Knowledge Through Visualization

The human mind can recognize patterns that remain invisible to even the most powerful computers. But we're stuck with some nasty limitations. We can only see relatively small amount of "raw" data at a given moment. That's where visualization comes in. By laying out data visually, we encode data into additional channels. When we look at a visualization, we see dramatically more information than when we look at a page full of numbers. And we can see new patterns.

Take, for example, the graph above. (Or better yet, take a look at the large version in its native home, VerySmallArray.com.) What do you see?

First, I see confirmation of some things I've suspected for a while.

Dramas don't pay, but we still recognize them as art.

From 1926 to 2010, with only a few brief exceptions, drama has accounted for a consistently decreasing percentage of the top ten highest-grossing films. By 2008 it seems to account for almost none. Yet drama films receive a surprisingly consistent number of Academy Award nominations throughout the last century.

What does this mean? It could indicate a deepening separation between the Academy and the theater-going public. Or maybe as movie studios amass more data to predict what the public wants, they're able to spend their money wisely, targeting large-budget flicks to mass audiences and still courting the Academy with drama.

What can the data hide? It's important to keep in mind that the top half of the graph represents the percentage of films in the top ten grossing, not the cash itself. Thus it's possible for 50 additional drama films to fall outside the top ten in the 2008 to 2010 range, account for as much or more cash, and still not show up at all on this graph.

Science fiction and fantasy are big earners in the last decade.

Starting in the early '70s, science fiction begins to gain ground in the top ten grossing category. And though it's on a short decline since 2001, fantasy has taken off to fill and exceed any gap from the loss. Consider that sci-fi accounts for only a sliver for the first 50 years of the graph and fantasy doesn't even seem to exist graphically until 1951. Finally, while the sci-fi/fantasy genres finally seem to receive a few Academy nominations starting in the '90s, they still (surprise!) receive the shaft award-wise.

What does this mean? It could indicate that sci-fi and fantasy are going mainstream and tapping large audiences -- or at least audiences with deep pockets. It's also interesting that while sci-fi's expansive crux seems to fall around 1971, fantasy's seems to lie around 2001 -- not surprisingly with the Lord of the Rings trilogy's start.

What can the data hide? While these films might draw high gross cash, they aren't necessarily the most "popular" films. It might be interesting to compare, say, Google search hits on the film's names or other "buzz" indicators to see how they really rank. Just because we pay to see a movie doesn't mean it's our favorite. Witness Avatar, which some of us love and lots hate.

Pixar is a serious cash factor.

Children's movies have garnered an almost linearly-increasing percentage of the top ten grossing flicks since 1981, and in the graph's latest time increment they represent one of the largest categories.

What does this mean? The growth of kid's movies (at least in the top ten grossing) coincides almost exactly with the beginnings of home video, and the most steady growth occurs around the time that sellthrough VHS tapes became available. Could this entrenchment in the home account for our need to see these movies in the theater?

What can the data hide? Note that the graph assigns movie genres based on "the first genre listed for each movie at allmovie.com." So an action children's flick is an action movie, but a children's drama is classified as "children's." It might be worth spot-checking a few of these.

Have fun.

Seriously, this graph continues to fascinate me the more I look at it. If you've got a few minutes, take a look at some of VerySmallArray's other visualizations, including this one graphing movie budgets over time. It's an awesome (and stimulating!) time suck.

Goodbye to Drama [VerySmallArray]
Commodities [VerySmallArray]
Years in Film [Wikipedia]

4 Responses to "Knowledge Through Visualization"
  1. Gafra says:

    I like your take on the Pixar Effect, but to take it a step further, there is no shortage of adults, myself included, who are not ashamed to admit they readily pony up their hard earned to see what is marketed as a kids movie.

    -the stories are good
    -the visuals are stunning
    -overall…it’s great escapism.

  2. Shooter says:

    Even though the graph only depicts the top 10 grossing movies per year, it would be interesting to overlay this information with the total amount of Academy Awards given each year as well as the total number of movies produced in a year. Also the total gross box office receipts for the top ten movies plus over gross box office receipts. I’ll bet you if your definition of success is box office receipts, the scifi and fantasy genres would be competing for the top slot from year to year.

  3. Gryper says:

    The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ members are composed of men and women working in movies. Actors, directors, producers, studio executives, etc. That is why drama get the most awards. The Academy Awards is just them patting themselves and each other on the back. Only standouts in Sci-Fi/Fantasy (like LOTR) that have an incredible theatrical run or amazing effects get any attention. I don’t pay any attention to the Oscars anymore….it’s a trap…er sham!

  4. photonutz says:

    I have to disagree Gryper. The Academy awards what is great on artistic merit most of the time. When say Annie Hall beat Star Wars for Best Picture in 1978, it deserved to. While I love Star Wars, no one can make me say that just because Star Wars made some 430 million more in it’s initial run it is better than Annie Hall. To me the only real snub for the Best Picture Award was that 2001 : A Space Odyssey was not even nominated in 1968. The Award went to Oliver!

    Your comment to me is typical of the sci-fi community as far as awards go. If you want a movie to get the award then it really has to get to the level of say 2001. IMHO, while there have been many great movies in the genre released since 2001, not a single one of them really deserve to be nominated for that Oscar. Most are summer movie popcorn affairs, not really the deeply enthralling or strongly crafted works that do get the nominations and win the awards.

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