Thursday, May 26, 2005

Generation Gap in Movie Tastes

I was recently analyzing some movie data when I found evidence to back up a long-held conjecture of mine: People preferentially like movies from the era they grow up in.

Note that the statement isn't merely about what people actually watch (they usually don't watch older movies due to various cultural and economic biases) but about what people would like watching, assuming they are exposed to movies from all eras. As evidence, I dug out and analyzed two different lists of movies: (1) Roger Ebert's list of 240 "Great Movies" drawn from his web site; (2) My own list of 213 movies that I rated 8.5 or above on a scale of 10. I broke down the distribution of these movies by decade to arrive at the following table:

The numbers tell an intriguing story. (BTW, Ebert was born in 1942 and I was born in 1979.) One could attribute the discrepancies among the movies from the 1910s and '20s to the fact that Ebert is more of a film historian than I am, and tends to include "landmark" movies that , in my opinion, don't necessarily hold up well today. The discrepancy in the 2000s could be put down to the fact that these movies are too recent to be included in Ebert's "Great Movies" series.

But the remaining stats reveal a cool trend. Ebert's numbers start off low in the 1910s, keep increasing continuously until reaching a "flat" peak in the '50s, '60s and '70s (what I would call the "Ebert era"), and then start tailing off after that. My numbers, on the other hand, show a progressive increase all the way up to the '90s (and will probably continue into the 2000s, given that we are only halfway there).

One could postulate alternative explanations for this trend. For example, you could argue that I have seen far fewer old movies than I have new ones, and I am therefore naturally biased towards the newer movies. But I would present the following pieces of evidence in opposition:
  1. Most movies I've seen have been on VHS and DVD and I've had little reason to discriminate in favor of new movies;
  2. I've had access to a broad selection of titles thanks to good libraries and Netflix;
  3. I tend to vet movies by the critical reception they received before I watch them. So, if anything, I should be biased towards movies that Ebert likes.
  4. There are many old movies in Ebert's list that I did not like as much.
  5. There are many new movies on my list that Ebert did not like as much. (Usually, they tend to be post-modern "form is content" movies like Fight Club or The Usual Suspects.)
  6. It seems hard to believe that mere limitations of access can explain the fact that I like progressively more movies from each decade starting from the '30s.

Does anyone have any corroborative/conflicting evidence?

UPDATE: (1:02PM) I should add a disclaimer that there are a number of other factors that have not been controlled for in the above analysis. For example, Ebert's intentions in creating his Great Movies series might have been to popularize relatively old and obscure movies. Some '90s movies might be considered too recent to make Ebert's cut. Ebert might have more refined movie-watching tastes and the movies might be becoming more populist by the year, etc. I still think I'm on to something though.


Anonymous nagendra said...

Ebert's list of Great movies isn't really useful evidence towards judging your claim--I suspect that you may have missed the page where Ebert describes how he picks his Great movies:

How will I choose the Great Movies? I've made a few flexible rules for myself. Although I have indeed written about ``Casablanca'' previously, in future weeks I will look for new territory. I will tend to select films I have never written about before.


I will try to find a balance between titles most people have heard of (``2001: A Space Odyssey'') and those few readers may be familiar with (Satyajit Ray's ``The Music Room'').

That said, I do agree with your conjecture, but for reasons other than those you suggest in your evidence section. For instance, Ebert's reviews are relative (to genre, to era, ...), whereas your rating of a movie from the 50's is, it seems, compared to all movies you like.

5/29/2005 1:10 AM  

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