Which Genre Outperforms Box Office Expectations the Most?

Last week, I took on an interesting question–are there too many horror films in theaters? Thanks to The Numbers website, I was able to attain the number of films, by genre, for each year since 1995. Their data also includes a market share percentage, based on each genre’s total gross. While putting together my horror info, I noticed that the horror genre tends to have a larger market share (a larger total gross) than their percentage of films released. Intuitively, this implies that the horror genre outperforms expectations. After all, in a vacuum, a film’s market share would be equal to the percentage of films released, if all genres were viewed at the rate with which they’re released. After wrapping up my horror article, one other question remained, and I’ve held it back until now. Which genre’s market share (total gross) outperforms its percentage of films released the most?

Let’s start with a simple pie chart illustrating the number of films released, by genre, for the 12 genres with the largest market share. This excludes only two genres in The Numbers’ data–”Multiple Genres” and “Genre Unknown”, both of which had a market share of less than 0.1%. The pie chart:

Shockingly, documentary films came in as the third-most represented genre, with 1,026 films from 1995 to 2011. However, keep in mind that this includes the various IMAX films that show throughout the year, and many films which never receive a wide-release. I’d also add that I’m not sure why “Black Comedy” is a separate genre instead of part of the overall Comedy genre. But, you play the hand you’re dealt, and this is how The Numbers has broken it down. Predictably, Drama dwarfs the other genres, with Comedy coming in a distant second. Now let’s take a look at the market shares for these genres:

To re-define it, this is market share–the total gross of the genre, divided by the total gross of all genres. Comedy and Adventure films each earn a fifth of the market, while Documentary films make up a miniscule 1.09% of the market. Put another way, $1.09 out of every $100 spent at the box office is spent on films in the Documentary genre. Now we need to take the Total Film Release data from the pie chart above and put it into the same terms as market share. Here’s the same pie chart, in bar chart form.

Now we have all of the pieces in place. Both the releases by genre and the market share are in percentage form. Now, we’ll want to subtract the percentage of all releases by genre from the market share. Again, theoretically, they should be the same. If a genre is putting out 25% of all films, then the total gross for that genre should make up 25% of the market. In the case of genres with a positive difference, the implication is that they’re selling more tickets than their percentage of the market dictates they should. In other words, this is a genre that outperforms box office expectations. Likewise, genres with a negative difference are underperforming expectations. How does it look? Here’s another bar chart detailing the percentage by which a genre over or underperforms its market share expectation:

Let’s get to the big, juicy conclusions first. The Action and Adventure genres are the big winners. By a wide margin, they possess the biggest positive differential between the percent of films released and their genre’s market share. To give you an idea of what that particular genre includes, the top grossing films from the last three years in the Adventure genre were Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, Toy Story 3, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It also includes several superhero films and the second Star Wars trilogy. On the other side of the coin, Drama and Documentary films have the largest negative gap. Comedy, Horror, Thriller/Suspense, and Romantic Comedy all outperform their expectations, but nowhere near to the same degree as Action and Adventure movies. Musicals, Black Comedy, Westerns, and Concert/Performance films are just a tick below expectations, but it’s such a small number that I think it’s more appropriate to say that studios have a really good idea of how well these films will sell at the box office.

That figure for the Drama genre is clearly a function of an oversaturated market. After all, the Drama genre comprises a whopping 36.4% of all genres. NO genre is going to produce THAT many films and see them all do well at the box office. The more films you make, the more likely you are to have several bombs that drag your numbers down. To a lesser degree, the same could be said of the Documentary genre. The overwhelmingly negative numbers for these two genres aren’t at all telling us that these genres lose money. More likely, it tells us that production cost on these type of films is so miniscule compared to the other genres that a studio can produce tons of films from each genre for the same price it costs them to make one Transformers. Think of it this way–I can buy two $10 lottery tickets, or twenty $1 tickets. The guy who buys the $1 tickets will have a lot more duds in the lot. But he’ll also have a lot more chances at success, and all it takes is one to make money.

Finally, I think it’s important to add the appropriate caveats here. These figures are from all films from 1995 to 2011. It doesn’t include any sort of recent trend, nor does it include a wider sweep of pre-1995 numbers. As such, we’re not talking about a very large sample size. The data is interesting, at least to number nerds like me, but that doesn’t mean that it’s completely (or even partially) reliable. If one of the middling genres–say, Romantic Comedy–happened to bang out one huge money-maker during each of the next five years, the figures for Romantic Comedy would skyrocket. That’s how volatile the sample size really is.


Filed under Movies

26 responses to “Which Genre Outperforms Box Office Expectations the Most?

  1. Once again, you have outdone yourself in research and delivery. This is the most fun I’ve ever had reading an essay. 😉

  2. I have said it before and I will say it again – You need to get out more! Too much time on your hands!!

    HEHEH I am just pulling your dick. Great work mon ami.

  3. Wow, that must have taken some time to make, but an amazing read. Very interesting to see how many documentaries are made and how little profit is made there.

    • I’d really like to see the numbers for wide-release films only. I imagine there’d be a lot fewer documentaries, but also that the numbers wouldn’t be so bad with regard to how much money they pull in. Then again, I don’t even know how many there’d be.

  4. Phil

    Don’t forget that it’s profit that counts, not revenue. The doc count is so high because you can make one without a huge crew and hopefully release it to a film festival.

    • Yep- exactly. That’s probably also why the Action/Adventure genres do so well. They have huge budgets, so studios feel it’s that much more important to invest huge gobs of ad dollars on those films instead of documentaries and drama.

      • Russell Pittman

        The best genre acutely if your starting out in film is a rom com, this will be especially as you are a screen writer like me as it focuses more on character development, and in reality they make more money than any other film due to it not having many competitors,
        If your starting professionally in film you will never get noticed doing a big action film as you will be shunted to the side by a more successful film

  5. Once again! Very interesting!

  6. Very informative post John. Another reason that so many indies are drama is because it costs so much money to make an adventure or action movie.

    • Yep, and that includes everything from top to bottom- bigger name actors who cost more, larger ad budgets, larger special effects budgets, etc…

      • The guy who met Kevin Meany

        I think your reply here brings up another good discussion–the value of an actor or actress’s brand. Every year, a list comes out comparing an actor’s per movie salary with the actual box office of the movie. My question: I wonder if can create an actor’s VORP (using a baseball stat) value over replacement player (or in this case, actor)? Imagine if they could come up with a Moneyball system for Motion Pictures?

        • I would bet they have that in place already, to a certain degree. I have no clue what info and variables would go into it, though.

          Figure that baseball teams, and most businesses really, have some sort of statistical modeling thing going on because there’s so much money changing hands. And movies have more money changing hands than most. Then you throw in that there wasn’t a natural reluctance to embrace the modeling like you find in baseball from traditionalists, and studios have probably been doing it for decades and decades. Just my guess, though.

  7. The Guy Who Met Kevin Meany

    My argument to that: Ryan Reynolds

    • The guy who met Kevin Meany

      I mean, there are several German 8mm snuff films that make more money at the box office than Ryan Reynolds movies (where he is the biggest name). If there really were statistical models in place, that guy would have a tough time getting cast as specator #4 on the bus in one of Katherine Heigl’s rom-coms.

      • Green Lantern’s box office? Wait for it… wait for it…

        $219M worldwide. The production budget was $200M. It actually made money. Probably a lot less money than a lot of other blockbusters, though.

        • The guy who met Kevin Meany

          I knew you would mention the Green Lantern. It was a DC Comic Book character and would have made the same box office with any “replacement actor.” The point is he did not help the box office on that one. Jonah Hill’s fat ass could have been poured into the Green Lantern and it would have done as well. If you applied a Total Box Office Index Score for Comic Book Movies, it would would have fallen short.

  8. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    Are you saying that Van WIlder (Total Box Office of $21 million) compared to Van Wilder 2: THe Rise of Taj (Total Box Office of about $6 million) is evidence of the star power of Ryan Reynolds? First of all, sequels (especially sequels without the main character in the first movie) are never going to do well. That’s almost like comparing American Pie to the American Pie (straight to DVD) movies staring Eugene Levy.

  9. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    I agree. He went from nervous, horny, international guy in the first movie to Rico Suave in the second.

    • Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute…You guys have actually seen “The Rise of Taj”?

      • The guy who met Kevin Meany

        Yeah. Kal Penn really disappointed me in “The Rise of Taj” after his masterful depiction of Taj in VW.

        Come on, I got the DVD for $3 bucks. At least it was released in theatres. I draw the line with the straight to DVD releases of American Pie-related movies with Eugene Levy.

  10. rtm

    Very insightful and entertaining post, John, you are the king of infographics, man. I’m quite surprised Drama is the genre that outperforms box office the most… I thought it was action or comedy.

  11. Nice in-depth analysis, my new friend! You’re a credit to bloggers everywhere!

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