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Sequels and remakes in Hollywood, 1991 to 2010

This week I look at the performance of sequels and remakes at the US box office from 1991 to 2010, inclusive. The data used is the sample of 1000 films I looked at in my paper on genre trends at the US box office (here), and includes data from Box Office Mojo on the top 50 grossing films in each year across a twenty year period.

Figure 1 shows the frequency with which remakes and sequels achieve a top 50 box office ranking in the US from 1991 to 2010, inclusive. I do not consider films based on the same source material as remakes: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Robin Hood (2010) tell the same story but the latter cannot be considered a remake of the former. Similarly, there are lots of versions of A Christmas Carol, and it would be foolish to consider any of them remakes of one another. I also do not include the film originating a series of sequels, since they originally may not have been intended to part of a series (e.g. The Matrix) or a planned series did not materialise (e.g. Superman Returns). I also haven’t classed reboots (e.g. Batman Begins or Star Trek (2009)) as sequels or remakes, though I have included James Bond movies in the data.

This gives us a total of 157 sequels and 46 remakes, accounting for 16% and 5% of the 1000 films in the sample, respectively. This does not suggest the dominance of sequels and remakes to the extent we may have expected, but it is clear from Figure 1 that there is an increase in both types of films after 2001. From 1991 to 2000, sequels account for 10% of the highest grossing films. In the period 2001 to 2010, sequels account for 21% of films reaching the top 50. The same trend can be seen in the increasing in frequency of remakes, which double from 3% to 6% from one decade to the next.

Figure 1 Remakes and sequels in the top 50 grossing films at the US box office, 1991 to 2010

The low number of sequels in 2005 appears to be due to the fact this year was the odd year in the release pattern of many the major franchises, with only Star Wars: Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire being released.

Not only do sequels increase in frequency from 2002, they increasingly occupy the highest positions in the box office chart. Sequels do account for the number 1 position in 1991 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and 1999 (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace); but with the exception of Avatar, the highest grossing film in every year since 2003 has been a sequel. It is worth nothing that the highest grossing films in 2001 and 2002 were Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Spiderman, respectively, which means that since Saving Private Ryan clinched the number 1 spot in 1998 a franchise films has been the top grossing film in the US in eleven of the past twelve years.

Looking further down the rankings, we note that prior to 2001 sequels generally did not occupy the highest rankings:

  • In 1992, three sequels round out the top four (Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Batman Returns, Lethal Weapon 3) behind Aladdin.
  • In 1995, four of the top 10 films are sequels, including Batman Forever (2nd), Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (5th), Goldeneye (6th), and Die Hard with a Vengeance (10th).

But in 1993 the highest ranking achieved by a sequel was Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit at 19, and Star Trek: Generations was the highest grossing sequel in 1994 reaching 15 and Star Trek: First Contact reaching 17 in 1996.

From 2001 we start to the sequels colonising the upper echelons of the box office charts:

  • Five of the top twenty films in 2001 are sequels.
  • Seven of the top sixteen films in 2002 are sequels, including half of the top 10.
  • In 2003, 10 of the top 25 grossing films are sequels
  • In 2004, five of the top eight grossing films are sequels, including Shrek 2 and Spiderman 2 in first and second place, respectively
  • Two of the top three films in 2005 are sequels
  • Five of the top nine films in 2006 are sequels
  • In 2007, six of the top 8 films are sequels
  • Four of the top nine films are sequels in 2008
  • Although Avatar was the highest grossing film released in 2009, the next three places are occupied by Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2nd), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (3rd), and The Twilight Saga: New Moon (4th), with sequels accounting for nine of the top 25 films.
  • In 2010, eight of the top twenty-five films are sequels, including four of the top five.

Although this represents the domination of the box office charts by sequels in the early twenty-first century we are talking about a small group of franchises, including Shrek, Toy Story, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Transformers, Twilight, Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man, X-Men, Pirates of the Caribbean, and James Bond.

Remakes account for a much smaller proportion of films, but as noted above tend to follow the same trends as sequels. Remakes also tend to perform worse than sequels, occupying lower box office ranks. None of the number 1 ranked films in the sample are remakes, compared to 9 sequels. The highest ranked remake in the first decade of the sample was True Lies, which reached number 3 in 1994. Other high grossing films in this decade include Father of the Bride (9th in 1991), three films in 1996 (101 Dalmatians (6th), The Nutty Professor (8th), and The Birdcage (9th)), and two films in 1998 (Doctor Doolittle (6th) and Godzilla (9th)). Generally, remakes perform relatively poorly and there are even two years (1992 and 1993) in which no remakes made the top 50. In the second decade covered by the sample, the frequency with which remakes make the top 50 doubles but this does not necessarily translate into higher rankings. High grossing remakes include Ocean’s Eleven (8th) and Planet of the Apes (10th) in 2001 and War of the Worlds (4th) and King Kong (5th) in 2005.

There is also empirical evidence that remakes perform poorly at the box office relative to the original version: Ginsburgh, Pestieau, and Weyers (2007) compared the quality and box office performance of remakes relative to the original movies. This is their conclusion:

The main conclusion one can get from this simple and straightforward analysis is that remakes do worse in terms of quality and in terms of box office. The first conclusion is not surprising, the second is more so, but is consistent with the heavy tails in the distribution of returns on movies …, and leads us to conjecture that producers invest in remakes in the same way as they invest in sequels, hoping for a hit, or at least for a positive revenue. What Terry Press, the marketing chief of DreamWorks, writes about prequels and sequels (“when you have a title people recognize, part of your battle is already won”) applies probably to remakes as well.

This argument strikes me as unusual since we may expect that remakes would be of higher production quality that originals, especially since the producers of the later version will have access to new technologies for filmmaking. For example, the production quality of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) may be judged superior to Willis O’brien’s stop-motion original from 1933 because it uses CGI and motion capture to create a more realistic experience for the viewer. This does not mean the viewer will automatically prefer the most recent over any other version (though I’ve never met anyone who liked the 1976 version with Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges). It all depends on how you define ‘quality.’ Obviously judging ‘quality’ is a very difficult thing to do, and I do not think the method used in this paper is sufficiently reliable since original and remake will be rated based on different criteria. For example, the rating of the remake will take into account its relationship to the original while this is obviously not possible when rating the first version of a film. Furthermore, the definition of quality will depend not only on the relationship between original and remake but also on the relationship between each film and its contemporaries. The contemporary relationship is likely to be more relevant than the historical: the comparison between Peter Jackson’s King Kong and other high grossing films in 2005 (Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, War of the Worlds) is likely to be more relevant in judging quality than between this version and the original. However, this research does not appear to have considered this as a factor.

It is certainly a reasonable argument that producers think of remakes in the same way they think of sequels, and that the opportunity to exploit a recognisable brand underlies the impulse to make both types of films. But even a cursory glance at the box office rankings such as this post shows that remakes do not offer the same level of financial reward as a Shrek 3 or Iron Man 2. From a financial point of view, sequels are to be preferred to remakes.


Ginsburgh V, Pestieau P, and Weyers S 2007 Are Remakes Doing as Well as Originals? A Note, Working Paper 2007/05, Center of Research in Public Economics and Population Economics, University of Liège.

US box office and Oscar nominations

Last year I looked at the impact of Academy Award nominations and wins on the daily box office grosses of best picture winners from (here). This year I look at the nine films nominated for best picture at this years Oscars. All the box office data used here is available at Box Office Mojo.

Table 1 presents the pre- and post-nomination box office gross for those films nominated for best picture. The nominations were announced on 24 January 2012, and pre-nomination gross is the total gross up to this point. The post-nomination gross covers the period 24 January to 26 February. For those films that were released a long time ahead of the announcements of the nominees there is no benefit since these films just aren’t around for audiences to see. From The Help, Midnight in Paris, and Moneyball we can also see that re-releases after 24 January don’t make much of a difference to a film’s gross. The thing that really stands out is the low nature of the total grosses: only The Help took more than $100 million prior to Sunday.

Table 1 Pre- and post-nomination box office gross for films nominated for best picture at 2011 Academy Awards ($ million).

There is no point at looking at the daily grosses for Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Help, and The Tree of Life since they were not on wide release when the nominations were announced. We could look at DVD sales and downloads to see if the nomination had any effect on the earning power of these films. Here I’m interested in the daily box office grosses of the cinema releases up to 25 February.

Although the post-nomination box office takings of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Figure 1) accounts for the majority of its gross, this cannot be attributed to any benefit gained from being nominated for best picture. From its day of release (25 December) until 20 January this film was showing in just 6 theatres and this very limited release explains why the grosses in the early part of this film’s release are so low. On 20 January the film went wide to 2630 theatres and this explains the sudden jump in the daily grosses. From this point forward (day 27) the daily grosses show the typical trend of a film that could have been released at any time of year. From Figure 1 there is no evidence that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close received any benefit from being a nominee for best picture. This film has received generally poor reviews in the US and abroad. This particularly the case in the UK, where it has been described as both ‘soothingly banal’ in the Telegraph and as ‘hollow, calculated, [and] manipulative’ in the Observer – neither of which come close to the scathing review in the New York Post, which described the film as ‘extremely, incredibly exploitive’ and a ‘quest for emotional blackmail, cheap thrills and a naked ploy for an Oscar’. Being nominated for best picture does not appear to have been able to mitigate the bad reviews.

Figure 1 Daily box office gross of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Figure 2 presents the daily box office grosses of War Horse. Although this film was directed by Steven Spielberg, and is an adaptation of a successful book that has also been an internationally successful stage production there is no evidence that the nomination for best picture had any impact on its gross. The trend does not vary at all around 24 January, and by the time the winners were announced last Sunday this film had pretty much played out at the US box office. The stage version of War Horse won five Tony awards, including best play, but the film has received mediocre reviews (particularly in the UK) and has a world-wide gross of $141.76 million (with $79.06 million in the US). This sounds like a lot of money, but with an estimated negative cost of $66 million it represents a relatively modest return – especially when Spielberg is the director.

Figure 2 Daily box office gross of War Horse. The blue line is the day on which the Academy award nominations were announced.

The box office grosses of Hugo show a small bump following the announcement of its nomination (Figure 4). The number of theatres showing this film was increased after 24 January from 650 to 925, but the effect cannot be simply attributed to a wider release since the average gross per theatre also increases. Hugo does seem to have directly benefited from being in the running for an Oscar, albeit on a relatively limited scale. This is the same pattern in The Departed – also  directed by Martin Scorsese – I noted last year.

Figure 3 Daily box office gross of Hugo. The blue line is the day on which the Academy award nominations were announced.

Another interesting feature in Figure 3 is the a typical period of grosses from day 31 to 41. This covers the period 23 December to 2 January, and is a clear indicator of how audience behaviour changes over the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

This same pattern can be seen in the grosses of The Descendants (Figure 4). The peaks in this period occur on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. However, grosses for this film are low and at no point do they exceed $3 million.

Figure 4 Daily box office gross of The Descendants. The orange line is the day of the Golden Globe awards, and the blue line is the day the Academy award nominations were announced. (NB: this data does not include grosses prior to 25 November).

The orange line shows the date (15 January) on which the results of the Golden Globes were announced, and this does appear to have given the film a boost. In the week leading up to Friday, 13 January, The Descendants was showing in 737 theatres. From 13 January to 19 January it was showing in 660 theatres, and then in 560 theatres until 26 January. Over this period the gross of the film actually increased and, obviously, so did its gross per theatre indicating that winning the award for Best Motion Picture – Drama from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association did have a positive impact on this film’s box office performance (see Figure 4a). After it was announced as a nominee for the best picture, the number of theatres showing The Descendants was increased to 2001 on 27 January. However, this lead to a fall in the average gross suggesting and so while being nominated for an Oscar appears to have led to an increase in box office at least part of this needs to be attributed to the wider release pattern. Of course, the reason this film was given a wider release after day 63 on release is because it was nominated for an Oscar.

Figure 4a Daily average gross per theatre for The Descendants. The orange line is the day of the Golden Globe awards, and the blue line is the day the Academy award nominations were announced.

It is difficult to separate the effects of the Golden Globe win and the Oscar nomination on the box office gross for this film. Te change in the number of theatres over the last two weeks of January clearly indicates how distributors and exhibitors view the two different awards: Golden Globes aren’t that important and even a win will not stop the decrease in the number of theatres showing your film (even if it boosts your gross) but a nomination for an Oscar makes a big difference.

Finally, we come to this year’s best picture, The Artist (Figure 5). This film also won the Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes.

Figure 5 Daily box office gross of The Artist. The orange line is the day of the Golden Globe awards, and the blue line is the day the Academy award nominations were announced.

In Figure 5 we see the same boost over the Christmas period we see with Hugo and The Descendants. However, unlike The Descendants where the average gross per theatre over this period went even though the number of theatres went down, the boost to grosses of The Artist can in large part be attributed to the fact that it is on 23 December that it goes on wide release. From 25 November until 22 December, The Artist was showing in 4 to 17 theatres but on 23 December it was showing in 167 theatres. The second jump in the grosses occurs on 20 January when the number of theatres went from 216 to 662 but the average gross per theatre fell. This suggests that, unlike The Descendants, there is no clear evidence of a boost from winning a Golden Globe and that increasing the number of screens is more likely to be directly responsible for the jump in grosses. The publicity from winning the Golden Globe no doubt played a part in the decision to increase the number of theatres so dramatically. The announcement of The Artist‘s nomination for best picture was presumably also a factor in the decision to substantially increase the number of theatres a second time on 27 January to 897. The average gross remained static for the first week, and then falls as more theatres were added after 3 February (see Figure 5a). The impact of an Academy Award nomination for best picture on the grosses of The Artist are more likely to be indirect in that they influenced the behaviour of distributors and exhibitors than direct in the impact it had on the behaviour of audiences.

Figure 5a Daily average gross per theatre for The Artist. The orange line is the day of the Golden Globe awards, and the blue line is the day the Academy award nominations were announced.

The final interesting feature to note is the spike at day 82. This is out of step with the corresponding point in other weeks, and represents a sudden increase in the box office gross. The gross on this day was $100,000 greater than the corresponding day in the previous week, and more than double the gross of the previous day. This can be explained very simply: day 82 of this film’s release was Valentine’s Day. A similar bump can be seen at day 82 of The Descendants. in fact, this effect is present  for every film but in the five other graphs the size of this change in audience behaviour is not so large that it jumps out at you. In part, this is due to the other films being largely played out by mid-February and in part to the fact that the daily grosses of The Descendants and The Artist are much lower than those of the other films. This means that the benefit of being on release on Valentine’s Day for these films is greater since it makes a larger difference relative to their overall gross. It is interesting that in none of these examples was the number of theatres showing a film varied for Valentine’s Day since this is a day in which people in the US go to the cinema in far greater numbers than is usually the case.

Dinner and movie for a date on Valentine’s – Americans are sweet.

But it does prove that cinemas will never die – staying in to watch a movie isn’t the same as going out to watch a movie and the socializing aspect of going to a theatre is crucial in understanding the enduring appeal of the medium.

Research on movie studios

This week it was announced that Twickenham Film Studios in west London is to close just one year shy of its centenary. Among the many films to be shot at Twickenham are Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Repulsion, Help, Alfie, Superman, 1984, Bladerunner, and The Iron Lady. You can find articles on the closure of Twickenham from the Guardian, the Telegraph, the BBC, Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times.

So this week I though we would have a collection of papers looking at movie studios, focussing how they have operated in the past and how they operate today. This is an area reasonably well covered in film studies, but there is also a lot of interesting research done in management and business schools, and economics and geography departments that should also be used by film scholars.

Corts KS 2001 The strategic effects of vertical market structure: common agency and divisionalization, Journal of Economics and Management Strategy 10 (4): 509-528.

I examine the release date scheduling of all motion pictures that went into wide release in the US in 1995 and 1996 to investigate the effects of vertical market structure on competition. The evidence suggests that complex vertical structures involving multiple upstream or downstream firms generally do not achieve efficient outcomes in movie scheduling. In addition, analysis of the data suggests that the production divisions of the major studios act as integrated parts of the studio, rather than as independent competing firms.

DeFillippi RJ and Arthur MB 1998 Paradox in project-based enterprise: the case of filmmaking, California Management Review 40 (2): 125-139.

This article describes field research into the creation of an independently produced UK-US feature film.

Finney A 2010 Value chain restructuring in the global film industry, The 4th Annual Conference on ‘Cultural Production in a Global Context: The Worldwide Film Industries, Grenoble Ecole de Management, Grenoble, France, 3-5 June, 2010.

The global film industry is currently experiencing a significant restructuring of its existing value chain. This digitally-driven restructuring provides a dynamic framework for business strategy analysis, with potential lessons and future indicators that have wider implications for global film strategy. To date, academics, industry commentators and practitioners have exclusively focused on the disruptive aspects of changing user behavior; the ‘free’ versus ‘paid’ business models for distribution of filmed content via the Internet; the collapse of ‘windows’ within the exploitation chain; and the actions of Hollywood, an entrenched oligopoly comprising six studios. A key sector of cultural and commercial significance that so far has been excluded is the non-Hollywood film industry- the ‘independent’ film sector. The independent film value chain (FVC) is considerably more fragmented and vulnerable when compared to the studio system of content creation. This paper establishes in what ways the chain models differ, how changes in business models and exploitation are affecting recoupment, and therefore film financing models, and then examines and posits a range of methodological and qualitative approaches to study this ‘current restructuring’ dynamic. While the author’s main focus is on the value chain prior to exploitation, it should be acknowledged that the advent of rapidly compressed exploitation windows has a reflexive impact – both commercial and cultural – on the architecture of film content creation. This article is intended as a precursor to the author’s ensuing doctoral research into film value chain restructuring, rather than a definitive piece of academic research in of itself. Therefore comments and advice on global value chain restructuring – with the film industry serving as the research case study – are encouraged and welcomed by the author at this early stage of research and analysis.

Goldsmith B and Regan T 2003 Cinema Cities, Media Cities: The Contemporary International Studio Complex, Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy and Australian Film Commission.

This comprehensive study of contemporary international studios considers the circumstances in which the rash of studio complex building and renovating has occurred in places as diverse as Rome, London, Berlin, Prague, Toronto, Sydney, the Gold Coast and Melbourne.

Miller D and Shamsie J 1996 The resource-based view of the firm in two environments: the Hollywood film studios from 1936 to 1965, The Academy of Management Journal 39 (3): 519-543.

This article continues to operationally define and test the resource-based view of the firm in a study of the major U.S. film studios from 1936 to 1965. We found that property-based resources in the form of exclusive long-term contracts with stars and theaters helped financial performance in the stable, predictable environment of 1936-50. In contrast, knowledge-based resources in the form of production and coordinative talent and budgets boosted financial performance in the more uncertain (changing and unpredictable) post-television environment of 1951-65.

Robins JA 1993 Organization as strategy: restructuring production in the film industry, Strategic  Management Journal 14 (S1): 103-118.

Few changes in the structure of firms have attracted as much attention during the last decade as the movement away from integrated production and toward cooperative relations among independent organizations. Despite recent emphasis on these strategies of ‘disaggregation’ and ‘network’ organization, little quantitative research exists on the impact of this type of reorganization on economic performance—at least in part due to the difficulty of obtaining appropriate data. The economic impact of disaggregation is examined in this paper using data on film production in the period after World War II.

Storper M and Chistopherson S 1987 Flexible specialization and regional industrial agglomerations: the case of the US motion picture industryAnnals of the Association of American Geographers 77 (1): 104-117.

In the contemporary motion picture industry, production is vertically disintegrated, organized around transactions among a network of small firms. In this regard, motion picture production resembles other industries whose production organizations can be characterized as flexibly specialized. In this theoretically informed case study, we trace the transformation of the industry from vertically integrated to vertically disintegrated flexibly specialized production and elucidate how this transformation affects the spatial location of production activities and labor market dynamics.

Statistical illiteracy in film studies

UPDATE: The paper at the end of this post is now available for advance access at Literary and Linguistic Computing, and can be cited as: The log-normal distribution is not an appropriate parametric model for shot length distributions of Hollywood films, Literary and Linguistic Computing, Advance Access published December 13, 2012, doi:10.1093/llc/fqs066. I will put up the paginated reference when the print version is released.

This week’s post combines two very different approaches to film studies: on the one hand we have outright anger, and then we have proper research. Both are equally important.

Are you au fait with this?

I wrote a second version of my paper examining the impact of sound technology on shot length distributions of Hollywood films using a larger sample of films. I also expanded on the methodology used (Mann-Whitney U, probability of superiority, etc.) since this has been highlighted as a problem before. (The original version is here). Having finished the article I sent it to The New Soundtrack at Edinburgh University Press. The article was turned down 24 hours later, and the reason given for rejecting the article was that, in the editors opinion,

our readership might not be quite au fait with the methodology you describe in the piece.

Nothing about the quality of the piece; just the lack of confidence the editors have in their readership.

What sort of intellectual cowardice is this? Are film scholars afraid of learning new things? Or is it that journal editors have such a low opinion of their readership that they need to protect them from anything that might be new or unusual ? Does the readership of The New Soundtrack really not know what a ‘median’ is? Is there no sense of intellectual discovery?

If I was part of the readership of The New Soundtrack I would be very unhappy with this. Presumably, if I am a subscriber to an academic journal I am (or at least consider myself to be) a reasonably intelligent person capable of thinking and learning for myself. (Perhaps I am part of the sophisticated readership of Screen as well). Do I really need someone to decide for me what I might or might not be au fait with? Now I’m wondering what other research I’ve missed out on because an editor has decided what I might or might not be comfortable with.

Have you ever heard anything so pathetic? I have, and this is now the third time I have had a journal reject one of my articles because of the use of statistical methods (see here).

Statistical literacy

Statistical literacy is defined as

the ability to understand and critically evaluate statistical results that permeate our daily lives – coupled with the ability to appreciate the contributions that statistical thinking can make in public and private, professional and personal decisions (Wallman 1993: 1).

This is relevant to film studies because we encounter statistical information in diverse contexts. Statistics is relevant in film and television studies in the study of film style, in researching the economics of the film industry, in audience studies, and in scientific research on cognition and perception in the cinema. Understanding a great deal of research of film studies assumes that you have at least some degree statistical literacy.

Gal (2002) argues that statistical literacy comprises two elements:

  • a knowledge component, in which individuals have the ability to ‘interpret and critically evaluate statistical information, data-related arguments, or stochastic phenomena which they may encounter in diverse contexts’ (2); and
  • a dispositional component, in which individuals develop a questioning attitude to research that purports to be based on data, a positive view of themselves as ‘individuals capable of statistical and probabilistic reasoning as well as a willingness and interest to “think statistically” in relevant situations’ and ‘a belief in the legitimacy of critical action even if they have not learnt much formal statistics or mathematics’ (19).

Arguably the dispositional component is the most important since the willingness to the think statistically is a pre-requisite for learning statistical concepts.

It is clear that the editors of The New Soundtrack have concerns about the statistical literacy of their readership. The editors apparently assume their readership will not have the required statistical knowledge to understand research presenting statistical analysis of data, and – much more damaging – they do not believe their readership has the capability or willingness to think statistically.

Altman (2002) notes readers assume that articles published in peer-review journals are scientifically sound. But in order to make an informed interpretation of the material that appears in peer-reviewed sources we need to be able to intelligently interpret it. This means that statistical literacy is a must for film studies, and it is a topic we will return to repeatedly over the rest of the year. In the next section I demonstrate how knowledge of statistical concepts and process and a questioning attitude are essential in judging the importance of research in film studies.

 The lognormal dragon is slain (again)

An example of the importance of developing statistical literacy in film studies comes in the form of a new book to be published this year featuring a chapter by Jordan De Long, Kaitlin L. Brunick, and James E. Cutting. The link to an online version of this paper is below Figure 1. I won’t explain the statistical concepts in detail, but I have provided links for statistical terms and concepts. I will assume you are an intelligent reader capable of and willing to learn for yourself.

In their chapter on film style, the authors make the following statement about the average shot length (ASL) as a statistic of film style:

Despite being the popular metric, ASL may be inappropriate because the distribution of shot lengths isn’t a normal bell curve, but rather a highly skewed, lognormal distribution. This means that while most shots are short, a small number of remarkably long shots inflate the mean. This means that the large majority of shots in a film are actually below average, leading to systematic over-estimation of individual film’s shot length. A better estimate is a film’s Median Shot Length, a metric that … provides a better estimate of shot length.

In support of this statement they include a graph that purports to show how the shot length distribution of one film is lognormal. This is the only piece of evidence they provide.

Figure 1 Histogram of shot lengths in A Night at the Opera with a fitted lognormal distribution from De Long J, Brunick KL, and Cutting JE 2012 Film through the human visual system: finding patterns and limits, in JC Kaufman and DK Simonton (eds.) The Social Science of Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press: in press. This graph was downloaded from the online version of this paper available at

Clearly, the authors have assumed their readership has a fairly sophisticated level of statistical literacy. They present their argument assuming you will be able to understand it or be capable of learning the relevant concepts. An entirely reasonable way in which to present an argument in a research output, and presumably an attitude that comes from their scientific (rather than film studies) background.

It’s just a shame it’s not true.

The key fact to bear in mind is that a variable (such as shot length) is said to be lognormally distributed if its logarithm is normally distributed, as this allows us to apply a logarithmic transformation and then to try to determine if it is normally distributed.

Figure 2 presents an exploratory data analysis of the data for this film, which can be accessed at here.

Figure 2 Exploratory data analysis of shot lengths in A Night at the Opera

In the top left panel we see the histogram of the log-transformed shot lengths and it is immediately obvious this data set is not normally distributed. If De Long, Brunick, and Cutting are right, then this chart should be symmetrical about the mean. The histogram remains skewed even after the transformation is applied. The same pattern can be seen from the kernel density estimate (top right), which is clearly not symmetrical.

The normal probability plot (bottom left) shows the same pattern. If the data does come from a lognormal distribution then the points in this plot will be a straight line. In fact, they will lie along the red line shown in the plot. It is obvious that this is not the case and that the data points show clear evidence of a skewed data set. In the lower tail of the fitted lognormal distribution underestimates the number of shorter takes, while the upper tail overestimates the number of longer takes. Definitively NOT lognormal.

Finally, the box plot (bottom right) clearly shows the distribution is asymmetrical with outliers in the upper tail of the distribution. This is a good example of the fat that log-transforming does not always remove the skew from a data set of deal with the problem of outliers.

The marks below histogram, kernel density, and box plot (called a rug) indicate the actual values of the log-transformed shot lengths.

We can also apply formal statistical tests of the hypothesis that the shot length distribution is lognormal. Because a variable is lognormally distributed if its logarithm is normally distributed, then all we have to do is to apply normality tests to the transformed data.

The Shapiro-Francia test is based on the squared correlation of the theoretical and sample quantiles in the probability plot in Figure 2. For this film, the test statistic is 0.9585  and p = <0.01, so it is extremely unlikely that this data comes from a lognormal distribution and we have sufficient evidence to reject this hypothesis.

The Jarque-Bera test does the same thing in a different way. This test looks at the skew (its symmetry) and the kurtosis (the shape of its peak) of the data. For A Night at the Opera, the result of this test is 62.48 (p = <0.01) and again we have sufficient evidence to reject the hypothesis that this data comes from a lognormal distribution.

In summary, De Long, Brunick, and Cutting present a single piece of evidence in support of the assertion that shot length distributions are lognormal and its wrong. In fact, if you wanted to write a book about how shot length distributions are not lognormal and wanted to put an example of this on the cover then A Night at the Opera would be the film you would use.

Clearly, there is a problem with the histogram in Figure 1 that shows the shot length data on an untransformed scale. The reason for applying a logarithmic transformation is to make it easier to see the structure of the data, so why not view it on a logarithmic scale? When we view the data on a logarithmic scale we come to the opposite conclusion than that presented above. It requires statistical literacy on the part of the reader to question if this is an appropriate way of presenting data and to question the interpretation presented by the authors.

Obviously we cannot say that just because we can show that one film is not lognormally distributed this is true for all films. In order to properly assess the validity of De Long, Brunick, and Cutting’s assertion we need to test a sample of films representing a defined population, and this is precisely what I have done. The following paper demonstrates that the argument that the lognormal distribution is not an appropriate parametric model for the shot length distributions of Hollywood films:

Nick Redfern – The lognormal distribution and Hollywood cinema


We examine the assertion that the two-parameter lognormal distribution is an appropriate parametric model for the shot length distributions of Hollywood films. A review of the claims made in favour of assuming lognormality for shot length distributions finds them to be lacking in methodological detail and statistical rigour. We find there is no supporting evidence to justify the assumption of lognormality in general for shot length distributions. In order to test this assumption we examined a total of 134 Hollywood films from 1935 to 2005, inclusive, to determine goodness-of-fit of a normal distribution to log-transformed shot lengths of these films using four separate measures: the ratio of the geometric mean to the median; the ratio of the shape factor σ to the estimator σ*=√(2*ln(m/M); the Shapiro-Francia test; and the Jarque-Bera test. Normal probability plots were also used for visual inspection of the data. The results show that, while a small number of films are well modelled by a lognormal distribution, this is not the case for the overwhelming majority of films tested (125 out of 134). Therefore, we conclude there is no justification for claiming the lognormal distribution is an adequate parametric model of shot length data for Hollywood films, and recommend the use of robust statistics that do not require underlying parametric models for the analysis of film style.

Placing this paper alongside my earlier posts testing the lognormality of shot length distributions for Hollywood films prior to 1935 (see here), we can now finally conclude there is no evidence to justify for assuming this model for Hollywood films in general.


Altman DG 2002 Poor-quality medical research: what can journals do?, Journal of the American Medical Association 287 (21): 2765-2767.

De Long J, Brunick KL, and Cutting JE 2012 Film through the human visual system: finding patterns and limits, in JC Kaufman and DK Simonton (eds.) The Social Science of Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press: in press.

Gal I 2002 Adults’ statistical literacy: meanings, components, responsibilities, International Statistical Review 70 (1): 1-51.

Wallman KK 1993 Enhancing statistical literacy: enriching our society, Journal of the American Statistical Association 88 (421): 1-8.

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.

Editing in Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

A few weeks ago I posted the order structure matrix of Halloween (1978), which can be accessed here. The overall editing structure of this film showed that the last portion when Michael attacks Laurie – the final girl – was edited in a different fashion to the rest of the film. There was also some evidence of clustering of shorter shots when michael is stabbing people to death and of longer takes when adult male characters are on screen.

To see of these features are common across the genre of slasher films, this week we have the editing structure of Slumber Party Massacre (1982), directed by Amy Ryan. The data include the opening credits as these are presented over narratively important scenes, but the closing credits are not included. The data can be accessed as an Excel file here: Redfern – Slumber Party. The order structure matrix is presented below.

Figure 1 The order structure matrix of Slumber Party Massacre

We can immediately see from Figure 1 that a similar pattern to Halloween is evident, with the ‘final girl’ sequence that begins at shot 706, when the killer – Russ Thorn – chases the girls outside and they battle to the death next to the swimming pool. The black column that can be seen just after shot 750 occurs when the supposedly dead Thorn rises from the pool to attack for the last time. This moment comprises only a few shots, but they are much longer than those in the action that surrounds them (4-10 seconds),

Generally, the editing is slower in the first half of the film and becomes quicker as the killing spree becomes more intense, but we can see some clusters of short shots in the early part of the film. At shot 165, we have a ‘false killing:’ Thorn is using a drill to murder his victims, so when we see a drill coming through a door towards the head of the basketball coach we assume that she is the next in line, but it turns out that it is just someone installing a peephole in the door (below).

Although there have been a couple of early murders in the film, the killing really begins in earnest from shot 392, when the head of Brenda’s boyfriend comes off, and it is from this point that we start to white spaces in the matrix indicating that these shots tend to be shorter than those that precede them. The virtuoso piece of filmmaking in Slumber Party Massacre is the cross-cutting between the murder of one of the boys at the party and Valerie watching a slasher movie on television. This sequence lasts only ~104 seconds but comprises 42 shots (from shot 462), and is edited much more quickly than the scenes that precede and follow it. It is typical of this film that fast editing is associated with scenes of intense violence.

Clusters of long takes are also evident at various points in the film. Notably, there is a solid black column at shot 72 which begins a sequence featuring the main female characters in the shower after a basketball game (which is the cluster of short shots from shot 46 to shot 70). A similar concentration of longer shots can be seen at from shot 267, which is the sequence where the girls get undressed at the beginning of the slumber party. Nudity is thus edited more slowly than other scenes in the film.

Although the killing at the party is well under way by this point, we can see that things are edited more slowly in shots 503 to 565. This sequence lasts for just 10 minutes and focusses on Valerie and her worries that something strange is happening next door, the girls at the party trying to make themselves safe, and Thorn hiding the bodies of those who have so far been unfortunate. We have numerous shots of Valerie searching the grounds and the house, trying to find out what is happening; while the girls inside the house are preparing for Thorn’s next attack. These scenes include many tracking shots that tend not to be evident at other more ‘stabby’ points in the film (pun intended). Like the example mentioned above, when Thorn rises slowly from the swimming pool, this slow sequence is associated with the creation of a sense of dread prior to the big finale. This can be interpreted as evidence that two different types of horror are present in such films: the ‘body horror’ of the violence and the creeping dread of what might be in the darkness, and that these are associated with two different editing regimes. It will of course require a larger sample of films to establish this, but the order structure matrix appears to be quite capable of picking out these different types of sequences.

Overall, the editing structure of Slumber Party Massacre is comprised of clusters of shorter shots associated with the violence of the penetrative killings and longer shots used for nudity and to create atmosphere, and is generally similar to Halloween.

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


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.


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:

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.