Unexpectedly Intriguing!
February 23, 2009

Academy Award - Source: Michigan.govThere are few things we feel are more insufferable on Earth than watching the annual Academy Awards telecast each year, so rather than put ourselves through the ordeal, we instead ask and answer a different question related to the Oscars and the movie business each year, which we find to be a more entertaining experience. Previously, we've asked if Academy Awards wins equate to big box office returns (not necessarily) or boost the box office performance of nominated films (they do!).

This year, we wondered if the least popular Oscar-nominated films actually deliver better box office returns than the worst movies made each year. In other words, how does the perceived quality of film-making affect the amount of money a movie makes?

To find out, we compared the U.S. box office returns for the worst movies of each year, as determined by whether or not the film "won" the Golden Razzie for Worst Picture with the least popular Oscar-nominated film for each year, as measured by its U.S. box office totals. We chose this method as being the closest we could get to an apples-to-apples comparison between "high quality" and "low quality" movies, since we would hypothesize that movie-goers would be less likely to want to pay the high cost of a movie ticket to see a worse movie. The dynamic table below summarizes what we found for each year since 1980, the first year in which the "Golden Razzie" was awarded:

Box Office for Worst Movies and Least Popular Best Movies, 1980-2009

[1] Tied with Under the Cherry Moon ($10,904,429)
[2] Tied with Ghosts Can't Do It (Box Office Not Available)
[3] Data Incomplete - Still in Release

In simply comparing the box office returns for each, we found that the worst movie of each year typically performed worse at the box office than the least popular Academy Award nominated film, with the least popular "higher quality" film outdrawing the "lower quality" movie some 21 times out of a possible 29, or 72.4% of the time.

So you would think that Hollywood would have a powerful incentive to make better movies, right?

Not so fast! Things got really interesting when we ran the basic statistics for each. We've presented the mean and standard deviation for the movies we considered in the following table:

Basic Statistics for Worst Movies and Least Popular Best Movies, 1980-2009
Movie "Quality" Average Box Office Standard Deviation
"Worst" Picture of Year $28,758,069 $37,423,387
Least Popular "Best" Picture of Year $28,013,453 $15,231,718

What we find is that average of how much revenue each kind of movie generates at the box office is nearly identical. What's very different though is the measure of variance (the standard deviation) from year to year for the "higher quality" and "lower quality" movies.

Here, we see that "lower quality" movies really vary a lot in their box office totals from year to year, while "higher quality" movies are much more consistent in their box office totals. And that difference turns out to be very similar to the difference documented between how men and women perform academically!

Here, recent research shows that male students tend to have much greater variation in their academic test scores than female students, with males more likely to either score very well or very poorly than their female counterparts, even though the average for each is nearly identical. We've borrowed the following chart from Mark Perry to visualize the difference:

Equal Means, Different Variations

Where movie-making is concerned, even though the box office return statistics for the least-popular "high quality" movies indicate they provide much more consistent returns, we strongly suspect the relative cost of production of "higher quality" films is greater than that for "lower quality" films. The relative lower cost of production combined with the variation in the box office performance of bad movies actually encourages their production, since they offer the potential for a greater return with much less investment.

And that's how men are like bad movies and also why the steady stream of crappy movies from Hollywood is unlikely to change anytime soon!

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