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Movies Were Not Better When You Were A Child

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | December 8, 2010 |


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Everybody knows that everything was better when they were kids. Movies, television, breakfast cereal, it's all better when you're eight. It has absolutely nothing to do with remembering things as better than they were at the time, right? Well, thanks to a little database work and some graphs, we can test out that theory on the movies of our childhoods. As long as by childhood you mean after the eighties, because that's how far back the data goes.

The raw data here is from Box Office Mojo, and is composed of each movie in their database back to 1982, along with the genre of the film and what its average grade is among users. For ease of calculating averages, I've just converted the grades into a standard 4 point scale (where 4 is an A, 3 is a B, etc.).

The first graph we've got is the average grade of all movies in the database broken down by year. A couple things pop out. First, 2010 is ludicrously inflated, and I doubt that is because films released this year are massively better than the year before, but because movies probably accumulate most of their median reviews over a year or two period after the film leaves theaters. The early voters are most likely those who were most excited to see it, or are just rating it as an A sight unseen. Check out The Fighter, it hasn't been released yet (and will only be released in 4 theaters nationwide this weekend) yet it already has two A's for a perfect 4.0.

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The second thing we notice is that movies from the early 1980s have a slightly higher rating than those up to the last few years. But I almost find that suspicious. Those films were not rated on Box Office Mojo in real time, rather they were rated over the last decade, with ten to twenty years of nostalgia backing them. If all years had exactly the same quality movies, we would expect the early eighties to have much higher ratings than the other years simply because of the nostalgia factor. Since the early eighties are only slightly better than contemporary figures, that suggests that either nostalgia is not as strong a force as we think (and there are entire cable networks running successful businesses contrary to that assertion) or that those early eighties films we remember so fondly in general just do not hold up to the test of time when rated individually.

Also, 2002 to 2006 is just a wasteland of film in aggregate, with an average film rating of less than 1.9, which is barely good for a C-. Those are the community college years of the film industry.

But what about drilling down a bit into different genres. Take comedy for example, which one might expect to basically mirror the overall ratings since films tagged with the "comedy" tag in the database represent the single largest group overall.

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Interestingly, the trends for comedy don't exactly mirror the overall trend. We still see a slightly above average early-eighties and the contemporary spike, but we also see that the best sustained period of comedy was the 1980s, with the worst year of the decade (1988) bested only by 2 of the 17 years following the 1980s.

Horror films are a bit more interesting, with a lot more year to year variation. We see a fantastic period in the early eighties, followed by an abysmal eleven years from 1986 to 1996, in which only two years managed to get their heads above a 2.0. Horror surged back in 1997 and with a couple of low years, has managed to stay relatively higher through the last couple of years.

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Science fiction films are even more interesting, because they have some of the most extreme swings in variation (also note that all the graphs are on the same scales so that they can be compared more easily and accurately). When science fiction is good, it's really good, with higher scores than any other genres. When science fiction is bad though, it's really bad, with lows as low as the worst years in any other genres.

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So what about action movies? They tend to be the most particularly nostalgic genre, in that many people swear by the great action movies of the past and how the transformation of the entire genre into a watered down PG-13 shadow of its former glory has destroyed it. In light of that nostalgia, how do action movies fare?

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Pretty bad actually, especially compared to the other genres we've looked at. If anything, other than a couple of good years in the early eighties, it looks like a genre that meandered through mediocre quality until the late nineties when it gradually experienced an uptick. Okay, but what about R-rated action?

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The story actually looks even worse when we restrict attention to action films with an R-rated. Nostalgia factor be damned, the last fifteen years beat the first fifteen years hands down.

Last up, I thought it would be interesting to see what genres the industry has been partial to making over the few decades. So below is a bar graph that shows the percent of each year's movies that are in each of the labeled genres. This is really interesting because we see the explosion of documentaries over the last decade, while science fiction films (despite their renaissance of quality over the decade in terms of user ratings) have dwindled quite substantially compared to the proportions we saw during the eighties.

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* Note: I do not claim that these findings even remotely hold up to statistical or scientific rigor. Any attempt to hold them up to such standards will be roundly ridiculed.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.


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