Predicting the Movies That Will Stand the Test of Time

Posted January 19th, 2015 at 8:01 pm (UTC-4)

Poster for the Wizard of Oz (Public Domain via Wikimedia commons)

Poster for the Wizard of Oz (Wikimedia commons)

Nominations for the 2015 Academy Awards were announced last week.  And while they may be among the best movies of the year, how many do you think will survive the test of time to become all-time classics.

Many movie goers would expect such factors such as a film’s box-office revenue, awards, and critical acclaims to be most significant.

But, researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois came up with a new way to accurately predict true classic and significant movies from others.  Reporting their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the researchers noted the frequency a particular film is referenced in other works — such as other movies or TV programs – is key.

“Movie critics can be overconfident in spotting important works, and they have bias,” said Luís Amaral, the leader of the study in a Northwestern press-release. “Our method is as objective as it gets.”  Amaral is a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern and is co-director the university’s Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems.

In their study, Amaral and his colleagues sifted through the on-line Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and reviewed the entries of some 15,425 movies that were produced in the United States.

Film poster for Gone with the Wind (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Poster for Gone with the Wind (Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers developed an automated method that thoroughly analyzed various subjective factors contained within the entries such as reviews from critics or if it had garnered any notable awards – Golden Globe and Academy Awards – as well as objective factors such as box office receipts and how often the film was cited in the future.

The Northwestern researchers found that their method of tallying how many times a movie was cited in other works was better at forecasting classic movies — especially those at least 25 years old –than other factors such a critical praise, awards and even box office receipts.

“There is something about a movie that is hidden to us, but there are measurable things, such as critic ratings, awards and referencing by other filmmakers, that hint at this hidden element — a movie’s significance,” said Amaral. “We find that ultimately it is the creators, the filmmakers themselves, who will determine which movies are important, not the expert critics.”

Original 1942 theatrical release poster for the film Casablanca  (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Original 1942 theatrical release poster for Casablanca (Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers also found that the number of times a particular movie is referenced in other works can also predict its likelihood of being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ enough to be included in the prestigious U.S. National Film Registry.

The movies that had the most references over a period of many years and are also listed in the National Film Registry are “The Wizard of Oz,” “Star Wars,” “Psycho,” “Casablanca” and “Gone With the Wind.”

“Directors keep coming back to movies that are significant,” Amaral said. “If you show a little bit from ‘Pscyho,’ such as referencing the shower scene, you are putting that whole movie in front of the viewer of the new movie.”

The Northwestern research team is planning to use its newly developed automated analysis method to determine the true importance of various scientific papers, paintings and music.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

3 responses to “Predicting the Movies That Will Stand the Test of Time”

  1. Eamon says:

    Could you please link to the paper (rather than just to Thanks.