Scientists deduce the formula for a box office hit

Ben Arnold
Contributor
The Godfather (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

A team of data scientists from the UK claim to have found the key to box office success.

Crunching the numbers behind 6,147 movie scripts across 21 genres, it’s been deduced that the ‘man in a hole’ story device produces the most movie hits.

The ‘man in a hole’ plot arc has been used in movies including Blade Runner and The Godfather, and is denoted by the fall of a central character followed by rise in fortunes.

Scientists used algorithms for six types of story arc to the gain the results, including ‘rags to riches’, seen in the likes of The Shawshank Redemption, the ‘man in the hole’, another called ‘Icarus’, characterised by a rise followed by a fall, seen in Mary Poppins, and ‘Cinderella’, a rise followed by a fall, followed by a rise, in movies like Babe.

There’s also the ‘Oedipus’, a fall followed by a rise, followed by a fall, as seen in As Good As It Gets or All About My Mother.

But it was movies following the ‘man in the hole’ device, the ‘happy-sad-happy’ trajectory, which brought in the most money at the box office, making an average of $54.9 million, and costing $40.5 million.

Blade Runner (Credit: Warner Bros)

‘Movies are stories and each story told by a movie tries to trigger our emotions,” Ganna Pogrebna, professor of behavioural economics and data science at the University of Birmingham, told The Guardian.

“Understanding viewers’ emotions using data science can change business models for the media and entertainment industry.

“Using sentiment analysis to map viewers’ preferences will allow businesses to design customer-focused content which viewers really want to see.

“A carefully chosen combination of production budget and genre may produce a financially successful movie with any emotional shape.

“For example, the Icarus shape is good for low-budget movies, while if you want to shoot a successful tragedy in the Riches to Rags shape, then make it epic with a large budget of over $100 million (£76 million).”

The results of the research, entitled The Data Science of Hollywood: Using Emotional Arcs of Movies to Drive Business Model Innovation in Entertainment Industries, have been published by Cornell University in the US.

As for the types of movies that offer the best profits, Pogrebna was quick to affirm that the findings are ‘not trying to kill the film industry’.

“We are trying to see what is successful. I don’t see it as limiting, it could allow companies to be more inventive,” she said.

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