Film's Distribution and Story Strength Key to Box Office Success, Study Finds

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Production costs followed by prints and advertising are more important factors for domestic box office success over the addition of an underrepresented character, a new study suggests.

Flawed and simplistic metrics may be misleading Hollywood's power brokers about the factors that determine box office success and perpetuating gender and race biases, a new study suggests.

Complicating longtime adages that films with female and/or underrepresented lead or co-lead stars don't perform as well as those with white, male stars, the former receive lower production and print and advertising (P&A) budgets and distribution density (they were released in fewer theaters) than the latter, according to a new ReFrame study authored by Prof. Stacy L. Smith, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Prof. René Weber and the Media Neuroscience Lab at UCSB’s Department of Communication.

The study found that films with white male leads receive a median production budget of $51,995,000, while those with minority male leads come second ($38,505,000), white female leads come third ($31,280,000) and minority female leads ($19,232,500) last. When it came to domestic P&A, the trend remained the same: films with white male leads had a median budget of $43,529,000, minority men $38,718,000, white women $35,696,000 and minority women $29,696,000. Films with white men as leads also received distribution in the highest average number of international territories (49.47), followed by those with white women (47.35), minority men (42.67) and minority women (33.84).

When financial analyses do not account for these differences in financial and marketing support, female- and minority-led films appear to perform less robustly at the box office than male- and white-led films, the study found. When these variables are controlled for, however, female-led films are positively and statistically not significantly correlated with box office revenue and minority-led films are positively and significantly correlated with box office revenue.

"The results of this analysis suggest that it is not the gender of the lead character but the money that is spent to create and promote films that impacts revenue," the authors write, adding, "Once differences in support are accounted for, race/ethnicity of leads/co leads is a significant positive predictor of box office performance in the U.S. and abroad."

The most powerful predictors of U.S. box office revenue, according to this analysis, are distribution density, story strength and production costs, in that order. Prints and advertising (P&A), the addition of an underrepresented character and box office competition are the next most important factors for domestic box office success.

International box office success is most powerfully determined by international P&A, the number of international territories to which a film is released, production costs, story strength, whether a title was released in China, sequel status, the percentage of female characters and the percentage of underrepresented characters — in that order.

"Overall, the report reveals that biases regarding women and people of color are driving decision-making rather than a sophisticated understanding of the marketplace," the authors write. "This results in giving films starring women and people of color less support than their white male peers. Utilizing this data, executives can reimagine how they devote resources to films and how that might influence financial performance."

The study considered the top 100 films from 2007 to 2018, which amounted to 1,200 films overall. For the qualitative analysis, the study reduced the sample to 817 live-action films with a single protagonist.

“This study confirms our previous work indicating that the gender of the lead/co-lead character is not a significant predictor of box office performance,” Smith said in a statement about the new study. “Rather, it is other factors that are within the control of executives — production costs, promotion, distribution density, and the story itself that play a key role in a movie’s success. Moreover, films with leading/co-leading characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds are a significant and notable predictor of economic revenue domestically. This is a finding that cannot be ignored and is consistent with what activists, advocates and artists have been saying for years. Stories with underrepresented leads/co-leads make money. Period.”