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Puncturing Hollywood conventional wisdom

A movie star’s popularity boosts opening-weekend ticket sales, but the actor’s artistic merit is just as important for box office receipts over a film’s theatrical run, finds new study.

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A movie star’s popularity boosts ticket sales on opening weekend, but the actor’s artistic merit is just as important for box office receipts over a film’s extended theatrical run, says a new study by academics in the UK, Australia and Canada.

“The influence of artistically recognised stars remains steady” throughout a film’s time in theatres, while the effect of popularity quickly wanes after a movie opens. This results in a “similar” impact overall, and a rejection of the assumption that popularity holds the upper hand, says the study just published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.

The study – which bases “popularity” on previous box office revenue and on media and conversational appeal, and “artistic merit” on award nominations and wins – bursts some of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom.

Dr Allègre Hadida

Dr Allègre Hadida

“For movie studios, the study calls into question the ‘bankability’ of popular stars and casting decisions based on ‘Q scores’ – surveys of a celebrity’s familiarity and appeal – as we find that the box office impact of a star’s popularity, in contrast to the impact of their artistic merit, fades quickly after the opening weekend,” says study co-author Dr Allègre Hadida, University Senior Lecturer in Strategy at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School.

And while everyone may be a critic in the Internet era, the study also strongly refutes assumptions that user reviews through rating websites and social media are growing more powerful than reviews by professional critics.

“There has been a lot of speculation about the relative power of users and film critics since the Internet allowed anyone to post film reviews online,” says Hadida. “However, the popular sense that users’ reviews are gaining more influence over box office performance relative to professional critics’ reviews had not been tested empirically.

“By comparing the effects of product reviews from different sources and with distinct metrics, we issue a strong rebuttal of the assumption that other consumers have increasingly more clout than critics. Consumers do not display stronger effects than critics, and this result remains stable over the years.”

The research identifies a dual role for critics as influencers and predictors, as critics directly impact moviegoers’ initial decision whether to attend a movie, while also reflecting moviegoers’ longer-term preferences and the intensity of word-of-mouth impact throughout a film’s theatrical run.

The research also finds that the volume of reviews by professional critics, not only whether reviews or positive, has strong links with both short- and long-term box office success.

“Thus, studios should aim to have their movies reviewed by as many critics as possible,” the study says. “They can also rely systematically on the number of reviews to forecast their theatrical success.”

The study is based on a meta-analysis of 634 “effect sizes” (measuring differences between groups) identified in more than 150 published and unpublished studies relating to the impact of movie stars and critics on cinema box office receipts over the past four decades. Global box office revenues are expected to approach $46 billion in 2018.

The research advances ongoing discussions and resolves some persistent misconceptions about two prominent drivers of motion picture performance: star brand equity and product reviews. It also “provides a first comprehensive test of the conventional wisdom that the impact of users’ reviews looms larger than that of critics”.

The study – entitled “Debates and assumptions about motion picture performance: a meta-analysis” – is co-authored by Dr Francois Carrillat of the University of Technology Sydney, Dr Renaud Legoux of HEC Montreal, and Dr Allègre Hadida of Cambridge Judge Business School.

While screenwriter and author William Goldman famously said in 1983 that “Nobody knows anything” in Hollywood about a movie’s eventual success or failure, the study applies academic discipline to common suppositions about the film business.

“By harnessing the collective power of extant empirical literature,” the study concludes, “we seek to provide a more cohesive view of the field, while also preventing unsettled debates and dogmatic assumptions from taking hold in either research or managerial circles.”