Turns out there may be a formula for making a commercially successful film after all.
All the way back in 2016, a study conducted by a group of graduate students from the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington surfaced online proclaiming to have found the "best" emotional arc of storytelling.
The students used a filtered subset of 1,327 stories from Project Gutenberg’s fiction collection to find six emotional story arcs that every single story ever written could be categorized into.
The best emotional storytelling arcs were named as follows:
Rags to riches (rise): SV 1
- A steady, ongoing rise in emotional valence, as in a rags-to-riches story, such as Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll.
Tragedy or Riches to rags (fall): SV 1
- A steady ongoing fall in emotional valence, as in a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet.
Man-in-a-Hole (fall-rise): SV 2
- A fall, then a rise, such as the man-in-a-hole story, made popular by Kurt Vonnegut.
Icarus (rise-fall): SV 2
- A rise, then a fall, such as the Greek myth of Icarus.
Cinderella (rise-fall-rise): SV 3
- Rise-fall-rise, such as Cinderella.
Oedipus (fall-rise-fall): SV 3
- Fall-rise-fall, such as Oedipus.
The students found that some of the story arcs were considerably more successful than the rest. By comparing the stories with their new arc categorization to the number of times the book had been downloaded from Project Gutenberg, they found that "Icarus," "Oedipus," and "Man-in-a-hole" were the most popular.
After analyzing data from 6,147 screenplays and using the same emotional story arcs as the research above, a team of researchers from the UK have identified an arc that has historically made the most money in at the box offics. The result? It appears the most successful emotional story arc in films is none other than the unfortunately named, Man-in-a-Hole arc. The hypothesis was made after it was found that happy-sad-happy arcs are the most financially successful, costing an average of $40.5 million to produce and seeing a return average of $54.9 million.
The study, compiled by Marco Del Vecchio, Alexander Kharlamov, Glenn Parry, and Ganna Pogrebna, is titled “The Data Science of Hollywood: Using Emotional Arcs of Movies to Drive Business Model Innovation in Entertainment Industries” and was published in July by the Cornell University Library.
The team of researchers used a method very similar to the 2016 study which employed a device called Hedonometer, which gauges happiness or pleasure for "its ability to generate meaningful word shift graphs," or graphs that measure changes in word frequencies, producing spikes or dips in happiness. By downloading 6,174 complete sets of subtitles from some of the most popular movies as ranked by IMDB, they then used an algorithm to cluster the films and cluster them by the shape which the happiness of the words took.
They also found (similar to the 2016 study) that the most successful clusters in terms of popularity (in this case, gross domestic revenue) were Man-in-a-Hole (earning $37.48 million on average), Cinderella (with $33.63 million mean revenue), and Oedipus (yielding $31.44 million on average).
Their final thoughts are summarized as “It may appear that when evaluating movie scripts, motion picture production companies should opt for scripts offering Man-in-a-Hole emotional journeys. Yet, on the other hand, this would be an oversimplification of our results. We show that when emotional arcs are combined with different genres and produced in different budget categories, any of the 6 emotional arcs may produce financially successful films. Therefore, a careful selection of the script-budget-genre combination will lead to financial success.”
From a screenwriter's perspective, the full 39-page study is really quite interesting. If you've been stuck in a creative rut and are looking for a guide to success, perhaps the Man-in-a-Hole story structure is a good place to start.