Unexpectedly Intriguing!
08 March 2010

Academy Award - Source: Michigan.gov In theory, the Academy Awards are supposed to be a celebration of the best performances and achievements made in the world of motion picture entertainment, spanning all the dramas, comedies and other film genres released in the previous year. And yet, somehow, the ceremony itself is virtually devoid of drama or entertainment.

That's a direct consequence of the Oscars pretty much following the same script, year after year. The one where:

  • The red carpet feature before the awards provides more entertainment and drama than the awards!
  • Performers known for their work in comedies or musicals host the Academy Awards, offering mildly amusing entertainment early in the show and almost none later as the show goes on. And on. And on.
  • The majority of acceptance speeches by category winners are little more than a laundry list of thank you notes.
  • The most genuinely appreciative acceptance speech is given by the winner of the Best Foreign Film category.
  • Modern dance performances by highly forgettable, faceless dancers will be prominently featured, most likely during the performances of the music for the Best Score nominees.
  • Somehow, even with the extended dance performances, the live broadcast of the show will run longer than scheduled. How *does* that keep happening year, after year, after year?...

All in all, we find the Academy Awards to be little more than a cynical exercise in manipulation, primarily aimed at jacking up ticket and DVD sales for movies that often have been rejected by audiences at the box office.

That's not surprising when you consider that Hollywood is full of extremely manipulative and cynical people, but that made us wonder just who might be the most manipulative person in Hollywood.

We found out who when we discovered a recent academic paper that reveals that there's a formula that describes the movies that Hollywood makes and that over time, movies have come to follow that formula more and more closely.

We know what you're thinking: "Well, duh! Everybody already knows that!" But what Cornell University psychologist James Cutting has found in studying over 150 high-earning movies made from 1935 to 2005 is that the formula is mathematical in nature and is specifically oriented toward matching the human attention span. Via PhysOrg:

Hollywood movies have found a mathematical formula that lets them match the effects of their shots to the attention spans of their audiences.

Psychologist Professor James Cutting and his team from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, analyzed 150 high-grossing Hollywood films released from 1935 to 2005 and discovered the shot lengths in the more recent movies followed the same mathematical pattern that describes the human attention span. The pattern was derived by scientists at the University of Texas in Austin in the 1990s who studied the attention spans of subjects performing hundreds of trials. The team then converted the measurements of their attention spans into wave forms using a mathematical technique known as the Fourier transform.

They found that the magnitude of the waves increased as their frequency decreased, a pattern known as pink noise, or 1/f fluctuation, which means that attention spans of the same lengths recurred at regular intervals....

Cutting made his discovery by measuring the length of every shot in 150 comedy, drama and action films, and then converted the measurements into waves for every movie. He found that the more recent the films were, the more likely they were to obey the 1/f fluctuation, and this did not just apply to fast action movies. Cutting said the significant thing is that shots of similar lengths recur in a regular pattern through the film....

The researchers concluded that over the next few decades film makers may take more care to follow the 1/f law to try to boost audience engagement.

By deliberately manipulating the length of shots in movies to match typical human attention spans, Hollywood movie producers are clearly substituting editing for storytelling as a means of holding its audience's attention. We can then determine who the most manipulative movie making mogul in Hollywood is then by identifying whose movies' shot lengths most closely follow the mathematical pattern that describes human attention spans. As it happens, Dr. Cutting already has, by identifying the films they made:

Cutting believes obeying the 1/f law makes films “resonate with the rhythm of human attention spans,” and this makes them more gripping. Films edited in this way would then tend to be more successful and the style of shooting and editing more likely to be copied. Films of Cutting’s own favorite genre, the Film Noir, do not generally follow the 1/f law, with shot lengths tending to be more random. By contrast The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the 2005 blockbuster movie Star Wars Episode III (which Cutting considers to be “just dreadful”) both follow 1/f rigidly.

These two films allow us to identify the most manipulative bastard in Hollywood as being quite possibly none other than George Lucas.

We can confirm that's the case thanks to a 2005 Popular Mechanics article, which identifies that the specific changes in film editing technology that makes Mr. Lucas' level of attention span manipulation possible as well as how he spread it throughout the motion picture and television industries:

When Lucas began making movies, film editing involved gluing together strips of celluloid, each of which had to be located from among the hundreds of thousands of feet shot for a production. "I would spend hours looking for a trim [piece of film], knowing it was at the bottom of the bin or a gremlin got it or something," Lucas says. "I wanted to see what I was doing and manipulate it endlessly, then make a creative decision. I was frustrated that I couldn't just deal with the ideas."

By the early 1980s--at a time when computers were barely up to the task--Lucas began pushing his ILM engineers to develop a computerized editing system. Instead of handling strips of film, Lucas wanted to be able to call up shots on the computer screen, assemble them, and then evaluate multiple versions of the scene. The result was a system Lucas called EditDroid. "The [analog] editing process was very antiquated, very cumbersome," he says. "Doing it electronically was so much easier."

Lucas loved the system, but other filmmakers were slow to embrace it. In 1993, he sold the technology to the computer software company Avid. Today, his vision of a nonlinear, computer-based editing system is employed throughout the movie and television industries, and is even found in home editing systems such as FinalCut Express.

The question remains of whether Lucas, as a film editor, naturally gravitates toward shot lengths that closely fit his own attention span, which happens to closely follow the mathematical pattern observed for humans by researchers, or perhaps does so because a mathematical formula resides where his soul used to be, which is something that is perhaps only known by Messrs. Lucas and Beelzebub. We simply note the latter explanation would account for Howard the Duck.

We'll conclude by turning the stage over to Carrie Fisher, who delivers the combination of entertainment and recognition of achievement the Oscars could never provide:

Previously on Political Calculations

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