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Genre and European box office, 2006-2010

UPDATE: This post has now been superseded by a revised version that cleans up the data and extends the analysis and should be referred to in place of this. See here for the new version.

To round off a series of posts on genre and box office this August, I look at the frequency of different genres in five European countries – France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK – to see what we can learn about different national markets.

For each of the five countries, I accessed the data from Box Office Mojo for the top 50 grossing films in each year from 2006 to 2010, inclusive. (For some reason, Box Office Mojo lists some films twice in the same year if they have slightly different titles; and I removed these duplicates to replace hem with the next film in the box office rankings). This gives a total sample size of 250 films for each country, and a total of 1250 data points overall. Obviously this does not mean we have data on 1250 films because many of the films reached the top 50 in more than one country. Overall, this sample has data on 596 different films.

Usually I use a system of nine categories for sorting films according to genre; but due to the fact that the number of horror films reached double figures for Spain and the UK only (with 11 and 10 films, respectively) and were very small in number for the other countries (France = 2, Germany = 7, and Italy =6), I have put this films into the category of ‘Other.’ Obviously the fact that horror infrequently reaches the top of the box office charts is interesting in itself, as is the French aversion to horror.

The eight categories used are, therefore, Action/Adventure, Comedy, Crime/Thriller, Drama, Family, Fantasy/Science Fiction, Romance, and Other. Alongside Horror films, Other also includes Westerns, War films, Musicals (including concert films), and Documentaries.

First, we look at the frequency of films occurring in each country in each genre (Table 1).

Table 1 Genre frequency in the top 50 grossing films in five countries, 2006-2010 (NB: the Total column to the right is the number of data points for each genre and NOT the number of different films)

Overall, the number of films from each genre to make it into the top 50 films in the five years covered is similar in each country. To test if the proportion of films from each genre was the same in the five countries, I performed a chi-square test of homogeneity (corrected α = 0.0131, based on 8 tests and an experiment-wise error rate of α = 0.10). These results are presented in Table 2, and show that the only statistically significant difference occurs for the comedy genre. Post-hoc analysis of the adjusted standardized residuals (based on a two-tailed critical z-value of 2.5596) revealed that this is due to Spain having fewer comedy films than expected (z = -3.6880), but the effect size for omnibus test is small (V = 0.1122).

Table 2 Chi-square test of homogeneity for the proportion of films in each genre in five countries

With the exception of the missing comedy films in Spain, these five different markets appear to otherwise very similar for each genre. However, this does not mean that audiences in these five countries are necessarily watching the same films.

To find out if the same films were making it into the top 50, I counted the number of times a film featured in the list of films for each genre. For example, if a film only made it into the top 50 in Germany (e.g. Elementarteilchen (Atomised)) then it would appear only in the list of drama films only once, while a film that made it into the top fifty in all five countries (such as one of the Harry Potter films) would appear in the list of Fantasy/Science Fiction films five times. This is a somewhat crude measure, but it does allow us to see some basic commonalities and differences. This information is presented in Table 3.

Table 3 Frequency with which individual films make the top 50 highest grossing films in five countries from 2006 to 2010 (NB: the Total column to the right is the number of different films in each genre in the overall sample)


Table 3 reveals three distinct patterns:

  • Action/Adventure films tend to feature in the lists for four or five different countries (59%). This is the only genre for which this is the case.

Generally, these films a big-budget Hollywood franchise films such as The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and Fast and Furious, Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and the like. Just less than a quarter of these films feature in only one list, but even these tend to be Hollywood films (e.g. Watchmen or Resident Evil: Extinction*).

* Resident Evil: Afterlife did much better though, ranking everywhere except the UK.

  • The genres of Comedy, Crime/Thriller, Drama, and Romance and dominated by films that appear in one list only.

If Hollywood is able to dominate the global market with its action movies, then it is much less successful when it comes to these four genres. Comedy, in particular, seems to be very different with 78% of films appearing in the list for only one country. Some of these are individual Hollywood films that have performed well in one country not the others; but many are films that only feature in the list of the country in which they were produced. For example, the series of Christmas comedy films from Italy directed by Neri Parenti has performed exceptionally well in that country: one film has made the top 5 grossing films in each year in the sample, with Natale in crociera (2007) and Natale a Rio (2008) both taking the number 1 ranking. However, these films have not made any impact at the box office in any of the other European countries included here. Four comedy films made it into list of each country (Burn After Reading, Mr. Bean’s Holiday, The Devil Wears Prada, and The Hangover).

The Crime/Thriller genre features several big-budget Hollywood films that were successful in all five countries (The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, No Country for Old Men, The Bourne Ultimatum, etc), but again these five markets are more different than they are similar. Some films that appear only once are Hollywood films (e.g. The Taking of Pelham 123, State of Play – neither of which are as good as the originals); but most are successful only in the country in which they originate. So Un prophète and Ne le dis à personne feature in the French box office charts only; and Gomorra and Milano-Palermo: il ritorno only in the Italian charts.

Only a few drama films appear in the top 50s of all countries (Australia, Blood Diamond, Brokeback Mountain, Shutter Island, and The Pursuit of Happyness), while 73% feature in one list only. Romance films show the same pattern, with only seven (13%) films featuring five times (and three of these are from the Twilight franchise), and 65% of films featuring once only. The drama and romance films that appear once tend to feature only in the country from which they originate, but when drama films do cross borders they go between the continental countries and not tot the UK. For example, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) features in every country except the UK. There does not appear to be the same level of cross-over for the romance films, and when a film from this category appears more than once it tends to be a Hollywood film.

Laughter and love do not apparently travel well – in the cinema at least. And nor do crime and drama. The five markets are much less homogenized in these categories, unlike the Action/Adventure films where they are much more consistent in terms of the films in circulation. This clearly raises question about the extent to which we can speak of the Americanization or globalization of European cinema, as it appears to affect some categories of films more than others.

Finally, the third set of genres:

  • The genres of Family and Fantasy/Science Fiction are split between films that feature in one list only and films that feature in the box office charts of all five countries.

For the family genre, 41% of films feature once and 39% of films feature five times. For the Fantasy/Science Fiction films, the equivalent statistics are 42% and 29%. This suggests that there is a divide in the market for these films. The majority of the films in these two genres are Hollywood blockbusters no matter how many time they occur. But we do see a clear split between films that are broadly successful against films that do not travel across borders so well; especially when it comes to animated family films that perform well in all markets (e.g. Cars, Flushed Away, Ice Age: The Meltdown) alongside several European animated films that appear – yet again – only in the country of their production (e.g. Konferenz der Tiere in Germany, El ratón Pérez in Spain, or Azur et Asmar in France). Separating out the UK is much harder as many of the Hollywood films are produced here anyway.

As Other is a category comprising films from several other genres it makes little sense to speak of trends, but it is interesting to note that the three films that feature in all five lists are High School Musical 3: Senior Year, Inglorious Basterds, and Mamma Mia!

As I said before, this is a crude way of measuring differences in audience taste, and I won’t have a much richer picture until I start to compare the box office gross of films in each country directly. But what the information in the above tables provides is a means of describing the national specificity of film a markets based on the types of in circulation and which achieve the highest box office rankings. There are many similarities between these five countries, but we should want to know why the Spanish do not go and see as many comedy films as the British, Germans, French, and Italians? Why do we all seem to watch the same Action/Adventure films but not the same Drama films? Perhaps the specificity of a national cinema is only evident in some categories of films and not others; or Hollywood has cornered the market on such blockbusters to the exclusion of all other producers. Why, if the audiences in these five countries are watching mostly different Romance films, is the proportion of films from this genre in the 250 films for each country so similar? Is there a common underlying structure to European film a markets? Why did the British not pay to see Resident Evil: Afterlife unlike the rest of Europe? And where are the French horror films?

The romance genre at the box office in five European countries, 2006 to 2010

Assuming I have not been defeated by the rivers Wharfe, Aire, and Ouse I shall today be presenting a paper at the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance conference in York (though it is entirely possible that I’m stuck in York railway station). Below is the basic text of my presentation from which I will have inevitably digressed enormously. The pdf file is below. This is based on the same data I used in earlier post on genre and European box office although it has been cleaned up a little so the results are slightly different, though this does not have any impact on the conclusions.

Nick Redfern – The romance film at the box office in five European countries

We analyze the box office performance of romance films in five European countries – France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom – from 2006 to 2010, inclusive, based on the top 50 grossing films in each country in each year. The results show that romance films account for only a small proportion of the films to reach the top 50 highest grossing films, and that there is no statistically significant variation in the proportion of romance films among the highest grossing films in each country. However, few romance films achieve a high box office ranking in more than one of these countries, indicating a lack of commonality across different markets with different audiences watching different romance films. Romance films achieving top 50 rankings in Germany, Spain, and the UK originate almost exclusively from outside these countries, whereas domestically produced films account for a larger proportion of romance films in France and Italy. Romance films perform consistently at the box office in three of the five countries, albeit lacking the very high grosses achieved by action/adventure, family, and fantasy/science fictions films; while this genre performs particularly poorly in Italy and Spain. Romance films emerge as a fixed part of the exhibition market in all five countries, but the variation in the films viewed, source of productions, and box office grosses indicates some important national differences.

The cultural economics of film

This week a collection of papers looking at the cultural economics of films focussing on – among other things – how the stock market reacts to movies, the behaviour of exhibitors and distributors, and how reducing financial risk allows exhibitors more freedom (which is of obvious interest in light of the BFI’s recent New Horizons document).

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

Chisholm D, McMillan M, and Norman G 2010 Product differentiation and film-programming choice: do first-run movie theatres show the same films?, Journal of Cultural Economics 34 (2): 131-145.

We present an empirical analysis of product differentiation using a new dynamic panel data set on film programming choice in a major U.S. metropolitan motion-pictures exhibition market. Using these data, we compute two measures of film programming choice which allow us to investigate the determinants of strategic product differentiation in a multi-characteristics space. Our evidence is consistent with the idea that the degree of product differentiation between theatre pairs reflects a balance between strategic concerns and contractual constraints. Similarity in one dimension is offset by differentiation in others. Finally, we find that ownership matters: theatres under common ownership make more similar programming choices than theatres with different owners.

Collins A, Scorcu AE, and Zanola R 2009 Distribution conventionality in the movie sector: an econometric analysis of cinema supply, Managerial and Decision Economics 30 (8): 517-527.

This paper empirically analyzes the impact of several factors on a ‘conventionality index (CI)’ in the specific context of the cinema exhibition sector. To our knowledge, it is the first time that a standard CI has been constructed for this purpose. Econometric analysis of the determinants of variation in this index provides decision-makers with an empirical focus for analyzing distributional aspects of the movie exhibition market, with particular emphasis on product differentiation. Specifically, (i) do cinemas based in a city area have a different or ‘specialized’ focus in contrast to cinemas in small towns? or (ii) do multiplexes have a different or more specialized focus in comparison with cinemas? To this end, cross-sectional econometric models are estimated to help analyze these effects in three Italian regions for a sample of cinemas covering the 2006 season.

Einav L and Ravid SA 2009 Stock market response to changes in movies’ opening dates, Journal of Cultural Economics 33 (4): 311-319.

How does the market react to news regarding large uncertain projects? We analyze stock market reactions to information about changes in opening dates of movies, and present two main findings. First, we find systematic negative stock price responses to the scheduling changes we consider, suggesting that any changes are interpreted as bad news by the market. Second, we find that the market reaction is greater for movies with higher production costs, but is unrelated to subsequent box office revenues. This may point to a limited ability of the market to predict the box office performance of a movie, and to increased sensitivity of the market to cost effects, which are easier to forecast.

Joshi AM and Hanssens DM 2008 Movie advertising and the stock market valuation of studios: a case of “great expectations?”, Marketing Science 28 (2): 239-250.

Product innovation is the key revenue driver in the motion picture industry. Because major studios typically launch fewer than 20 movies per year, the financial performance of a single release can have a major effect on the studio’s profitability. In this paper we study how single movie releases impact the investor valuation of the studio. We analyze the change in postlaunch stock price and predict the direction and magnitude of excess returns based on the revenue expectation built up for a movie release. That expectation is set, in part, by media support; i.e., highly advertised movies are expected to draw larger audiences than others. By using an event-study methodology, we isolate the impact of a movie launch on studio stock price and track the determinants of that change.

We examine a comprehensive data set comprising over 300 movies released by the largest studios. Our results indicate a clear interaction between the marketing support received by a movie and the direction and magnitude of its excess stock return post launch. Movies with above average prelaunch advertising have lower postlaunch stock returns than films with below average advertising. Our findings also suggest that movies that are hits at the box office may result in a lowering of stock price if they had high media support because of high performance expectations built up prior to launch. Thus prelaunch advertising plays a dual role of informing consumers about a movie’s arrival as well as helping investors form expectations about the studio’s profit performance.

McKenzie J 2012 The economics of movies: a literature survey, Journal of Economic Surveys 26 (1): 42-70.

The film industry provides a myriad of interesting problems for economic contemplation. From the initial concept of an idea through production, distribution and finally exhibition there are many aspects to the film project and the film industry that present new and interesting puzzles worthy of investigation. Add to this the high level of data availability, and it is little wonder that an increasing number of researchers are being attracted to this industry. To date, however, there are no comprehensive surveys on the contribution of economists to this literature. This paper attempts to fill this void and unify what is known about the industry. It also identifies and discusses potential areas for new research.

Pokorny M and Sedgwick J 2010 Profitability trends in Hollywood, 1929 to 1999: somebody must know something, The Economic History Review 63 (1): 56-84.

This article presents an overview of the development of the US film industry from 1929 to 1999. Notwithstanding a volatile film production environment, in terms of rate of return and market share variability, the industry has remained relatively stable and profitable. Film production by the film studios is interpreted as analogous to the construction of an investment portfolio, whereby producers diversified risk across budgetary categories. In the 1930s, high-budget film production was relatively unprofitable, but the industry adjusted to the steep decline in film-going in the postwar period by refining high-budget production as the focus for profitability.

Wang F, Zhang Y, Li X, and Zhu H 2010 Why do moviegoers go to the theater? The role of prerelease media publicity and online word of mouth in driving moviegoing behaviour, Journal of Interactive Advertising 11 (1): http://jiad.org/article139.

Using the Bass new product diffusion model, the authors explore how media publicity and word of mouth (WOM) about a to-be-released new movie drive moviegoing behavior in emerging markets. Empirical data collected from the Chinese motion picture industry reveal that prerelease media appearance (a proxy for publicity) and online WOM conversation (a proxy for WOM) influence moviegoing decision making, but they play different roles. Media publicity determines moviegoers’ innovation probability, whereas WOM determines both innovation and imitation probability. This article provides a better understanding of the decision making involved in moviegoing, as well as effective ways to market and release new movies in emerging markets.

Werck K, Grinwis M, and Heyndels B 2008 Budgetary constraints and programmatic choices by Flemish subsidized theatres, Applied Economics 4 (18): 2369-2379.

We analyse programmatic choices of Flemish theatres and examine how they are affected by the theatres’ budgetary situation. Following Lancaster’s characteristics approach, we identify several output characteristics of individual Flemish theatres during the period 1980 to 2000. A simultaneous equation approach is used to capture the theatre managers’, subsidizing government’s and consumers’ behaviour. We find that changes in the budgetary situation of a theatre are translated into changes of both the ‘amount’ and the nature of the theatre’s output. The budgetary impact on artistic choices has intensified since the introduction of a 4-yearly instead of yearly allocation of subsidies. The decrease in financial risk for the individual theatres leads to an increase in artistic risk-taking.

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.

The DCMS Film Policy Review I

This week the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport published the latest review of film policy in the UK. The report is titled A Future for British Film: It Begins with the Audience, and you can access it here. This week’s post covers just a few first impressions I have formed having read the report once. A more detailed and more considered reflection on the issues raised will have to wait for a couple of weeks.

This is the first wide-ranging report on film policy in the UK since A Bigger Picture was published in 1998, though there have been numerous reports covering  a broad range of topics in the past 14 years. This report should of course been undertaken before the dismantling of the UK Film Council because now it is a case of tailoring policy to the institutions we have rather than being able to flexibly adapt to new demands. And it is the new that wrecks policy maker’s fun. A Bigger Picture was almost immediately rendered obsolete by the arrival of digital technology. 3D was old technology in 1998, and now its at the top of the box office charts.

So, first impressions.

1. I like the demand-side approach rather than the focus on production typical of these sorts of reports. The report doesn’t ignore production, but the re-orientation of film policy away from ‘lets produce more British films that on-one will see’ to ‘let’s get people watching films the British films that are available’ is much needed. British film production has been reasonably healthy since the mid-1990s (at least compared to the dark days 1980s), but a long-standing problem is getting screen time in a multiplex dominated market. There’s no point making films people can’t see and there’s no point in making MORE films can’t see which has been UK film policy since 1985. There’s always the possibility that some more British films will make money and so reduce their demands on lottery funding.

The only concern is that focussing resources on independent and specialised film will produce limited benefits from a lot of investment. Audiences for these types of films are smaller than audiences for mainstream cinema, and so there may not be much growth in audiences to be had. The report says that it is important to increase audience choice, and who would disagree with that. But how do you measure the potential for audience growth of specialised films? How do you judge how much money to invest in developing this audience given that audience growth might be quite small? And what if the audience doesn’t want to watch these films?

And how do you get cinema chains to stop showing crap like Green Lantern? Especially when it turns out the average occupancy rate of cinema auditoria in the UK is 20 per cent! Solving the problem of too many bad Hollywood films on British cinema screens would go much further than anything the BFI could ever do. The problem of release windows is recognised in the report and reforming this aspect of the UK film sector in a distribution-led industry will have more impact than simply focussing on production. This is to be applauded. But release windows are determined in Hollywood by multinational corporations who have the power to dictate terms to exhibitors, and why should they care about a policy framework that offers no advantage to them? US producers come to the UK for the quality of the filmmakers, the facilities, and the tax incentives. Where are the incentives for distribution that will make them care?

2. I also like the commitment to ensuring the important role of the BFI Research and Statistics Unit in recommendation 53 (see below), though the suggestion the BFI establishes a ‘research and knowledge’ does raise the questions, doesn’t the RSU already exist and isn’t already fulfilling this function? I’m also a little confused by the recommendation

the BFI be designated a ‘producer of official statistics’ under the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, as was the UK Film Council up until 2011.

Wasn’t this function taken over by the BFI? And if not, why not?

But a revved up RSU means more statistical fun for me, and that’s something to look forward to.

3. I don’t like the make up of the panel that produced the report:

  • Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury, former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Chairman)
  • Will Clarke, Independent film distributor, founder and former CEO, Optimum Releasing
  • Lord Julian Fellowes, Oscar® winning writer and actor
  • Matthew Justice, UK film producer and Managing Director, Big Talk
  • Michael Lynton, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, Sony Pictures Entertainment
  • Tim Richards, Chief Executive, Vue Entertainment
  • Tessa Ross, CBE, Controller of Film and Drama, Channel 4
  • Libby Savill, Head of Film and Television, Olswang LLP
  • Iain Smith, OBE, film producer and Chair, the British Film Commission Advisory Board

There is, of course, no reason why any of these people should not have been involved in the review process, but who is missing from this list?

That’s right, academics. There is no one from film studies specialising in film industries, film policy, or British cinema; and there is no economist, sociologist, or geographer specialising in film/media/creative/cultural industries.

There is a great deal of research on the film industry in the UK and yet very little of this is cited by the report. The report contains a list of references 108 references, including a handful to Margaret Dickinson and Sylvia Harvey, Rob Cheek, Maud Mansfield, and Joe Lampel. (None of these references are properly referenced. If this were submitted by a student you would fail it on grounds of not having a proper bibliography. It really is awful). There are no references to the wider body of research of the film industry in the UK, and this is curious because one of the recommendations addresses precisely this issue.

53. The Panel notes the need for a strong evidence base for film policy and recommends the BFI establishes a ‘Research and Knowledge’ function to a) collaborate with industry and stakeholders to generate robust information and data on which to base policy interventions, b) assist in the design of BFI policy and funding interventions from the outset to produce learning that can inform future policy, c) actively disseminate results and learning from funding interventions, and d) over time build and maintain a valuable and accessible knowledge base for the benefit of the public, the BFI, Government, industry, academia and all other stakeholders in film.

It seems odd to recommend that we need a strong evidence base when the existing available research is largely ignored. This problem was raised at the symposium on research and policy making I attended last October (you can read about it here), and it’s nice to see the above recommendation in the report as it means there is a greater chance progress will be made in this area. But this type of report is precisely the sort of situation in which this type of research should have been used, and it would have been nice to see the panel take the opportunity to do just that. Otherwise, what’s the point in doing research?

But what I really don’t like about recommendation 53 is that it envisages academia as a consumer of data produced by the BFI’s ‘research and knowledge’ function rather than being fully integrated into the policy making framework. Academics shouldn’t be sat on the sidelines of film policy. Any future panel reporting on film policy should include academics among its membership – if only to recommend the relevant research outputs to the rest of the panel. It is the BFI’s responsibility to make sure this is achieved sooner rather than not at all. Who else do they think is going create and fulfil the ‘research and knowledge’ function?

It seems odd to say it, but I think the case for film studies could be put to the BFI more strongly.

4. Finally, this report presents a great deal of statistical information and therefore makes the assumption that its readership will be statistically literate enough to understand it. I raised the issue of statistical literacy at last year’s symposium but didn’t get much of response. Given the use of tables, graphs (which I do NOT like), and numerical summaries in this report it is not an issue than can be ignored. The place of statistical literacy in film studies needs to be addressed by the BFI, and I will have more to say on this topic over the next few weeks.


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.

UK Film Policy

Yesterday I attended a symposium at NESTA on the relationship between research and policy making for film co hosted by the University of Hertforshire, Available Light Advisory, and the BFI. A detailed review of the event will have to wait for a later post, but until then here are some papers on the British film industry and the policy environment in which it has operated over the  past decade and a half.

As ever, the version of the paper linked to may not be the final version that was published.

Adams J 2011 UK film: new directions in the glocal era, Journal of Media Practice 12 (2): 111-124. (NB: the link takes you to JMP Screenworks).

As the British Film Institute (BFI) takes over responsibility for film policy and lottery funding from the UK Film Council and the Government announces the UK Film Policy Review, this article argues that film policy requires a fundamental change of direction for the 21st Century. First, it proposes that the concept of a UK film ‘industry’ should be radically redefined in response to the complex and diverse digital production models developing both regionally and globally. Second, that the best way to nurture and promote homegrown talent is through an integrated approach to production, distribution, exhibition and education. Third, public funding for film (other than tax breaks and incentives for incoming production) should be directed away from the mainstream to support public-private sector creative partnerships in the regions, in line with an emerging politics of localism. In an age of cross-border media flows, the paper proposes a holistic strategy for UK film based on dispersed creative hubs with global reach, with a much greater role for Creative England than is currently envisaged. Examples in the paper are mainly drawn from activities in one of Creative England’s newly designated regions (‘the Bristol hub’).

Blair H, Culkin N, and Randle K 2004 From London to Los Angeles: a comparison of local labour market processes in the US and UK film industries, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 14 (4): 619-633.

Addressing the issue of the embeddedness of labour markets, this paper compares the processes of finding employment in the film industry within two local labour markets. Drawing on studies of freelance film crew in the London (UK) and Los Angeles (US), the paper concludes that the importance of social networks in job mobility in both contexts is a consequence of common production structures. However that common labour market practice varies in each geographical space as industry processes and structures are mediated by local institutional contexts.

 Garnham N 2005 From cultural to creative industries: an analysis of the implications of the “creative industries” approach to arts and media policy making in the United Kingdom, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 11 (1): 15-29.

This article analyses the cultural policy implications in the United Kingdom of a shift in terminology from cultural to creative industries. It argues that the use of the term “creative industries” can only be understood in the context of information society policy. It draws its political and ideological power from the prestige and economic importance attached to concepts of innovation, information, information workers and the impact of information and communication technologies drawn from information society theory. This sustains the unjustified claim of the cultural sector as a key economic growth sector within the global economy and creates a coalition of disparate interests around the extension of intellectual property rights. In the final analysis, it legitimates a return to an artistcentred, supply side defence of state cultural subsidies that is in contradiction to the other major aim of cultural policy – wider access.

Humphreys P 2008 An examination of the preservation of cultural policy toolkits at the national level: the French and UK cases, 58th Political Studies Association Annual Conference: Democracy, Governance and Conflict: Dilemmas of Theory and Practice, 1-3 April 2008, Swansea.

This paper examines the impact of globalization, new media and deregulatory pressures on the ‘cultural policy toolkits’ for the television sector of France and the UK. It is concerned with regulation intended to promote cultural diversity in the media, namely public service broadcasting, media ownership rules, and culturally protectionist measures such as subsidies and programme quotas. It explores whether there is evidence of a (de)regulatory competition (‘racing to the bottom’), and alternatively whether there has been any adjustment of regulatory standards upwards. The picture is mixed. There is evidence of competitiveness motivated deregulation of media ownership rules in both cases. Other than that though, the countries’ cultural policy toolkits appear robust and demonstrate a striking degree of path dependent policy-making. Some aspects of UK television policy are certainly redolent of deregulatory competition and the UK approach has progressively relieved the private sector of the kind of regulatory burdens imposed by the French approach. By contrast, the French adaptation of their system of programme quotas and subsidies to the digital age could be seen as upward regulation. France, however, remains a paradoxical case. It exhibits a particularly strong political commitment to a distinctive and elaborate regulatory and interventionist cultural policy toolkit. It has championed a global struggle to defend national cultural identities in the face of the domination of American production. Yet, public service television and national television production are weak in comparison with its more liberal neighbour.

Magor M and Schlesinger P 2009 ‘For this relief much thanks:’ taxation, film policy and the UK government, Screen 50 (3): 299-317.

In 2006, the Treasury introduced a new Film Tax Credit for British productions. Fiscal incentives in the form of tax credits are now regarded as fundamental to the sustainability of the British film industry. In addition to benefiting indigenous filmmaking, an attractive tax credit structure is seen as promoting inward investment, chiefly from the USA, and is seen as important for maintaining the work force and organisational capacity in the British film industry. Securing the continuity of the skills base is at the heart of the UK Government’s drive to make the ‘creative economy’ better fitted for global competition. However, in that broader context, film has been – and remains – a special case, as it is not presently Government creative economy policy to use fiscal measures for other industries. We argue that in seeking solutions to longstanding problems of ‘sustainability’, contemporary UK policy is conditioned by its long history of economic intervention in film production – and has been an important precursor of today’s creative industries policy. Furthermore, in current global conditions, it is crucial to consider the fundamental cross-currents set in train by the competing demands of US inward investment and EU regulation. By undertaking interviews with key players as well as examining evidence in the public domain, this article analyses the complex politics that has shaped the implementation of this policy. We argue that film policy research needs the added depth that such sociological analysis brings to the table. In particular, this empirical approach gives insights into how the low politics of lobbying and inter-departmental rivalry shape present policy outcomes.

Redfern N 2007 Defining British cinema: transnational and territorial film policy in the United Kingdom, Journal of British Cinema and Television 4 (1): 150-164.

Since 1995, film policy in the United Kingdom has comprised two strands: selling the UK as a ‘film hub’ of locations, skills and services to the international film industry, and the emergence of a different kind of institutional intervention geared towards nurturing regional film industries and regional film cultures. In this contribution to the debate about film policy in Britain, I want to explore the relationship between the transnational and the territorial in British film policy since the mid-1990s. I will argue that policy makers in the United Kingdom have sought to construct a British national cinema through encouraging productions to come to the United Kingdom by enhancing the locational non-substitutability of the British film industry, and that these functions have been devolved to the Regional Screen Agencies since 2000. The British film industry that is emerging from this process is a hybrid space of interactions between a trans- national film industry which crosses national boundaries, and a highly territorialised national film industry which is increasingly organised at the regional level. In this contribution, I will describe three possible interactions between the transnational and the territorial in contemporary British cinema.

Redfern N 2010 Connecting the regional and the global in the UK film industry, Transnational Cinemas 1 (2) : 145-160.

Film policy in the United Kingdom is comprised of two complementary strands: the development of regional production clusters and the positioning of the United Kingdom as a film hub in the global film industry. This article examines the relationship between the regional, national and global scales in feature film production in three UK regions Northern Ireland, Scotland and the South West of England from 2004 to 2006. The results indicate that connections between the regions of the United Kingdom and the global film industry are limited, and that where they do exist these connections are either directly to or mediated through London, which functions as the dominant centre of distribution and finance and therefore decision-making in the UK film industry. Northern Ireland, by virtue of its cultural and economic relationship to the Republic of Ireland, stands out as a region in which its connections to other major decision-making centres are as important as its connections to London. The results suggest that while UK film policy has sought to redistribute the productive capacity of the industry, the autonomy of regional production centres remains limited.

Pratt AC and Gornostaeva G 2009 The governance of innovation in the film and television industry: a case study of London, UK, in  AC Pratt and P Jeffcutt (eds.) Creativity, Innovation and the Cultural Economy. London: Routledge: 119-136.

The focus of this chapter is innovation and creativity in the film and television industries in London. One might expect to observe, in the case of film and television industries which encompass some of the most socially and organisationally embedded organisations that have embraced digitisation, a clearer case of the impact of digitisation in on innovation. However, it is also good to adopt a cautious approach to the role of technology or the necessity of organisational and/or technological convergence that may follow.

It is possible to make a film, or a TV programme, on a laptop or a mobile phone; but, such practices are marginal. Where they are adopted their use is commonly strategic, in order to achieve other organisational aims such as simple cost reduction or novelty. The film and television industries are ‘poster children’ for digitisation and innovation; the question is, whether such changes are superficial, in the sense of new delivery systems for the same old production model, or, a substantial transformation of the process. Complex regulatory structures and market structures mean that innovation is a more organic and systemic process rather than the ‘big bang’ that is it commonly represented as. In this chapter we argue for the need to account for the complex interrelationship of technologies, organisation and regulation. Moreover, that the roles of technology (digitization), organisation (the fragmented small firms), and governance (deregulation) cannot be generalised and will be resolved, necessarily, in particular spaces and times resulting in unique locational outcomes.

If one examines the UK FTV at a macro-scale considerable success of both TV sales and film production (receipts) can be identified both relative to the size of the UK economy, and by comparison with other economies. How do we begin to understand this relative success? One answer might be innovation or improved competitiveness; however, arguably such ‘catch alls’ disguise as much as they reveal. This chapter approaches the problem by shifting analytic attention to the micro-scale and to organisational concerns in order to explore ways in which similar technologies or innovations may produce quite different industry outcomes in terms of practice. The chapter is structured around this argument; we begin by prefacing this with a discussion of innovation and creativity and next elaborating how this is worked through in the case of the film and television industries.

Finally, here are some recent reports on the UK film industry:

Mansfield M 2009 A Report on the British Film Industry for Shadow DCMS.

Culture, Media, and Sport Committee, The British Film Industry, HC, 667-I, 9 September 2003.

Select Committee on Communications, The British Film and Television Industries – Decline or Opportunity?, HL, 37-I and 37-II, 25 January 2011. The two volumes of this report include the summry and conclusions in part I and the transcripts of the hearings in part II.

The BFI and ‘Opening Our Eyes’

Last Friday the BFI launched its report on the cultural contribution of the cinema to the UK. I was unable to attend the launch, but the report is no available online here.

The motivation for this report is partly to do what is says and explore the contribution to British cinema, but it is also necessary to justify the UK’s economic film policy. Under EU law, financial support in the form of tax relief or lottery funding can only be provided for the representation of regional and national cultures and NOT for competitive economic advantage. Therefore, by establishing the importance of the cinema to British cultural life everyone gets to pretend that economic film policy in the UK is cultural and not economic at all.

Leaving that collective self-delusion aside, let’s focus on the cultural aspects of the report. The problem here is that we have what is largely a marketing report that does not really address the question of ‘cultural contribution.’ Films, we are told, are one of the ‘most popular entertainment and leisure interests,’ but popularity is not a measure of cultural contribution. One of overriding problems I have with this report is the lack of detail. The list of films that are often mentioned as having a ‘significant effect on society or attitudes in the UK’ is frequently used as a basis for drawing conclusions about the relevance of the cinema in British cultural life but this effect isn’t qualified beyond the personal anecdotes of some of the interviewees. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the number of interviewees is small: ten paired interviews were conducted giving a sample size of 20 participants from major cities in Scotland (Glasgow) or England (Manchester and London). Perhaps no-one in the UK lives east of the Pennines (thereby plunging me into a severe existential crisis); or perhaps no-one in Wales or Northern Ireland goes to the cinema. I recognise that measuring how a film affects society is difficult, but then this at the core of what the report is trying to do and it never really achieves it. We can certainly see how Cathy Come Home affected the UK, leading to the founding of Shelter; but what was the ‘significant effect’ of Trainspotting? This is never explained. I also recognise that it is a lengthy and costly process, but if you’re going to justify national film policy based on research it should be national research.

One aspect that has been commented upon in a number of news articles based on this report (and which I therefore assume was part of a press release) is that people are more interested in the cinema than they are in religion. Specifically, 32% percent of respondents indicated they were interested in religion compared to the 84% who were interested in the cinema. The question we really want to ask here is why religion was included in the survey at all. Does the BFI think that religion is a form of popular entertainment and leisure interest comparable to the cinema? In what ways is an interest in films comparable to an interest in religion? Surely we cannot be expected to interpret this as meaning that the people of the UK are 2.5 times more interested in the cinema than religion, because this is how it has been presented in reporting typical of the standard you can expect from the British press. This is really a measure of popularity and not a measure of contribution at all: the contribution of the Church of England to the cultural life of the UK is far greater than that of the cinema, even if no one appears to be interested in it any more. I may be an atheist but, dear God, this was a stupid question to ask.

A further confusing statement is that a ‘strong interest in film correlates with a stronger than average interest in many other forms of leisure and cultural pursuit,’ because no correlation coefficient, correspondence analysis, correlation matrix, or any other statistic is presented. Correlation is a statistical term, and in the context of this report that presents such a large amount of data in terms of graphs, percentages, and other measures, it has no meaning. Nor is there any evidence presented to link strong interest in the cinema, strong interest in other arts, and increased levels of participation. It is simply asserted that

higher interest in a range of other social and cultural activities tends to follow through into higher levels of activity (Figure 5), with more people very interested in film also going more often to the theatre, concerts, pubs and clubs than those with no interest in film.

The reference to Figure 5 leads us only to a series of bar charts that present frequencies and not correlations. This is just poor research, and a better approach would have been to perform a correspondence analysis on this data. (This is exactly what Pierre Bourdieu does in Distinction to answer exactly the same sort of questions). If nothing else, this would have presented us with only a single graph to deal with rather than thirteen separate bar charts.

The same is true of the words associated with different forms of entertainment (Figure 11). The endless bar charts have by now become somewhat tiring and the plots of the first and second principal and first and third principal axes of the correspondence analysis of this data would have made life so much easier (Figure A). To interpret these plots, points in the same data set that are near each other have similar profiles in terms of the attributes assigned to them while points in the same data set that are distant have different attribute profiles; and points in different sets that lie away from the origin and in the same direction are related. In both plots we see that film (FIL) lies along the same direction as escapism (ESC), and so the cinema is strongly correlated with this attribute.

A1: Dimensions 1 and 2

A2: Dimensions 1 and 3

Figure A Biplots of the correspondence between entertainment/leisure activities and attributes associated with them, based on percentages in the BFI ‘Opening Our Eyes’ report. For the detailed numerical summary of the analysis see here: BFI CA Summary.

As we would expect, pubs/clubs (PUB) and dining out are similar and news (NEW) is strongly correlated with the attribute ‘informative’ (INF). Interestingly, art galleries and museums (GAL) lies along the same axis as exciting (EXC) in both plots, and playing sport (SPP) produces similar results to going to the theatre (THE) but watching sport (SPW) does not. Also, pubs/clubs seem to correspond with thought-provoking (THO).

The attributes do appear to spread out into a number of subsets. Emotion (EMO) and Inspiration (INS) appear to be related, as do exciting and informative. Relaxing (RLX), entertainment (ENT), escapism, and thought-provoking appear to have profiles more similar with another than with the other four attributes. This relationship is apparent in both plots. Television (TEL) appears to be associated with no particular attribute, contributing nothing to the variation in dimension 3.

Note that religion (REL) in the first plot is unrelated to the profiles of the other forms of entertainment and leisure activity and contributes nothing to the variation of the second plot (CTR = 0.00), and it would be better if this category had not been included in the survey at all.

A further problem arises when we look at the section on what films people are watching. Blockbusters emerge as the most frequently watched type of films, but as these types of films dominate the UK exhibition market what else did you expect?

The information on the factors that people use to decide on what to go and see is much more useful. There is a fairly large body of literature on this topic for Hollywood cinema (and you can find some information on this topic here), but there is a lack of research in this area for the UK (but see here). This is also the case for sources of information on films on release. Hopefully, this information will lead researchers to explore these areas in more depth, because we really know very little about film audiences in the UK compared to what we know about the US.

The section on opinions about the proportion of films distributed in the UK on specific subjects (Figure 17) can be ignored. I don’t quite see the point of the question about whether there are too many films about homeless people – this seems a needlessly specific question that doesn’t really have anything to with the cinema. I’ve never seen a British film about a quantity surveyor, but they didn’t ask about that. How would making films about the homeless contribute to British culture? If this were to prompt filmmakers to start making films about the homeless, asking the question again would increase the number of responses for too many as the public becomes bored by a glut of such films. This part of the survey does not appear to take into account the films currently on release that would influence the respondents. It is a silly question that tells us nothing about anything.

More interesting is the revelation about how audiences perceive stories as being related to national identity rather than the source of the production:

Respondents saw films with British stories set in the UK as close to ‘entirely British’, even if they were partly produced or financed from the USA. Films about non-British people set outside the UK were seen as being mainly of another nationality. This is illustrated at the borderline by Slumdog Millionaire which, though an independent British film, was seen as being slightly more of ‘another nationality’ (Figure 19). Some interviewees saw it as a British film set in a non-UK location.

Now this is interesting information that can make a substantive contribution to the study of British national cinema and will, I’m sure, feature in many books and articles on the subject. The analysis based on the seven-point rating scale (Figures 19 and 20) is interesting but I have problems with the statistic used: the average position on the scale appears to be the mean and the use of a continuous measure for ordinal data is problematic. Either the mode or the median could be more appropriate because we cannot be sure that respondents interpreted the phrases used (‘entirely British’) in the same way or that the differences between the categories are equal. (There is no reason to assume that responses to this scale would be normally distributed so some additional justification for relying on the central limit theorem should have been provided, particularly given the possibility of central tendency bias).That said, the differences in the score between Slumdog Millionaire on the one hand and St. Trinian’s and The Full Monty are the real gem in this report. As scholars of British cinema we should be exploring this in great depth.

The section on the regions of the UK brings us back to the endless bar charts, and as before a different approach might have reduced the cognitive burden and eye strain on the reader. Generally, these results reflect the responses given to a question asked as part of the 19th British Social Attitudes Report published in 2002, which found that regional identity in England increased with distance from the capital and a high level of identification with the metropolis in London. This would explain why people in the North of England, the North West, and Yorkshire and Humberside want to see more films based in their regions relative to the regions in the south and the east. It is surprising to see that the percentages for ‘Too many’ and ‘About the right amount’ for the South West are consistent with East Anglia and the South East, as this region tends to have a relatively higher sense of regional identity. This is an interesting result that could be followed up.

Overall, this report is just like every other report produced by an official body that you’ve read: relentlessly upbeat, and riddled with oddities of design and analysis. There are some really interesting points to be found, and if this report is going to make a real contribution to our understanding of British film culture it will be as a starting point for researchers to try to get behind the data.

Finally, the best news of all: the detailed responses and the full data sets are being made available by the BFI, and can be accessed here. This means hours of endless fun of doing your own analysis on the data.

References

Heath A, Rothon C, and Jarvis L 2002  ‘English to the Core?’ in A Park, J Curtice, K Thomson, L Jarvis, and C Bromley (eds.) British Social Attitudes: The 19th Report. London: Sage: 169-184.

Genre trends at the US box office, 1991 to 2010

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

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

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

Abstract

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

Box office and genre in three countries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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