Have you ever made your way to a movie theater, sat in the big spongy seat, tucked into your popcorn and then been met with an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu while watching the latest cinematic blockbuster up there in front of you? It’s set in a different location to the film you watched last week. The actors are definitely not the same. Nor, for that matter, is the storyline. But there’s something about this one that reminds you of just about every other successful film you’ve seen recently. What can it be?
That Hollywood tends to re-use successful plot-lines is without doubt – just look at “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” or “Entrapment” and the “Thomas Crown Affair” or “The Blair Witch Project” and “Last Broadcast” or “Groundhog Day” and “12:01” or for that matter virtually any blockbuster followed shortly by a made-for-TV clone. And recycling familiar formats like the “unlikely buddy” movie (48 Hours; I Love You, Man or even Toy Story) or the “one man can make a difference” movie (Die Hard; Schindler’s List or Taken) or the “fight for survival” movie (Jurassic Park; Day After Tomorrow or 28 Weeks Later) is well documented.
But is there something less obvious going on? Something that manages to keep us engaged, keeps our attention focused on the story unfolding in front of us and so makes the movie an almost guaranteed success for those who have invested time and money into it? In the name of purely scientific investigation of course, Professor James Cutting and his team from Cornell University sat down and watched 150 top grossing action, adventure, animation, comedy and drama films made between 1935 to 2005 and found that certain aspects of the more recent films were mathematically identical.
The newer films followed a formula derived in the 1990s when concentration levels and attention spans of volunteers were measured as they performed hundreds of tasks. Using some mathematical trickery known as a Fourier transform, the wave patterns created from the data were found to follow a pattern. Cutting’s research found that films which “resonate with the rhythm of human attention spans” or are scripted and edited so that shots and scenes closely correspond with our ability to focus our attention tend to be the most successful and those that don’t remain niche or cult films or, in some cases, completely flop.
The research showed that film-noir classics like 1945’s “Detour” or the 1955 comedy “Mister Roberts” or the 1960 drama “Peeping Tom” were more random and varied in their approach to shot structure than the more recent box-office smashes such as 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” and Peter Jackson’s “King Kong“, which tended to stick more closely to the mathematical formula.
Whether this shows that Hollywood is guilty of cleverly manipulating film-goers with the use of clinically edited, mathematically scripted cinema offerings or that film-makers are merely utilizing successful and engaging techniques picked up over the years, is of course open to debate. Personally I favor the latter.