Hollywood formula

Can the reasons for a film’s success be boiled down into a simple formula? Scientific researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Birmingham think so. They’ve analyzed over 6,000 film scripts and organized the results into a series of emotional profiles. Read on to find out what the most successful films of their study had in common.

The Guardian (via The Playlist) spoke with researcher Ganna Pogrebna, a professor of behavioral economics and data science at the University of Birmingham, who led the efforts to categorize the 6,147 scripts via algorithm into six defined types of emotional stories:

  • Rags to riches – the ongoing emotional rise, such as in The Shawshank Redemption
  • Riches to rags – the ongoing emotional fall, such as in Psycho
  • Man in a hole – the fall followed by a rise, such as in The Godfather
  • Icarus – the rise followed by a fall, such as in On the Waterfront
  • Cinderella – rise followed by a fall followed by a rise, as seen in Babe
  • Oedipus – fall followed by a rise followed by a fall, seen in All About My Mother

According to their research, the “man in a hole” stories, while not the most liked of the bunch, are the most talked about of any of the story types above. They also tend to perform better at the box office than films in any of the other categories; the average cost is $40.5 million to make, but they earn $54.9 million on average. Here’s more:

Pogbrena said the research findings were multi-dimensional. For example, riches to rags movies could be financially successful if they were epic and made with a huge budget, such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies; Icarus films are most successful with a low budget; and Oedipus films do not do well at awards ceremonies.

Pogbrena said the team was not saying only man in a hole movies should be made. “We are not trying to kill the film industry,” she said. “We are trying to see what is successful.”

A few things immediately jump out at me. First, movies that cost around $40 million to make become increasingly rare in Hollywood as the industry has turned to micro-budget films or mega-budget blockbusters for its business model. Second, of course “man in a hole” movies perform the best. They follow the most basic template of storytelling in the Western world: a protagonist is going about their business, faces a challenge, and then overcomes that challenge. And third, this type of data analyzation is not new. Ryan Kavanaugh, the former head of Relativity Media, tried to build an entire studio on the idea of using hard numbers to predict what kinds of movies audiences will enjoy. He had a handful of hits with that approach, but Relativity Media ended up going bankrupt. Twice.

It’s always tempting to go for the “get rich quick” scheme, but as we’ve seen proven time and time again, there is no surefire quick way to success. It all comes back to Oscar-winning writer William Goldman‘s famous quote: “Nobody knows anything…Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

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