“I’d like to thank the academy”
This post has a special meaning for me and for this blog: The questions raised here (and in its followup) are the ones that bothered me in the first place, leading me to do some data inquires on cinema. Almost like clockwork, every year during the the Oscar season I rant against the nominees (and eventually some of the winners) for Best Motion Picture, but especially for the acting categories, that are based on real stories and people. I argue that because people compare the real life person (which they have some knowledge of how they look and act) to the performance, an evaluation is made based on this knowledge, and as a result mimicry suppresses any other acting qualities presented in other roles. This post will be the first in a series dedicated to look into what source materials movies are based upon. The first post will present a statistical overview of the subject. Future posts will present data analysis of the Academy Awards, box office performance and more.I have decided to focus the inquiry only on feature length major Hollywood studio releases: Sony (including Columbia and Tri-Star), Disney (including Touchstone, Miramax, Marvel and Pixar), Warner Brothers, Paramount, MGM and Universal. For all of them I have also included the independent units (Fox search light, Sony classic etc.). By examining the key words used on IMDB I classified the films into 3 groups: Movies that are based on existing film or television properties, films based on other art forms and those based on real events. If a film belongs to more then one, the latter category surpasses the first two. The logic behind this decision is that the “real life” effect mentioned above is most likely to prevail over the other two. The aame goes for the first two: if a movie is a remake of a film that is based on another art form, than the “honors” go to the origin.
A look over time
From this graph it is clear that the dominant source of Hollywood cinema is other art forms. It is clear why, in the first half of its existence, it relied heavily on the more traditional arts. As a young art form, cinema needed to receive its legitimacy from other forms in order to be considered an art. But in recent years we see that other art forms are losing their dominance as influence from within the medium. Usually, this is considered a good thing for art, to have a reflexive point of view. But in most cases, these films don’t have anything to say on the art of cinema but are each simply another brick in the franchise world.
One more interesting insight stemming from the graph is that in order to truly depict historical events, Hollywood needed the ability to talk (though Carl Theodor Dreyer might disagree on this). Even nowadays, when more films based on historical events are made, they amount to only 10% of all films made. Yet as we will see, their success is better than the rest.
Also, it is interesting to notice that though there is a general notion that Hollywood is currently all about recycling itself, we see that already back in 1940 Hollywood was out of original ideas and went back to its previous creations, meaning that after all there is nothing new (no pun intended) under the California sun.
What is Art?
It doesn’t come as a surprise that the most influential art form on film is literature. A few reasons come into mind: First, literature is a broad definition and includes poems, children books and more, resulting in almost endless potential source material to work with. Second, most of the movies (and this is true not only for the ones coming from Hollywood) tend to be more narrative than abstract, and literature is the most narrative art form. Third, unlike stage-based arts, literature is widespread and accessible. This is true not only in the material meaning, but also in its consumption by the audience. This relates to the second reason above – The audience is more prone to go see a book that they loved come to life.
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For all companies, almost 50% of their films aren’t based on original material. The most interesting figure here is that Disney is not only with the studio with the highest percentage of films based on real events, but it is also second in absolute numbers (33). This is even more impressive considering that it is smallest studio (they have approximately 750 films up to now while the average per studio is around 1100) . Warner Brothers is the overall leader, though not prominent in any specific category. Universal is the most dominant in film adaptions (percentage and absolute), while all in all they have the most original films (672). Its dominance in remakes might be explained by the success of the original films and TV shows they hold the rights to. But this is something for future analysis.
A tip for the studios
This is probably the most interesting chart in this post, and it supports my thesis: films based on real events are more loved and appreciated by audiences. On the other hand, it is somewhat of a surprise that movies based on other movies have the worst rating. Even more shocking is the fact that from 2000 onward their average score is 6.05. I assume that for the people that make the big decisions, IMDB ratings aren’t a factor in the decision to back a movie. But maybe after adding the box office and Oscar data, the picture will become more distinct. Maybe instead of purchasing the rights for other works (film and non film) they should start investing in history students.