the US box office, 2008 to 2010

In all cases, it is clear that comedy performs substantially less well than the other three genres. Even though this is one of the most common genres, but it tends to rank much lower that the other genres. This does not necessarily mean that comedy are less profitable – the lower budgets for these films relative to special effects-heavy films of the other genres means that even though they tend to gross less they can still make their money. On the other, it may suggest that the market is saturated with comedy films and that too many films are chasing too small an audience. I am unaware of any research on this topic.

In Figure 3, we can see the high grossing action/adventure films that account for 5 of the top 10 films, whereas in Figures 1 and 2 this genre is not so dominant among the upper rankings. Fantasy/science fiction films occupy a high proportion of the highest grossing films in all three countries; Family films appear to do slightly less well at the high-end and slightly better at the low-end, but are concentrated more in the middle relative to these other genres. The four curves appear to converge where the rank is approximately 120, indicating that these genres are relatively evenly distributed at the end of the rankings. This does not appear to be the case for the other two graphs, where comedy remains distinct from the other genres.

Overall, we get the same patterns for audiences and their box office preferences irrespective of whether they live in Australia, the UK, or the US. Undoubtedly, this is in part attributable to the ability of global media empires such as Buena Vista International, Time-Warner, News Corporation, Viacom, etc. to shape a market. Although limited, the above results raise an interesting question regarding the nature of national cinemas: if the film markets in different countries are so similar does it make any sense to speak of discrete national cinemas rather than a single global cinema?

The fact that Australia, the UK, and the US are all culturally similar, English-speaking countries may contribute to the effects noted above, and we may find that in other countries, where the main language is not English, that different patterns emerge. However, I am sceptical on this point, and as soon as I have got some data to make the comparison I will post a follow-up.

Genre and Hollywood studios, 1991 to 2010

Historically, particular movie studios were often associated with a specific genre of filmmaking as a strategy of differentiating their product in the marketplace (e.g. MGM and musicals, Universal and horror films, Warner Bros. and gangster films), whilst also ensuring that their product was sufficiently diverse to mitigate changes in audience taste and fashion. Table 1 lists the number of films in each of nine genres released by Hollywood studios that were ranked in the top 50 films at the US box office from 1991 to 2010, inclusive.This gives a total sample of 1000 films. See here for more on the sample used. This table is quite large, and can be seen better by opening it in a new window.

Table 1 Number of films in each genre released by Hollywood studios, 1991 to 2010 (minimum of 20 releases)

It is clear from the data that there is no evidence of genre specialisation among five of the six major studios (Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Warner Bros.). Fox has released fewer crime/thriller films than the other major studios, while releasing a greater number of fantasy/science fiction films. Paramount and DreamWorks have co-released 10 family films, which accounts for their number of releases in this category being lower for Paramount than for the other major studios. The exception for the major studios is Buena Vista, its output dominated by and dominating the genre of family films. Of the 162 films released by the studio to make it into the top 50 between 1991 and 2010, 44% were family films; and this one firm accounts for 43% of the 164 films of this genre in the sample. This result is unsurprising, since Buena Vista is the releasing arm of the Walt Disney Corporation and reflects the corporate image of that company as a producer of safe, wholesome, family entertainment (Wasko 2001). Buena Vista has also diversified its product and the frequency with which it has released other types of film is generally consistent with the other majors, although it has released fewer crime/thriller films compared to most of the other studios.

The six majors account for a total of 778 films in the sample; and many of the smaller firms listed operate within their orbit. New Line was a part of the Time-Warner media conglomerate from 1993 until it merged with Warner Bros. in 2008; and DreamWorks has entered into production and/or distribution arrangements with Paramount and Disney. The only film amongst the highest grossing in this twenty year period not connected to one of the major media conglomerates is Newmarket’s The Passion of The Christ (2004), which was produced and distributed outside the traditional Hollywood mechanisms (Maresco 2004). Looking at the smaller firms in Table 1, we see that New Line’s output is dominated by comedy films, although its most profitable films were the Lord of the Rings trilogy; while half of MGM’s limited output is accounted for by action/adventure (and four of these five films are from the James Bond franchise), comedy, and crime/thriller films. Few films from the action/adventure and fantasy/science fiction genres are produced by firms other than the major studios. The budgets for these types of films tend to be higher than those of other genres, and this level of capital investment is typically beyond the scope of all but the largest studios.

References

Maresco PA 2004 Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: market segmentation, mass marketing and promotion, and the internet, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 8: http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/art8-melgibsonmarketing.html.

Wasko J 2001 Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy. Malden MA: Blackwell.

US Gross Ratios by Genre, 1991 to 2010

Recently I have been looking at the breakdown of the top 50 films at the US box office in each year from 1991 to 2010 by genre. I’ll have more to say on this topic in a couple of weeks, but I have looked at several different variables and have had to excise some aspects from the paper I was writing. This means I have some graphs left over – one of the most interesting of which is presented below. This boxplot shows the distribution of the ratio of the opening weekend gross to the total gross for the 1000 films in my sample. The box office data this graph is based on has been inflation adjusted to 2010 dollars. ‘Other’ includes genres that were too infrequent to be included separately, and is comprised of documentaries, musicals, war films, and westerns. (Actually this graph includes data from only 999 films, as one of the documentaries included in the category ‘other’ has no reported opening weekend gross). The summary statistics are given in Table 1 below.

Figure 1 Opening/total gross ratios by genre in the top 50 films at the US box office, 1991 to 2010 (Source: Box Office Mojo)

Table 1 Opening/total gross ratios by genre in the top 50 films at the US box office, 1991 to 2010 (Source: Box Office Mojo)

The overall median for 999 films is 0.2436; and so of the gross accumulated by these films, a quarter is taken in the opening weekends alone.

Three features stand out from this data:

  • Horror films have the highest median gross ratio of any genre, and tend to open big before falling away quite dramatically. Box office Mojo has chart views of the daily box office gross for films released in the US; and it is interesting to compare the charts for Saw IV (2007), which ran out of steam after less than a month on release, and Paranormal Activity (2009), which did not reach its peak gross until after a month. The gross ratio for the former film is 0.5017, and that of the latter is 0.0007. These films are the extremes of the data values for the genre.
  • The genres of action/adventure, family, and fantasy/science fiction tend not to have films with very low gross ratios – of the 410 films in these three genres, only 13 have very low gross ratios (and ten of these are family films). Action/adventure and fantasy/science fiction tend to have higher gross ratios, and so the opening weekend is more important for these genres. The distribution for family films is more consistent with comedy, crime/thriller, and romance films. These films tend to make a big initial splash, and rarely have the opportunity to build an audience over time.
  • Drama films have the lowest gross ratios; and of the 109 films in this category in the sample, 33 have an opening weekend of less than $1 million. This is the result of films in this genre being initially released to a small number of screens and allowing the film to build an audience on the basis of critical reviews and word of mouth. Drama films are therefore characterised by a particular release pattern that it is not evident in the other genres, and the opening weekend gross is unreliable as a predictor of the total gross.

The above graph is a very simple plot of a simple calculation performed on some easily obtained data, but we can immediately see how different genres find their way into the film market in the US. These patterns are even stronger when we look at box office data sorted by genre in more detail, as will become clear when I put up the full paper in a couple of weeks.