Category Archives: Russian Cinema

Research on blockbusters

As we all know blockbusters are the bane of the film industry: a recent article in The Telegraph quoted Steven Spielberg’s opinion that contemporary Hollywood has produced few films that will still be viewed in 20 years time. The article can be read here. I think that in general, Spielberg has a point about the general quality of Hollywood films since the mid-1990s. Personally, I just do not find the cinema of the past few years as exciting as I did when I was 18 and going to Canterbury to study film, and the endless repetition and extension of comic book adaptations is evidence of a great amount tedium that I just do not want to watch. (And it’s not like I don’t own scores of comics books and graphic novels). However, much of the blame can be laid at Spielberg’s feet for encouraging big-budget franchise films (Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park). Some of Spielberg’s comments are remarkably self-serving and more than a little disingenuous:

Attacking the prevalence of film franchises – movies based on toys, or video games, that are intended to sell a product as much as they are to entertain – Spielberg said: “I think producers are more interested in backing concepts than directors and writers.

“I don’t think that’s the right way of making a decision about whether you’re going to back a film or not, but a lot of these hedge funds – these independent groups that are coming up with the money – are looking at the big idea more than who the director or writer is. And of course, they all want the guarantee of a big actor.

“My whole career has survived without big movie stars. Yes, I’ll do movies with Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks, and I enjoy that, but most of my movies have had unknowns in them. And they’ve done pretty well.”

Make of that what you will.

The problem isn’t ‘blockbusters’ per se, but rather the lack of diversity in the film industry. As I showed here, the action/adventure, family, and fantasy/science fictions films have become increasingly dominant at the US box office at the expense of crime/thriller films, dramas, and (to a lesser extent) comedies.

But we shouldn’t always be disappointed with blockbusters – they can be great movies, and the scale of the cinema is one thing that makes experiencing a film on the big screen so thrilling. They are also the focus of a number interesting research papers that cover many different aspects of the cinema, and a selection are set out below.

As ever, the version linked to may not be the final published version.

Aldred J 2006 All aboard The Polar Express: a ‘playful’ change of address in the computer-generated blockbuster, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1(2): 153-172.

Following Tom Gunning’s assertion that each change in film history implies a change in its address to the spectator, this article closely analyses The Polar Express (Robert Zemeckis, 2004) in order to interrogate what kinds of changes are at stake for the contemporary spectator of the wholly computer generated blockbuster. The article also considers the extent to which the immersive, video game-like visual aesthetic and mode of address present in The Polar Express strive to naturalize viewer relations with digital spaces and characters such as those inherent to both computer-generated films and the ‘invisible’ virtual realm of cyberspace. Finally, the article argues that The Polar Express functions as a compelling historical document of an era when cinema and video games have never been more intertwined in terms of aesthetics, character construction, and narrative, and raises compelling questions about whether video games have begun to exert the type of formative influence upon cinema that cinema previously exerted on video games.

Elsaesser T 2001 The blockbuster: everything connects, but not everything goes, in J Lewis (ed.) The End of Cinema as We Know It. New York: New York University Press: 11-22.

… What characterizes a blockbuster? First, a big subject and a big budget (world war, disaster, end of the planet, monster from the deep, holocaust, death battle in the galaxy). Second, a young male hero, usually with lots of firepower, or secret knowledge, or an impossibly difficult mission. The big movie is necessarily based on traditional stories, sometimes against the background of historical events, more often a combination of fantasy or sci-fi, with the well-known archetypal heroes from Western mythology on parade. In one sense, this makes blockbusters the natural, that is, technologically more evolved, extension of fairy tales. In another sense, these spectacle “experiences,” these “media events,” are also miracles, and not at all natural. Above all, they are miracles of engineering and industrial organization. They are put together like supertankers, aircraft carriers or skyscrapers, office blocks, shopping malls. They resemble military campaigns, and that’s one of the main reasons they cost so much to make. …

Fernandez-Blanco V, Ginsburgh V, Prieto-Rodriguez J, and Weyers S 2011 As good as it gets? Blockbusters and the inequality of box office results since 1950, in J Kaufman and D Simonton (eds.) The Social Science of the Cinema.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This paper analyses how success, measured by box office revenues, is distributed in the movie industry. The idea that “the winner takes all” is pervasive in describing the high degree of inequality in revenues, since we are all subject to the cognitive bias known as “recency effect,” and have myopic perceptions which make us think that recent events are more relevant. This makes us believe that inequalities are much more important today than they used to be. Blockbusters such as Avatar, The Black Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man’s Chest or even Titanic lead us to overestimate revenue inequality. As is the case with many simplifications, this one is also misleading.

Glastein J, Ludomirsky O, Lyettefi D, Vaish P, Joglekar NR 2003 Blockbusters: building perceptions and delivering at the box office, 21st System Dynamics Conference, 20-24 July 2004, New York.

The Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX) is an on-line market that tracks the perceived value of movie talent and their product: the movies themselves, while they are in development or production. We model the decision rules that drive this market place and estimate the underlying decision parameters by calibrating the evolution of a selected sample of 23 movies released in 2001-2002. Our results show systematic differences in the decision rules followed by the market for the eventual winners (a.k.a. the blockbusters) and the losers at the box office. Regression analysis of combined decision parameters for winners and losers cannot explain the variance in the box office performance. However, segmenting these data between winners and losers provides selective insights about how the aggregate market perceptions evolve.

Mélat H 2007 Order and disorder in contemporary Russian blockbusters, Przeglad Rusycystyczny 120: 90-98.

One of the most striking phenomena in the Russian culture at the turn of the 21st century is the explosion of popular culture (detective literature and cinema, romance, fantasy) and its diversification. For a scholar, popular culture is interesting because, on the one hand, it reflects the state of mind of the population and, on the other hand, it helps to create a special ‘populous’ state of mind. It is a powerful tool for the political establishment that helps to convey an ideology because it is both entertaining and easily accessible. In this vein, modern fairy tales for adults can tell us a lot about the Russian society of our days.

Due to the powerful changes within the Russian society at the beginning of the 1990s, the market for literature and cinema was heavily influenced by the Western type bestsellers and blockbusters. For example, first introduced in translation, the crime fiction became an almost universally celebrated genre, and by the middle of the 1990s, Russia’s own crime fiction, represented by the novels by Aleksandra Marinina, Dar’a Dontsova, and Boris Akunin, dominated the literary scene. The television and cinema adaptations of these books only further promoted this genre.

In this paper, I intend to focus on the few Russian blockbusters and their sequels that are traditionally qualified as thrillers. My analyses will deal with the direct correlation between those films and their sequels, and, first and foremost, how the artistic universe created in these first films evolves and changes in their sequels. I would like to suggest that this evolution is highly reflective of the ideological changes within the Russian society itself.

Ravid SA 1999 Information, blockbusters, and stars: a study of the film industry, Journal of Business 72 (4): 463-492.

This article presents two alternative explanations for the role of stars in motion pictures. Either informed insiders signal project quality by hiring an expensive star, or stars capture their expected economic rent. These approaches are tested on a sample of movies produced in the 1990s. Means comparisons suggest that star-studded films bring in higher revenues. However, regressions show that any big budget investment increases revenues. Sequels, highly visible films and ‘‘family oriented’’ ratings also contribute to revenues. A higher return on investment is correlated only with G or PG ratings and marginally with sequels. This is consistent with the ‘‘rent capture’’ hypothesis.

Riegg RM 2009 Opportunism, uncertainty, and relational contracting – antitrust rules in the film industry, unpublished article.

For a long time, economists and investors have been baffled as to why Studios continue to produce movies with “blockbuster”-sized budgets (i.e. movies with budgets over $100 million) when producing those movies expose Studios to considerable economic risk.

By explaining the unique economics of the Film industry, and the effect of the Paramount (antitrust) rules on Film distribution contracts, this article provides an explanation to the puzzle of the blockbuster that is confirmed by recent trends in Film industry. Additionally, by using the Film industry as a model, this article also demonstrates how relational contracting can be understood as a means of coping with extreme uncertainty and under what circumstances relational contracting can be more efficient than formal contracts.

As a practical resource, this article has several uses. First, the article can provide support to attorneys concerned about a revival of stiff antitrust rules in the Film industry. Second, it can provide a potential guide to investment for Studio executives deciding how to best allocate their resources. Third, it can provide a model of contracting for businesses concerned with preventing opportunism in those industries marked by extreme uncertainty.

Does the Heftberger Correlation exist?

Cinemetrics is the statistical analysis of film style (Salt 1974), and has the potential to make a significant contribution to film studies in identifying trends in film style (shot length distributions, shot scales) that will allow scholars to explore questions of individual style, genre, studio style, national differences, and changes in style over time. However, the potential of cinemetrics is hamstrung by the poor quality of the statistics practised by film scholars. For example, in a discussion of Salt’s (2006) survey of shot length distributions, Buckland (2008) recently confused the coefficient of determination (R2 as a measure of goodness-of-fit of a regression line) with the correlation coefficient (r) – although the two are intimately related. Similarly, O’Brien (2005: 88-93) has argued that the introduction of sound technologies in Hollywood and France in the late-1920s led to an increase in average (mean) shot lengths (ASL) but does not employ any tests (e.g. t-test, one-way ANOVA, chi-square, or their nonparametric equivalents) to determine if changes in ASL are significant, does not provide confidence intervals for estimates of ASL in a particular country or time period, and does not consider the use of the median as a measure of central tendency or data transformations for skewed shot length distributions. Here I discuss a particular mis-application of statistics in the analysis of film style: the so-called Heftberger Correlation between cutting rate and type of motion represented in Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929).

The Heftberger Correlation

The herculean effort of a meticulous statistical analysis of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (MWMC) offers the potential for a rich and detailed understanding of this complex film’s intricate style, and has been undertaken by Yuri Tsivian, Adelheid Heftberger, Barbara Wurm, and Gunars Civjans. As a part of this project, data has been produced that covers the distribution of shot lengths for each reel and for the film overall, for the use of point-of-view shots, and for the relationship between shot length and the type of motion represented by the film. It is as a statistic of this last element of film style that the Heftberger Correlation (HC) has been proposed as a measure (Cinemetrics 2008).

The researchers hypothesised that the cutting rate would increase with the intensity of movement within a shot, which was defined as belonging to one of seven categories: black frames (BF), fast motion (camera) (FastC), fast motion (naturally) (FastN), freeze-frame (FF), no motion (NM), normal motion (naturally) (NormalN), and slow motion (camera) (SMC). Once the dataset employed was reduced to exclude the category BF, it was claimed that there is a correlation between cutting speed and intensity of motion. For MWMC, the value for HC including NM is 0.2, and excluding NM it is 0.4. A further step was to remove the category FF, so that only data for shots with movement were included to give the Particular Heftberger Correlation (PHC), and is was claimed that this produced a stronger correlation but no figure was supplied. The conclusion arrived at by the researchers is that (1) the HC exists; (2) the HC for MWMC is weak and nonlinear; and (3) the PHC is MWMC is stronger than the HC and is linear.

It is far from clear what statistical processes have been used in the calculation of the HC and the PHC, and I have been unable to reconstruct the process by which the above quoted values for HC were derived. The researchers themselves acknowledge that the processes involved in producing the plots of shot length and intensity of movement in Figure 1 are not ‘mathematically sound,’ and it is precisely these plots that are employed as justification that the HC exists. It does not appear to have occurred to anyone involved that the lack of mathematical ‘soundness’ would present a problem in employing a statistical analysis.


Figure 1 The Heftberger Correlation in Man with a Movie Camera (1929) (Source:, accessed 9 April 2009)

What is clear is that correlation is not an appropriate statistical method to be employed in this analysis. Correlation is a method of analysing if pairs of variables are related and the strength of that relationship. The pairing of the variable is important: each point on the graph represents a value on the x-axis and a value on the y-axis For example, if we measure the height and weight of ten people, we will have ten pairs of data, with each pair consisting of a measure of height and a measure of weight – it is the relationship between these measures that we call a correlation. The Heftberger Correlation does not exist simply because it is not possible to calculate a correlation for pairs of data when the number of categories of motion intensity is seven and the number of shots in the film is 1729 – there are no pairs of data to correlate. Data does not appear to be ordinal – although order exists for some categories (FastC is quicker that SMC) it does not exist for others (BF) and the distinction between some categories is not ordinal (FastC and FastN). The data labels used in Figure 1 must be considered nominal and a re not tractable. The decision to proceed despite the lack of mathematical ‘soundness’ is compounded by a lack of understanding of the mathematics of correlation.

The appropriate statistical approach to be used in analysing the relationship between shot length and motion intensity is to look at the variance of shot lengths in each category. In this case the data does not meet the requirements for a parametric one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA), and a logarithmic transformation of the data is no help either. The best approach, therefore, is to employ a nonparametric analysis of variance of ranks using a Kruskal-Wallis test and Mann-Whitney U as a post-hoc test (α = 0.05).

Shot length data was sorted by category of motion intensity, and the descriptive statistics are presented in Table 1.

Table 1 Shot length data for motion intensity in Man with a Movie Camera (1929)


In analysing this data I include only four of the motion categories: FastC, FastN, NM, and NormalN. The distribution of shot lengths in these categories are represented in Figure 2.


Figure 2 Distribution of shot lengths in FastC, FastN, NM, and NormalN in Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

BF is excluded as the data includes several shot lengths of 0.0 seconds (due to a technical error in data collection); while the number of shot lengths in FF (13) and SMC (32) are too small to be reliable. The results show that there is a statistically significant relationship between shot length and intensity of motion (Hc = 289.7, P = <0.0001); and the post-hoc tests show that each category is significant different from one another (Table 2).

Table 2 Pairwise comparisons of shot length/motion intensity data for Man with a Movie Camera (1929) (Mann Whitney U, P-values only (Bonferroni Corrected α = 0.0083))


These results show that Tsivian, et al. were correct in their hypothesis that there is a relationship between shot length and motion intensity in Man with a Movie Camera; in fact, the results presented here indicate that this relationship is stronger than that identified by the HC. Focussing on the median shot length (see Table 1), we can see that FastC (0.4 seconds) has a quicker cutting rate that FastN (0.9s), while NormalN has a value of 2.8s. Although they were not included in the above test, median shot length increases as motion slows in SMC (3.7s) and FF (4.0s), and this confirms the overall relationship between shot length and motion intensity. Only NM does fit this overall pattern, with a median shot length of 2.2s. Data for BF is unreliable at the low end where shot lengths equal 0.0s.


Ben Goldacre, the GP and journalist who publishes the Bad Science blog (see Goldacre 2008), has made a distinction between scientific medicine and alternative therapies that employ scientific terms inaccurately to sound ‘sciency.’ The Heftberger Correlation sounds good, it sounds scientific, it sounds statistical; but it is not based on a sound understanding of statistical methodology. Following Goldacre, I think this use of statistical terminology should be labelled ‘sciency’ rather than science and film scholars should be discouraged from declaring the existence and relevance of such ‘statistics’. It is incumbent upon film scholars to understand the statistical methods that they wish to employ in cinemetrics and to respect the use statistical terminology. Cinemetrics can make a positive contribution to film studies, but before it can be good film studies it must first be good statistics.


Buckland, W. (2008) What does the statistical style analysis of film involve?,
Literary and Linguistic Computing 23 (2): 219-30.

Cinemetrics (2008) http://www.cinemetrics.lvmovie.php?movie_ID=2311, accessed 9 April 2009

Goldacre, B. (2008) Bad Science. London: Fourth Estate.

O’Brien, C. (2005) Cinema’s Conversion to Sound: Technology and Film Style in France and the U.S. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Salt, B. (1974) Statistical style analysis of motion pictures, Film Quarterly 28 (1): 13-22.

Salt, B. (2006) Moving into Pictures: More on Film History, Style, and Analysis. London: Starwood.