Great flicks: Scientific studies of cinematic creativity and aesthetics

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 Nature Matter?

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 or Artists?

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 decline.

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.

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