When James Cameron set out to make The Terminator, he analyzed common traits of the 10 most successful movies of all time. Putting an average person (Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conner) in more-than-average jeopardy (a Schwarzenegger-shaped killing machine in hot pursuit) was among the key elements. Aspiring screenwriters of the future, however, may have far less research to conduct if they want to find a winning formula.
The University of Birmingham’s Professor Ganna Pogrebna and her team of researchers recently combed through thousands of screenplays to find the emotional arc that’s most successful. The jackpot archetype proved to be what the team has labeled “Man in a Hole,” a style of filmmaking best exemplified by The Godfather.
On the one hand, surprise: a top-three most beloved film of all time may be something to emulate! On the other hand, though, the study ingeniously pinpoints six classic emotional arcs that would make The Hero’s Journey architect Joseph Campbell proud, and explains how this particular one succeeds.
By analyzing 6,147 film scripts, the scientists concluded that the six main emotional arcs are as follows: Rags to Riches, films like The Shawshank Redemption, which feature a continuous emotional rise; Riches to Rags: films like Psycho, which feature just the opposite; Man in a Hole, films like The Godfather, where (spoiler alert for The Godfather!) a fall is followed by a rise; Icarus, films like Mary Poppins, where a rise is followed by a fall; Cinderella, films like Rushmore, where the arc is more of a troubled heart monitor (“rise-fall-rise”; and finally, Oedipus, films like As Good As It Gets, which feature a reverse-Cinderella (“fall-rise-fall.)
The researchers broke down each script, sentence by sentence, and calculated the sentimental value of each one from -1 (emotionally negative) to 1 (emotionally positive). By matching each sentence to the film’s timing, they created an “emotional profile” for each film, which looks like a bell curve or a roller coaster depending on the film. Ultimately, the most financially successful films turned out to be Man in a Hole movies, which apparently cost an average of $40.5m to make, and earn $54.9m domestically.
The Man in a Hole arc is not unlike a Pixies song’s happy-sad-happy trajectory. Other notable films in the Arc range include The Departed and Blade Runner, although the resemblance between the three doesn’t automatically track. Neither possesses on surface the same Chumbawamba-like trajectory of falling down and getting back up again that the Corleone family does. (Pretty much everybody in The Departed dies.) Hopefully, this study will inspire more films in the mold of The Godfather, rather than ones about gangsters ratting out on each other that end with the image of a literal rat.
[via Daily Mail]