Thursday, March 25, 2010

When Science Trumps Art

What to Blame When Bad Blockbusters Dominate the Box Office
By Nick Wassenberg

Despite prominent ridicule of Michael Bay's predilection for prioritizing gratuitous explosions over plot, 2009's Transformers sequel Revenge of the Fallen held top spots the box office charts for nearly two months before other high-profile films (Harry Potter 6, followed by District 9) stole the limelight -- no small feat considering the across-the-board panning it received from both esteemed reviewers and die-hard Transformers fans alike. Some argue that on-screen combustion and extensive action scenes cater to our generation of movie-goers which, when combined with the American public's fondness for escape via entertainment, contributed to the film's profits.

Professor James Cutting of Cornell University believes blockbuster success is due, in part, to manipulation of the audience's attention span.

Utilizing a process called the 'Fourier transform', people like James Cutting are able to apply a mathematical pattern of waves (representing the lengths of shots in a movie) known as 1/f fluctuation, to the behavior of a consumer's attention span. When overlaid, the two plots illustrate a significant effect made by the timing of cuts in accordance the audience's fluttering attention span. "...the more recent the blockbuster,
the more closely the length of its shots followed that
same fluctuation."

In the diagram above, Cutting compares the editorial timing of three movies from vastly separate eras. 2005's King Kong, though delivering less than was hyped, largely adheres to the 1/f pattern, whereas 1945's Detour, held in high regard, shares little resemblance. Yet despite its shortcomings, King Kong profited as admirably as Detour. The remarkable thing about this pairing is that King Kong tips the scales at over three hours long -- quite the oddity in a society driven by instant gratification and multitasking -- but succeeded in captivating its audience by following the 1/f formula. To contrast, the audiences flocking to Detour hadn't suffered from the same attention deficiency, allowing the film to flourish on its own merits.

Cutting doesn’t believe that this increasing conformity to the 1/f fluctuation resulted from a conscious decision on the part of the directors. Rather, he theorizes that films which fall into people’s viewing sweet spot better hold their attention, and thus seem more gripping, and make more money. Then the other directors naturally copy the pace of the more exciting, more profitable movies, and the 1/f fluctuation trend spreads.”

Not even industry-revolutionizing productions are exempt from using the Fourier transform method to engage their audiences. James Cameron's Avatar, weak in plot but employing myriad visual tricks and treats, is now the highest-grossing film of all time, not accounting for inflation. George Lucas' Revenge of the Sith, though victim of Lucas' diminishing popularity and riddled with continuity errors, also placed highly at the box office. While these two examples are deserving of their box office recognition (the former ushering in a new age of film-making and the latter delivering the final chapter of a hugely successful and cultural franchise), the relative success of the Transformers sequel could have the 1/f formula to thank for its domestic accomplishment, as might an alarming number of big-budget films from the past decade.

So while film students everywhere strive to instill innovative and artistic value into their productions, they'd do well to introduce another factor into their work: the Fourier method of ensnaring the masses.

James Cutting's full text can be found here.

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