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Newer Movies Are Less Creative

The most creative time in film history was probably the 1960's

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Everybody loves to complain about how things “these days” are worse. Movies, music, relationships, jobs—they all seems to have gone downhill since whenever you were in your prime. But according to a recent study published in Nature Scientific Reports, at least one “in my day” complaint might be valid: movies these days are less creative than they used to be.

The researchers here went through the movie database site IMDB and analyzed the plot keywords that users put in for various movies. They were interested in measuring how similar these plot keywords were to other movies over time. Wired‘s Adam Mann explains:

Each keyword was given a score based on its rarity when compared to previous work. If some particular plot point – like, say, beautiful-woman – had appeared in many movies that preceded a particular film, it was given a low novelty value. But a new element – perhaps martial-arts, which appeared infrequently in films before the ’60s – was given a high novelty score when it first showed up. The scores ranged from zero to one, with the least novel being zero. Lining up the scores chronologically showed the evolution of film culture and plots over time.

What they found was that the most creative time in film history was probably the 1960s, right after the huge studios crumbled. The ’60s were a time of the American New Wave films—think Bonnie and Clyde—and a new breed of action movie, when James Bond showed up on the silver screen in 1962.

Of course, novelty doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales. The researchers looked at how the novelty score corresponded with box-office revenue, and found that while people liked new things up to a point (about 0.8 on the novelty ranking), after that, revenue dropped.

It’s worth pointing out that IMDB suggests previously popular words to the users who are filling in keywords. And because IMDB was not around when the movies of the ’30s and ’40s came out, the people filling in the keywords are a different group than these movies’ original audiences. Mann explains:

Modern day audiences might not notice certain subtleties or differences in movies from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, perhaps making them appear more uniform in the final result. As well, cultural events at the time when a particular tag became heavily used could skew the results. People tagging movies shortly after 9/11 might be more inclined to use the word “terrorism,” for instance.

Plus, there’s the question of whether IMDB keywords are a good indicator of how creative or new a movie actually is. And the problem of measuring creativity in the first place. But given that next year movie theaters will be showing Fast & Furious 7, it’s not a huge stretch to think there’s probably something to this research.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Celebrating Home Movie Day
Ten Movies We Loved From the 2000s

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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