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Want a blockbuster movie release? Time it right, says study

April 21,2017
Read time: 5 mins

Photo: Siddharth Kankaria/ Research Matters


The film industry works in binaries - movies either flop at the box office or emerge as hits, leaving almost nothing in between. But is this is a perception that we often have, or is it really true? A new study by Dr. Anindya S. Chakrabarti from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and Prof. Sitabhra Sinha from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, says this is not a perception, but a fact! The study also confirms the folk-wisdom that timing the release, rather than the content of the movie, can go a long way in helping a movie become a blockbuster.

“An important implication of our study is that the intrinsic quality (or the lack of thereof) of a movie has often very little to do with its eventual fate at the box office. In short, the reason that a few movies are ‘super-hits’ and others bomb upon release is not because of some inherent variation in their quality, but because of the specific circumstances existing at the time they are released, which supports the popular wisdom that correctly timing the opening of a movie determines its fate at the box-office,” says Prof. Sinha. The researchers arrived at this conclusion using the concepts of ‘complex systems’.

Societies comprise of millions of individuals, each with the ability to make one’s own decisions. Yet, at the end, we often see collective decisions favouring a particular choice like in the case of an election mandate. Such systems, which are dictated by multitudes of intricate factors, are known as ‘complex systems’. The global climate, human brain, societies, an ecosystem, a living cell, are all examples of such complex systems and scientists employ many mathematical and computational tools to understand and analyse them.

“Free societies comprising hundreds to millions of individuals frequently show striking coordination behavior when making decisions on common issues. Such segregation of events into two distinct classes, corresponding to success and failure, can be understood as a bimodal collective response of a system of agents to successive external shocks,” explains Prof. Sinha.

For this study, the researchers analysed the opening weekend earnings and the total earnings of about 4500 movies released in the USA over the span of 16 years (1997–2012). Based on this data, they inferred that in general, movies either make a lot of money or very little and they either get released in a large number of theatres or in a handful. They then pitched this data against a very simple model consisting of theaters that respond either negatively or positively, whenever a new movie is up for release. Theaters do so depending on the expected performance of the new movie and actual performance of the currently running movie.

The results of the research pointed out that if a movie is scheduled to be released at a time when it's expected performance is better in comparison to those which are running, then it is likely to be taken up by theatres. “Our study shows that the distribution of movies show a sharp division between the successes and the failures, although there was a smooth and continuous variation in their quality. Exactly the same movie, having the same expected gross earning per theater, will have very different reception depending on whether another successful movie managed to get released in many theaters or not, immediately prior to its release. Thus, the adage of ‘being at the right place at the right time’ has never been more valid than in the case of movie success/failure”, remarks Prof. Sinha.

But what about movies that create a hype prior to their release? “Now, when a movie arrives with a lot of hype, it will trigger a highly coordinated adoption response among the theater owners, most of whom now switch to showing this new movie. This adoption prevents another equally hyped movie that arrives just a bit later from achieving the business which it would have otherwise generated, had it been released at a different time. Using an ecological analogy, a movie with a high perceived performance invades and occupies a large number of niches until it is displaced later by a strong competitor. Thus, highly successful movies rarely coexist,” explains Prof. Sinha.

Though the study focuses on analysing film releases, the researchers are quick to point out that their findings are not limited to this. “The theory applies also to many other short life-cycle products such as music, video games, etc., where timing of release is crucial for success or becoming ‘popular’. In fact, it has been shown that for many of these categories of products, the opening revenues very often decide their eventual sales. Colloquially speaking, if they don't open big, they're dead!,” adds Prof. Sinha.

But what about the so called ‘sleeper hits’ – movies which open low but emerge as 'hits'? That's the next in Prof Sinha's and Dr. Chakrabarti's list. “The most challenging problem that we would like to tackle in the future is to come up with a model for explaining ‘sleeper hits’ that are very rare, but quite spectacular examples of emergent ‘hits’. We may need to incorporate explicit communication between agents in our model to show how this kind of phenomenon can come about,” signs off Prof. Sinha.

Hopefully, the right people in the film industry are listening!