Chapter 1: Prologue: Scientist
as Cinema Connoisseur?
The chapter begins by narrating
the emergence of cinema as both an art and as a business. This narration
leads to the fundamental question that drives this book: What makes a film
great? How do we even judge the greatness of any film? Discussion then
turns to the book’s approach to answering this question. The answer will
rely on scientific rather than humanistic studies. After briefly delineating
how the former differs from the latter, the chapter closes by presenting
the major issues that will be treated in subsequent chapters.
Chapter 2: Oscars, Golden Globes, BAFTAs,
and Critics: Consensus or Dissension?
Often movies awards are used as
indicators of cinematic greatness, both overall and with respect to such
achievements as writing, directing, acting, cinematography, and music.
Of all such honors, the Oscars bestowed by the Academy of Motion Picture
Arts and Sciences are often deemed the most indicative of artistic merit.
Even so, other organizations present alternative awards, including awards
given out by film critics. Do these various awards agree or disagree? This
question was addressed in a series of empirical studies that examined the
honors given out by seven major organizations in 17 categories of cinematic
achievement. Not only was there substantial agreement between the Oscars
and alternative honors, but the Oscars most often provided the best index
of the overall consensus on cinematic merit. Surprisingly, the Oscars corresponded
more closely to critical acclaim than did the awards bestowed by film critic
organizations, such as the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. Despite
this broad validation of movie awards in general and Oscars in specific,
research requires that we impose some qualifications. Besides random errors
of judgment committed by all organizations, there also intrude systematic
judgmental errors, as evidenced by vote clustering and past history effects.
An instance of the latter would be “sympathy votes” received by a repeated
nominee who has not yet received the award. These errors notwithstanding,
movie honors still provide sound measures of cinematic greatness, especially
when the awards and nominations are aggregated from multiple organizations
rather than confined to just one.
Chapter 3: Story, Sights, Tricks, and Song:
What Really Counts?
Although movie awards provide
solid indicators of cinematic achievement, such honors tend to be given
in a very large number of categories. The 17 most common categories are
picture, directing, screenplay, male lead, female lead, male supporting,
female supporting, film editing, cinematography, art direction, costume
design, makeup, visual effects, sound effects editing, sound mixing, score,
and song. Given that the best picture awards may encompass several of the
other honors, it is best to exclude that category from the list, leaving
16 major types of recognition. Using awards and nominations from seven
major organizations, including Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTAs, an analysis
revealed that these awards form four creative clusters: (a) the dramatic,
consisting of directing, screenplay, acting (male and female leads and
supporting), and film editing; (b) the visual, defined by cinematography,
art direction (and set decoration), costume design, and makeup; (c) the
technical, which encompasses visual effects, sound effects editing, and
sound mixing; and (d) the musical, namely score and song. Of these four
clusters, the dramatic proves far more crucial in predicting a film’s greatness,
whether measured by best-picture honors or critical acclaim. The other
clusters have more modest and largely inconsistent value as predictors.
The chapter closes with a discussion of collaborative creativity, with
special focus on the core crew, that is, the producer, director, scriptwriter,
film editor, cinematographer, production designer, and composer. Certain
characteristics of these collaborative relationships have significant repercussions
for the quality of the final cinematic product.
Chapter 4: Rave Reviews, Movie Awards, and
Box Office Bucks: Which Doesn’t Belong?
What is the relation between film
as art and film as business? This question is first addressed by reporting
the results of a preliminary inquiry. These findings are then extended
by reviewing other relevant investigations. These investigations examine
the relations among production budget, box office performance, critical
acclaim, and movie awards. This review includes a treatment of movie stars,
especially whether they reduce the financial risk. Collectively, these
various empirical studies show how blockbuster movies can be readily distinguished
from films that receive critical acclaim and movie awards. This separation
leads to a discussion of why box office success has such a minimal correspondence
with artistic merit. In particular, box office earnings largely involve
non-artistic factors that come into play during distribution, promotion,
and exhibition. Examples include the impact of major distributors, seasonal
markets, wide release, current competition, and word of mouth (or click
of mouse). Like fun-house mirrors, these extraneous factors distort earnings
so that they do not closely reflect actual cinematic achievements. Film
as business is thus far more capricious than film as art.
Chapter 5: The Script: Does the Narrative’s
Although screenwriters are much
less conspicuous than movie stars or even film directors, the script plays
a crucial role in the making of a powerful cinematic experience. Consumers
concur that great movies tell treat stories. But what characteristics of
the screenplay provide the best predictors of greatness? The answer to
this question is sought in the following script attributes: the genre,
the runtime, MPAA ratings, sex and violence, sequels and remakes, true
stories and biopics, and various kinds of adaptations. Because we learned
in the previous chapter that film as art must be separated from film as
business, these script characteristics were examined with respect to financial
performance, movie awards, and critical evaluations. Not surprisingly,
the attributes that predict awards and acclaim are not the same as those
that predict box office success, and sometimes the predictors point to
the opposite directions. One of the interesting exceptions is graphic sexual
content, which neither sells tickets nor impresses critics. In any case,
because all of the script characteristics represent obvious features, discussion
turns to the possibility of using content analysis to tease out the more
subtle attributes of great screenplays. These content analyses may be applied
either to the original scripts or, in the case of adaptations, to the novels,
plays, and stories on which the script is based. Although the results reported
so far are very promising, the findings are also very preliminary. The
chapter then switches gears by looking at the creators who actually write
the film scripts.
Chapter 6: The Auteur: Are Directors Experts
According to “auteur theory,”
certain filmmakers – most often directors – can be viewed as artistic creators
in the same vein as notable creators in literature, music, and the visual
arts. This viewpoint is juxtaposed to the contrary notion that directors
are technicians who apply their accumulated expertise to each successive
film. These rival points of view have contrary predictions regarding expected
career trajectories. On the one hand, directors as artists should work
up to a peak when they produce their greatest masterpieces and then show
a gradual decline. On the other hand, directors as experts should just
get better and better – albeit with some leveling off – so that their best
work emerges toward the end of their careers. These contrasting expectations
are examined using data from film polls, movie awards, and critical evaluations.
The data clearly display a mid-career peak. However, because directors
do not all peak at identical ages, we have to consider the possibility
that there are systematic differences between those who peak early and
those who peak late. The former may represent what has been called conceptual
directors, the latter experimental directors. Using a theoretical model
of creative productivity, I suggest that conceptual directors may be more
like poets, the experimental directors more like novelists.
Chapter 7: The Stars: Sexism in Cinema?
Actors represent the most conspicuous
contributors to cinematic impact. After all, their contributions are right
in front of the camera, and most often in the foreground. Yet in studying
their relation to a film’s success, it is essential to distinguish gender.
Female actors have a very different status in film art and business than
do male actors. This distinction is demonstrated by looking at differences
in income, careers, characters, and kudos. Not only do female stars earn
much less than their male counterparts, but they have much shorter careers
in the limelight. Although part of this gender contrast might be attributed
to differences in background and training, other factors are probably operating
as well, including strong sexist biases. This inference is reinforced by
the stark differences in the characters portrayed, especially as the performers
advance in age. The conclusion is also endorsed by gender contrasts in
both critical acclaim and movie awards. Particularly striking is the “Meryl
Streep Effect” in which outstanding acting performances by women are far
more likely to be ghettoized in less than top-notch films. In contrast,
men are more prone to have their exceptional performances showcased in
films that are considered serious contenders for best-picture awards. The
chapter closes by asking whether these diverse biases are really on the
Chapter 8: Music: Is Silence Golden?
Films often contain some truly
memorable music, whether a wonderful score or a phenomenal song. But is
great music most likely to be heard in great films? The chapter begins
by reviewing the arguments both positive and negative, based on past research.
Although laboratory experiments imply that great music might be positively
associated with great films, empirical studies that scrutinize the relation
more directly find quite the contrary. To settle this matter, two follow-up
investigations were conducted. The first study focused on films, assessing
how awards for best score and song are associated with other criteria of
cinematic greatness. For the most part, awards in either music category
appear irrelevant. The only important exception is that best score honors
bear some connection with other movie awards. The second study turned to
film composers. Here the goal was to see how the composers’ career trajectory
corresponds with the quality of the films in which their music appears.
When the composer is at his or her peak, will the score or song be found
in a great film? The answer is negative: The music’s quality again fluctuates
independently of the film’s quality. In fact, when the career trajectories
are carefully analyzed, they seem strikingly similar to those of classical
composers. The creativity of a film composer is not congruent with the
creativity of the others involved in making the film. In a nutshell, film
composers do not appear to be “hired guns.”
Chapter 9: Razzies: So Bad It’s Good?
Some films have become well known
precisely because they are so bad. As a result, these terrible turkeys
are still watched even though many better but mediocre movies have passed
into oblivion. To “dishonor” these bombs, the Golden Raspberries or “Razzies”
have emerged as counterparts to the Oscars or Golden Globes. Instead of
awards for the “best,” the Razzies are awards for the “worst.” This phenomenon
then raises four big questions. First, are bad films the inverse of good
films? Second, are bad films as bad as good films are good? Third, are
bad films as cohesively bad as good films are cohesively good? Fourth,
are bad films’ pluses/minuses good films’ minuses/pluses? These questions
are addressed by comparing films that have received either Oscars or Razzies
in the categories of picture, directing, acting (lead/supporting and male/female),
screenplay, and song. The analyses show that bombs are pretty much an inverse
image of masterpieces. Whatever quality predicts a great cinematic experience
when present (or absent) predicts a miserable cinematic experience when
absent (or present). For instance, good and bad films differ in budget
(small versus big), genre (drama versus comedy), screenplay (adaptation
versus original), connection with prior films (none versus sequel or remake),
runtime (long versus short), release season (winter versus summer), distribution
(art-house versus wide release), first-weekend earnings (low versus high),
and final box office (high versus low). What remains to be determined is
why some films are so bad that they become good – a pure “camp.”
Chapter 10: Epilogue: The Science of Cinema
The book’s final chapter begins
with a recap of what we have learned about what makes a great flick, whether
judged in terms of critical acclaim, movie awards, or box office success.
Discussion then shifts to what we still have to learn. Our ignorance is
certainly as great as our knowledge. Therefore, the book closes with a
wish list of what needs to be carried out in future scientific studies.
In time, we will know more about cinematic creativity and aesthetics.