Movies by the Numbers: Why the 1960s were the Most Creative Decade

By Wesley Fenlon

A scientific study of IMDB keywords charts film novelty by decade.

Any a film critic or movie buff for the golden age of film, and you'll probably get an answer that includes the 1960s and 1970s. The 1940s and 1950s gave us incredible performances and scripts from the Hollywood studio system, but the later decades gave rise to an incredible array of filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, and Francis Ford Coppola, who pushed forward the cinematography and psychology of movies.

Turns out there are actually numbers to back up the wisdom of movie fanatics. Wired picked up on a study that analyzed IMDB tags to determine how creative movies have been decade-by-decade. Granted, novelty--especially novelty as defined by tags on IMDB--isn't going to be the most universally accurate measurement of film quality. But the numbers show that more new concepts and creative films came from the industry in the 1960s.

Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

The study's authors used "crowdsourced keywords from the Internet Movie Database as a window into the contents of films, and prescribe[d] novelty scores for each film based on occurrence probabilities of individual keywords and keyword-pairs." The study focused on keywords used as tags on IMDB, which describe specific story elements and locations, genres, and other movie trends.

So how does novelty, and by association creativity, come into play? Analyzing those keyword tags. "We devise[d] a method to assign a novelty score to each film on the basis of the keywords associated with it and the keywords appearing in all films that were released prior to it," the study explains. They collected data from the years 1929 through 1998, then ran everything through some equations to deduce novelty. Sure enough:

"An upward trend can be seen around the mid-1960s in both the yearly median, as well as the lower envelope of the time series, which agrees well with the documented birth of the American New Wave which brought with it a marked shift in themes, style and modes of production. Interestingly, the period between 1929 and 1945, commonly referred to as the golden age of Hollywood, is not marked by an increase in or a stable value of median novelty, but rather by a subtle decline. This decline is likely a consequence of the practice of block booking prevalent in that period, which by virtually guaranteeing exhibition for any film as long as it came from a major studio, did little to de-incentivize the production of films with low novelty."

The study also correlated novelty to film profitability, and the results there aren't too surprising. More novel films tended to make more money...up to a point. If they scored too highly on the novelty scale, their profitability declined. Moviegoers like new and exciting until it gets weird.