Research & Insights

By Justin Tenuto, June 1, 2015

The 8 Graphs That Explain Hollywood Success


The idea of the summer movie more-or-less officially started in 1975 with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, a film about a shark who is hungry for your face. In the forty years since, Hollywood has innovated ceaselessly, coming up with new and different fart jokes for Adam Sandler to tell and exhibiting the courage to never, ever stop rebooting Spiderman. 

That said, summer movies are reliably some of tinsel town’s most lucrative, so we had ourselves an idea: let’s enrich the data of the ten most successful movies each year A.J. (i.e. After Jaws) and see what makes big movies tick. And thus, without further ado (and in proper clickbait style), the 8 graphs that explain Hollywood success:

Summer movies didn’t start in 1975; they started in 1989

Remember that thing we wrote in our intro? Scratch that. Even though Jaws was the beginning of the summer movie season in earnest, the public at large really started spending money on cinema fourteen years later, in 1989.


The average top ten grossing movie in ’88 made just south of $220 million. That’s certainly not chump change, but the number more than doubled in 1989 ($573 million). Moreover, the average has only dipped below the half billion threshold once since (1991). In other words, when you hear Hollywood grousing about piracy and the other bottom-line boogiemen that hide under their collective bunk bed, go ahead and disregard it. Business is booming.

(Note: all box office receipts have been adjusted for inflation.)

Want to make money? Don’t make a biopic

We got this data by asking the crowd to visit each movie’s IMDB page and mark which genres appeared there. IMDB lists several genres for each movie–up to three in fact–and the graph you’re looking at below reflects just that.


Specifically, you’re looking at how often a single genre (like “Adventure” or “Mystery”) appears as one of the multiple ones IMDB allows listed for each movie. In other words, a solid 44% of all big movies for the past 40 years were Adventure movies, while only half a percent were Documentaries. There were four biopics total. Which is to say: let’s blow some shit up, you guys. There’s money in them there explosions.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the most lucrative garbage ever

Speaking of explosions: Michael Bay. His toilet movie Transformers: Dark of the Moon ranks as the most successful critically loathed film since, well, since ever. It’s Rotten Tomato rating hovers around 35%, which is a score Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 would love to have, but in essence means that two thirds of professional movie watchers thought it stank like cheese. And in fairness: it stank like cheese.

Still, Transformers: Dark of the Moon did $1.2 billion at the box office, which is more than the GDP of the Solomon Islands. You’ll see it marked as the highest red tomato on the chart below.

(Meanwhile, those two massive green tomatoes are Titanic and Avatar, which you likely assumed. Somewhere, James Cameron is smiling from his treasure bath.)

Surprise! Critical acclaim is a good indicator of success

We mention Michael Bay because most highly successful movies do quite well in the Arts section as well as the box office. The final Harry Potter movie, released the same year as Transformers: The Lameness, was viewed favorably by 92% of critics. Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, Batman, Frozen, you name it: they all get roundly good marks. Which isn’t to say that critics loving your movie will ensure fiduciary largesse, but it surely doesn’t hurt. And while you’ll often hear tweedy fops moan about the state of movies in America, remind them that even in CGI blockbuster land, success is afforded to stuff that’s actually quality. Unless it’s Transformers. But we’ve covered that.


Here’s another graph that illustrates what we’re talking about. The ranks below are the rank-in-year of each movie (so the highest grossing movies of each year are lumped together on the left side above the number 1) and the darker the green, the more well-reviewed the movie. On average, the most critical acclaim coincides with the most earnings. And, interestingly, being the sixth highest earner means you’re the worst of the top ten. 

Your January and September movies are kinda lousy

Movies released in May, June, or July (a.k.a. summer movie season) are more successful than every other month of the calendar. November and December, the time when Hollywood often foists its Oscar bait and can’t-miss family movies, are the next most successful months. 


Want to dump a mistake your studio made on unsuspecting movie goers? Try January or September. Combined, those months have produced 10 top grossing movies in the past 40 years. Some of those are real movies (like Dog Day Afternoon or Moonstruck), while the others are, uh, Taken 3. Point is, most movies released then don’t make the top ten for the year because those are the months when major studios foist their dreck on us. 

It’s a PG-13 world; you’re just living in it

It’s often said that Hollywood makes movies for teenagers and here’s proof why: 37% of the highest grossing films we looked at were rated PG-13. The PG-13 films made an average of $718 million, whereas their more mature, sophisticated (or just way more violent and sweary) R-rated counterparts pulled an average of basically half that, $378 million. 

The chart below surprised us. It charts rating vs. overall length. PG-13 movies, so often marketed at the Mountain Dew demographic, are actually longer than any any others. 


Two other interesting stats we found: 

  • G-rated movies, when successful, are tremendously successful. Though less than 7% of top performing films were appropriate for all ages, those averaged $571 million each.
  • PG-13 movies received the worst Rotten Tomato freshness ratings. They averaged 67.1% positive, whereas R-rated were critically acclaimed at about 76.2%.

How we did it

The dataset created here came from two fairly simple data collection jobs. The first, which you can see below, asked contributors to collect information from IMDB. The second was similar, but used Rotten Tomatoes as a data source. Both took about an hour and ran less than $40 a piece. 


Download the data

If you want to create your own data visualizations or just play around with what we’ve made, you can visit our Data for Everyone library and do just that. This dataset contains tons of information, from simple stuff like length, title, and rating, to more compelling information like Rotten Tomato audience and critic scores, IMDB rating, and even poster images for each movies. If you do download it? Send us a link to what you do with it. We’d love to see what you come up with. 

Hey look! More graphs!

Below, find a couple interactive visualations you can comb through. You’ll be able to filter by year or rating and dig into the data. And, as mentioned, you can download the dataset to create your own, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The first chart allows you to filter by Rotten Tomato freshness score, year, and adjusted box office.



The second visualition allows you to by rating (on the left) and see which months or years average the most critical acclaim or adjusted box office receipts.


Want to fuss with more visualizations? Head to our Tableau page for this dataset.