While the entertainment industry hasn’t tired of churning out the same stories over and over, scientists from the United Kingdom have found the emotional arc that has so far had the most box office success.
In the study “The Data Science of Hollywood: Using Emotional Arcs of Movies to Drive Business Model Innovation in Entertainment Industries” published in June 2018, data science was used in examining 6,147 full-length movie scripts to discover which movies viewers preferred the most. Data was gathered from movie scripts in opensubtitles.org, revenues from the-numbers.com and satisfaction ratings from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).
The team led by Ganna Pogrebna, a professor of behavioral economics and data science at the University of Birmingham, confirmed that like books, movies are “dominated by six basic shapes” or emotional arcs.
These are rags-to-riches (“an ongoing emotional rise” as in “Shawshank Redemption”), riches-to-rags (“an ongoing emotional fall” as in “Toy Story 3”), man in a hole (“a fall followed by a rise” as in “The Godfather”), Icarus (“a rise followed by a fall” as in “Mary Poppins”), Cinderella (“a rise-fall-rise pattern” as in “Babe”) and Oedipus (“fall-rise-fall” as in “The Little Mermaid”).
Based on domestic and worldwide box office revenues, “man in a hole” movies perform best, even when controlled for budget and genre. Compared with the other emotional arcs, it has the highest average estimated budget of $40.5 million but also earns the highest revenue of $54.9 million. But the study notes that financial success is not “explained by higher financial investment.”
The study identifies that the “man in a hole” arc doesn’t necessarily give the best viewer satisfaction, but is most likely to “spark discussion,” which may be why more viewers are more likely to leave reviews. Another example of a movie with this arc is “The Departed.”
As for the least financially successful, it is the riches-to-rags arc, such as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. Critics tend to rate these movies higher, which suggests that “critics tend to prefer stern movies.”
The results also note that any emotional arc could be financially successful provided that the “genre and budget of the film [are] chosen carefully.” While the “man in a hole” arc is financially successful for many genres — such as sci-fi, mystery, adventure and comedy — the riches-to-rags arc works better for biographies, war movies, horrors and Westerns.
Scientists note that simply creating a “man in a hole” movie isn’t a recipe for success; it is the “careful selection of the script-budget-genre combination” that should be considered. They also cite that data science could “empower” consumers and shift choices of viewing content from a small group of decision-makers to wider audiences. JB