Which Movies Stand the Test of Time, and Which Don't? A Statistical Analysis
Which films endure within the culture, and which movies fade away?
Intro: The Curious Case of Joe Black
In 1998, movie theaters witnessed an unusual phenomenon surrounding the release of Meet Joe Black, a run-of-the-mill romantic drama starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. While the film itself was typical Hollywood fare, moviegoer behavior was far from ordinary. A few minutes into the film, many audience members simply got up and left the theater—a confounding trend that played out nationwide.
Movie theaters were baffled: why did consumers purchase a ticket only to leave shortly after the main attraction began? Well, it turns out that Meet Joe Black was not the main attraction.
The real draw was the premiere of the first trailer for Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, which ran before Joe Black. The Phantom Menace was the first expansion of Star Wars cinematic mythology in over fifteen years. Fans were so eager to catch a glimpse of George Lucas' sequel that they were willing to pay full-price for a completely different film.
Star Wars first hit theaters in 1977, becoming one of the highest-grossing movies in cinematic history. Almost fifty years later, Star Wars endures in our collective memory, while most other films released in 1977 have faded from cultural awareness. Some movies hit theaters, make some money, and are promptly forgotten, while other films "stand the test of time." So today, we'll explore the movies that persist within the zeitgeist and the once-popular films that have since disappeared from our collective consciousness.
Which Films Stand the Test of Time?
MovieLens is a virtual community that collects movie ratings and reviews and then uses this data to recommend films to its users. The project is run by The University of Minnesota's Grouplens Research lab, which has graciously published its dataset of user-generated content—a treasure trove of over 20 million movie ratings collected between 1995 and 2015. We'll use this data to gauge film popularity in the years following a movie's release.
Movie viewership follows a predictable pattern of decay over time. A film is advertised, released, and consumed, whereafter it proceeds to a second life on streaming or DVD. Each year, viewership for the average movie declines until that work fades from collective memory—or at least that's the case for most movies. Using the MovieLens dataset, we can calculate how often a standard cinematic release is rated in the years following its debut, thus mapping the normative trajectory for film viewership over time.
For example, we'd expect a movie that has been out for twenty years to receive ~100 MovieLens ratings in its twentieth year of existence. Once we have our average values, we can compare individual films to these figures, thus ascertaining how often a movie is rated compared to the average for similar-aged films. For example, the highly mediocre romantic comedy Must Love Dogs was reviewed 16 times in 2014 (nine years after its release), 87% below expectation, while Gone with the Wind was reviewed 220 times in 2014 (75 years after its release), which is 950% above expectation.
For each film, we'll average these comparisons into a single statistic. In the case of Must Love Dogs, the canine-forward Diane Lane rom-com is watched and rated 73% less than similar-aged films. Ipso facto, Must Love Dogs does not stand the test of time. We can perform this exercise for over 24,000 movies in the MovieLens dataset to determine the popularity of a given film in the years following its release.
When we examine the movies that vastly exceed anticipated review volumes, we find a collection of true cinematic classics.
A few observations from this collection of movies:
1. Timeless Sci-Fi Classics from the 1980s
Our most heavily watched and reviewed films of the 1980s are all works of science fiction, with the exception of Indiana Jones. On the precipice of the internet age, movies like Back to the Future, Blade Runner, and Terminator reflected the excitement and anxieties of technological progress.
2. German Expressionism in the 1920s
Many of our memorable films from the 1920s are products of the German Expressionism movement. German Expressionist classics like Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Nosferatu are characterized by visually striking and often surreal aesthetics, featuring sharp contrasts of light and shadow amidst bizarre angular sets. In an age of silent filmmaking, these distinctive visuals captured the popular imagination (both then and now).
3. The Eventual Rise of Franchise Filmmaking
Pre-1970, only three of our movies spawned an immediate sequel or exist as part of a contemporaneous series, while post-1969, ~60% of our films are part of a franchise.
4. 1994 was an Incredible Year
1994 is one of the great years in movie history, headlined by classics like The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, and Forrest Gump. Gump ultimately won Best Picture, and the internet has been mad about it ever since.
5. "New Hollywood" Dominated the 1970s
The 1970s saw the rise of "New Hollywood," a period marked by inventive, auteur-driven films that deviated from traditional studio fare. Visionary directors like George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Ridley Scott gave us classics The Godfather, Star Wars, and Alien. This period also witnessed the creation of the modern blockbuster, as studios provided ambitious filmmakers with larger budgets for projects of ever-increasing scope. There is an intense nostalgia for this era—a time when creative and commercial interests aligned to provide imaginative artists with ample funding.
Despite some anachronistic filmmaking methods (silent movies, black-and-white cinema, pre-computer special effects), this group of movies stands the test of time.
These works endure as landmarks in cinematic history and, as such, merit ongoing viewership. Next, we'll explore the movies that were celebrated upon release (via dollars or praise) and then disappeared from cultural relevance in the years after their debut.
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Which Successful Movies Have Faded Away?
The Golden Raspberry Awards, commonly known as the Razzies, are a satirical awards ceremony held to "honor" the worst movies Hollywood has to offer. First held in 1981, the Razzies have roasted the likes of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, Battlefield Earth, Cats, Catwoman, and Norbit. Over time, Razzie recipients have come to embrace their humiliation, with Halle Berry attending the ceremony to accept Worst Actress for Catwoman and Sandra Bullock handing out DVDs of All About Steve to celebrate her Golden Raspberry.
In recognizing the worst in film, the Razzies serve as an absurdist counterpoint to the glitz and glamor of Hollywood's awards circuit. That said, an odd feature of the Golden Raspberry Awards is their immortalization of atrocious movies, which thus brings these films more publicity. I've watched Razzie fodder like Cats and Catwoman just to see what all the fuss was about—and I've legitimately enjoyed these viewing experiences. Razzie movies are almost too bad to be forgotten, raising questions about the notion of cinematic notoriety. What makes a movie worthy of cultural amnesia?
When we look at once-popular blockbusters that have faded from public awareness, we find a heavy concentration of children's movies.
Movies like Yogi Bear, Hannah Montana: The Movie, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked are expressly made with younger audiences in mind. Once viewed, children grow up and forget ever having seen these movies, while parents actively choose to forget these films. Not all family movies suffer this fate, as animated classics like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Finding Nemo remain wildly popular decades after their release. Nonetheless, lower-quality family films are often the most easily disregarded.
Box office grosses aren't the only marker of short-term success. Some films win over critics, raking in festival awards and ultimately positioning themselves as Oscar contenders, but still fade from the cultural zeitgeist in a matter of years. In fact, of all the films nominated for Best Picture, ~51% are reviewed online at a rate below expectation. Neither commercial nor critical success guarantees a film's legacy.
Analyzing forgotten movies presents a storytelling challenge, as it's tough to create engaging content about art that has been largely overlooked. My original intention was to examine long-forgotten Best Picture nominees from the 1970s onward, but I realized I knew very little about these films (which is sort of the point, I guess). Consequently, we'll focus on lesser-watched Best Picture nominees post-1989. Our resulting list of overlooked Oscar contenders includes a mix of awards bait and indie darlings.
Movies like Bugsy, Lincoln, War Horse, and Howard's End are historical prestige films produced by storied directors, featuring marquee performances from A-list Hollywood stars. Said differently, these movies are Oscar bait. They dazzle critics and earn nominations but do not permeate mainstream consciousness in the years following their release. It's hard to know whether these works stand on their own merit, but they receive validation in the form of Oscar nominations (so I guess that means they're good?).
Indie darlings, on the other hand, are barely seen to begin with. Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, The Kids Are All Right, and An Education are small, intimate movies that delight film theorists, Letterboxd lovers, and arthouse moviegoers. These films mount Oscar campaigns, receive some nominations, often win no awards, and then vanish from the culture.
I've always considered it essential to watch Oscar contenders in the run-up to the Academy Awards—it's strange to imagine many of these films fading into obscurity. Is my perceived sense of urgency the result of skilled marketing? Or are these movies genuinely noteworthy, and the challenge lies in remembering so many films at once?
Final Thoughts: The Arbitrary Nature of Collective Memory
Films aren't always in the process of being forgotten. Sometimes, a movie can be rediscovered, growing its cultural impact decades after its release.
Come and See is a 1985 Soviet war drama widely regarded as one of the most harrowing portrayals of war ever filmed. The movie was critically acclaimed upon initial release but faded into relative obscurity soon after its theatrical run. Over the next thirty years, Come and See went largely unseen, apart from the occasional mention by film critics and theorists.
In 2016, the Criterion Collection released the film on its streaming service Filmstruck. Cinephiles embraced this little-known classic, and the film vaulted onto IMDB's list of the top 250 films, entering the rankings at 165. In 2019, the film received a 2k restoration and a small theatrical run, pushing the movie to 142 on the IMDB list. In 2020, the Criterion Collection released Come and See on Blu-Ray, which brought the film even more attention. And then things got weird.
Come and See saw a boon in popularity during the pandemic as homebound cinephiles flocked to the film. Perhaps they were intrigued by a long-lost masterpiece, or maybe they were comforted by depictions of reality far worse than their own. Or maybe people just hyped the movie a bunch on Letterboxd. Over the next two years, Come and See would shoot up IMDB's top 250 rankings to 88, and the film currently sits second on Letterboxd's top 250. Improbably, Come and See went from a cultural footnote to required viewing.
The story of Come and See is a testament to the fickleness of cultural awareness. There are no rules or templates for being remembered or forgotten. Even if a film is disregarded, there's always an outside possibility of rediscovery.
When I was a kid, I was so excited to see Dana Carvey's children's spy comedy The Master of Disguise. I begged my parents to take me to this movie until they finally relented.
I know I saw this film and enjoyed it, but I can't tell you anything about it. I have a vague impression that I loved this moviegoing experience—that it was somewhat formative. But, alas, my memory of The Master of Disguise is wholly gone.
Perhaps longstanding recognition is overrated. Maybe momentary enjoyment is all that matters.
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