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March 20, 2014

In “High Fidelity”, Rob Gordon asks the profound question: “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” The same chicken-and-egg logic applies to film box office performance: are films successful because we buy tickets, or do we buy tickets because films are successful?

Here’s a graph that supports the second claim – we buy more tickets when a film is successful, or in other words: success drives even more success:

Exponential Box Office Vs Rank 2002-2013

If tickets were bought based solely on each individual’s personal and isolated taste preferences – we would have expected this plot to be linear – meaning box office would increase proportionately with rank. But this plot is clearly non-linear. It looks logarithmic.

So it seems that film box office has a recursive nature, where success drives even more success in a positive feedback mechanism: the difference between rank 50 and 60 is much bigger than the difference between 60 and 70. I call it “The Rob Gordon Effect” (ironic, because this character was kind of a loser).

There are many possible explanations, but I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we do make decisions based on news of success or failure: a breakout box office phenomenon is an “event” we all want to be part of. Nobody wants to be one of those people who haven’t seen Avatar, and no one wants to be mocked at the office for being the only person who was so out of touch to actually pay to see Johnny Depp’s “Lone Ranger”. Everyone wants to be associated with the winners, making it very hard for perceived underdogs to triumph. It’s not very romantic, but it’s true.


Ok, that was part 1. From here on, it’s all unnecessary brain drilling.

So far, we’ve established what could have been a perfectly adequate blog post all on its own. But if you are a truly brave nerd, here is a slightly more complex elaboration:

The above plot is actually not perfectly logarithmic. Upon closer inspection, we see that the log curve really starts only around rank 300. I know what you’re thinking – this can be a tricky observation, as the damping of the curve may be mistaken for linearity. Therefore, here are the four normalized segments of the curves: ranks 1-300; ranks 301-600; ranks 601-900; and ranks 901-1,131, with the box office grosses normalized on a range of 0-100, so that we can objectively compare the curvature:

1. For real blockbusters (over $120MM domestic gross), the recursive effect is strong, meaning blockbusters get a disproportionate extra boost in the box office by climbing up the ranks:

Box Office Vs Rank 2002-2013: ranks 1-300

2. “Almost-blockbusters” ($70MM-$120MM domestic grosses) are less affected by this recursive effect: they are much less logarithmically organized, but not perfectly linear either:

Box Office Vs Rank 2002-2013: ranks 301-600

3. And finally, smaller movies (ranks 601-900 and 901-1,131; less than $70MM domestic grosses) are almost perfectly linear:

Box Office Vs Rank 2002-2013: ranks 601-900

Box Office Vs Rank 2002-2013: ranks 901-1131

The conclusion:

The conclusion of all this is that the “Rob Gordon Effect” really kicks in only for mega blockbusters (over $120MM domestic gross): they are disproportionately boosted by news of their relative success. But smaller films are in fact NOT affected by such news (especially under $70MM domestic gross). Therefore – there is a threshold above which a movie gets turbo-charged by its own success. The practical takeaway for studio execs is: if your movie has a chance of breaking that threshold ($120MM as of March 2014) – you should give it that extra marketing push. It will pay off.

* Raw B.O. data from (1,131 films total).

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