Do Critics’ Opinions Matter More For Original Films than Sequels?

Last week, I looked at the idea that movie audiences are getting dumber. By looking at the highest grossing movies from each of the past 43 years, I showed that these films were largely just as well received by critics today as four decades ago.

One of the things that struck me about the list was that a lot of the movies that did well in the box office, despite poor reviews from the critics, were sequels. From Moonraker to Die Hard 3 to The Phantom Menace to the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, critics did not seem to have as much of an influence on films where the viewer already had an idea of what to expect from a previous installment.

I decided to put this theory to the test in a more rigorous manner. To do this I sought out the films with the biggest budgets, thus attempting to nullify the impact of marketing. From that I took the 20 biggest-budget original movies and the 20 biggest-budget franchise films (that includes sequels, prequels, reboots and spin-offs, so films like The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man are included in this list).

I then found out the worldwide earnings for each of these movies as well as their score on metacritic. These have been plotted on two separate scatter graphs (click to see a bigger view):



So what do these graphs show? Well, the first graph seems to follow some kind of vague pattern and the second one just seems like a big mess, about which few conclusions can be made. However in statistics “a big mess” is something really quite important.

To try and understand these graphs better we need to use some mathematics in the form of the correlation coefficient. (Please stay with me.) This ranges from -1 to 1, where -1 is a strong, negative correlation (as one variable increases, the other decreases) and 1 is a strong positive correlation (as one variable increases so does the other). 0 means there is no relationship between the two variables (something so rare in statistics to find it is very remarkable)

The correlation coefficient of the graph for original films is calculated as 0.49. This makes it a “weak, positive” correlation. So if we had to guess which film would do better between a well-reviewed original film, and a badly reviewed original film we’d opt for the well-reviewed film. However, as you can hopefully see from the graph, we’d not always be right.

The correlation coefficient of the graph for franchise films is calculated as 0.13. This is an incredibly weak positive correlation, to the point where it’s more accurate to say there’s really no correlation at all. Therefore the much more conclusive statement we can make based on this result is that how well a franchise film is reviewed has little impact on its box office takings. (Big Mess = Important)

Looking at these too results together it is important not to read too much into them. All I have shown is that’s there more of a relationship between critics and box office takings for original films than for franchise films. However, the relationship there is for original films is a weak one.

If this all sounds a little vague and airy-fairy, then that is something I am not going to apologise for. At the very heart of statistics lies the notion that we can draw conclusions from just about every statistical result, but it is important to note that sometimes that conclusion will be that the result was inconclusive.


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