This Is The Best Way To Tell If A Movie Will Become A Classic

Actor Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine character from the Star Wars series. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

How a movie becomes a classic has little to do with the academy awards or with box office takings, according to research published in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

The best predictor of a movie’s significance, according to a study at Northwestern University in the US, is how often a movie is referenced by other movies.

A movie’s place in history is decided by today’s and tomorrow’s film directors and not by the critics.

“Movie critics can be overconfident in spotting important works, and they have bias,” said physicist Luis Amaral, the leader of the study and co-director the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems. “Our method is as objective as it gets.”

Amaral also is a professor of chemical and biological engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

He and his colleagues are the first to systematically compare different approaches for estimating a film’s significance.

They considered metrics for measures both subjective (critical reviews, awards, public opinion) and objective (citations, box office sales).

The researchers found their automated method of movie citations is better at predicting greatness, especially in movies 25 years old or older, than the expertise of critics or the numbers of awards won or the amount of box office sales.

The research team conducted a big data study of 15,425 films listed in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).

They looked to see how well an approach predicted a movie’s inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, which in the US is like being added the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The researchers found the number of times a movie 25 years or older is referenced by other movies best predicts inclusion in this registry of American films deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.

Films with the most citations by other movies which also are in the National Film Registry are The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Psycho, Casablanca and Gone With the Wind.

“Directors keep coming back to movies that are significant,” Amaral said. “If you show a little bit from Pscyho, such as referencing the shower scene, you are putting that whole movie in front of the viewer of the new movie.”

Amaral enjoys movies but what he really wants to do is develop a way of identifying the most significant scientific papers.

“More than 1 million scientific papers are published each year worldwide,” Amaral said. “It can be difficult to distinguish a good scientific paper from an average one, much like the movies. My next goal is to develop a good measure of scientific citations to get inside what is going on in the scientific literature.”

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