The Golden Age Of Cinema Wasn’t When You Probably Think It Was

“American motion pictures are written by the half-educated for the half-witted.” —St. John Irvine

In A Nutshell

The Golden Age of Cinema is a blanket term referring to the (supposedly) greatest era in movie-making history. It’s a time when men were real men who invariably wore hats, and when women were femme fatales and glamorous damsels. It was the 1930s to the beginning of the 1950s, but taking a look at the numbers shows that it’s not all it was cracked up to be. It was only when the studios’ stranglehold on the industry broke that we got some of the most creative movies out there, and the so-called Golden Age should be referring to the 1960s and 1970s.

The Whole Bushel

Sometime around about the moment where you see the trailer advertising the fifth superhero movie, disaster movie, or alien invasion movie of the year, you’re bound to start wondering if Hollywood has any original ideas left. Things used to be more exciting, right?

Between the rehashing of the same plot in whatever form’s currently hot to seemingly endless remakes of movies that don’t need remakes and the painful tendency to break books apart into sequels, it seems like the creativity once found in the entertainment industry is disappearing.

According to science, we don’t have it as bad today as they did in the world’s cinematic heyday, the so-called Golden Age of Cinema.

Sameet Sreenivasan, a physicist from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, decided to take a look at the last 70-odd years in cinema, and he turned to crowd-sourcing to do it. IMDB has a plot summary section that guides users toward a series of keywords when they’re describing a movie. That ranges from location and plot points to what kind of characters you’ll find there, and that makes it ideal for looking at trends in movie history.

IMDB is huge, and a huge dataset is exactly what you need when you’re looking for something like this. There were more than 100 million data points over two million movies, making it a pretty complete look at cinema of all kinds. (It also helps that those entering the data had no idea that it would be used to prove a point like this.)

The study assigned each key word a score, and it was all based on how rare it was compared to the movies that came before it. So, if something like “good-cop-bad-cop” or “female-nudity” showed up in a ton of movies in the previous years, that got it a low score. But when there was a novel idea popping up, that key word got a high score.

That high score decreases as the key word shows up again and again and again, painting a pretty clear picture of how much variety there is in the entertainment industry.

Sreenivasan came to some pretty interesting conclusions. The time between 1930 and the 1950s is often painted as something of a golden age, but in terms of creativity, it was pretty obvious that they found a formula that worked and kept churning out the same thing over and over again.

With five studios holding a monopoly on actors and stories, hit movies weren’t hits because they were different, they were hits because that’s all there was. It was only when that system collapsed that smaller filmmakers and new talent were given their chance at the silver screen, and that meant there was a massive surge in creativity from around 1955 through the next two decades.

That’s when we saw Westerns, gangster movies, martial arts movies, and some of the best in classic science fiction. That’s when James Bond hit the screen, and when people started mashing plots and genres together for something completely different.

Then the real Golden Age of Cinema took place, with a 1950s and 1960s revolution that redefined what we expect to see on the big screen. Since then, they found that there’s a specific balance that needs to happen in order for a movie to be successful, so filmmakers gravitate toward that. Keywords were assigned values between zero and one, with zero indicating the least novel ideas. When they mapped popularity against the scores, they found that creativity only got ticket sales so high, and the point at which people were the most likely to be swept away by a cinematic offering? 0.08.

Show Me The Proof

Wired: Number Crunching Shows Old Movies Are More Creative Than New Ones
Nature: Quantitative analysis of the evolution of novelty in cinema through crowdsourced keywords