Are We Living In The Golden Age of Cinema? Analyzing over a century of IMDB ratings.

People in Hollywood are not showmen, they’re maintenance men, pandering to what they think their audiences want..” – Terry Gilliam

(Photo: Scott Smith)

Everyone talks about the “Golden Age” of cinema and that they don’t make movies like they used to. But how much of that is really true? Were the movies made 40, 50 or 60 years ago really that much better than the movies made these days? I thought that would be an interesting question to try to answer, but how?

Luckily IMDB has a list of nearly every movie ever made along with the rating that people gave it. The rating is based on hundreds of thousands of movie fans who judge the movies they have seen and give it a rating from 0 to 10, with 10 being the best. IMDB makes its data available to the public, and if you take the time and effort to sift through the megs and megs of raw data, you can discover some interesting information. I was curious enough to try to find out.

After crunching the data and ratings of close to 250,000 different movies, I was able to come up with some answers. Let’s see how the numbers look.

Hundreds of thousands of movie fans rated over two hundred thousand movies which span over a century of movie making. For the first 20 years, starting in 1888, the average ratings are all over the map. This is probably due to very few movies being released (small sample size) which can create “lumpy” results. But starting in the 1920’s you can see movies ratings normalizing and evening out.

I decided to take a look at the median ratings as well as average ratings. The difference between average and median is that average takes all the votes and adds them up and divides them by the number of votes. Median lists out all the votes in order and then takes the number in the very middle. In other words if there are 1000 different movies which people voted on, median would list out all the votes in ascending (or descending) order and then take the value of the 500th movie. This means there will be an equal amount of movies rated better, as well as worse, than that median movie. As you can see with the median data, things started to normalize in the 1920’s as well.

But now let’s zoom in on the real data and ignore films made the first few decades after the movie camera was invented. I decided to make the starting point be 1922, the year that the Motion Picture Association of America got started. As you can see from the data, the quality of the movies has been steadily declining starting with the late 1920’s and bottoming out in late 1990’s. Since then, the data indicates that movies have been getting steadily better and better.

The same holds true for the median values as well. You can see a steady decline starting from the 1920’s all the way to the very late 1990’s and since then a very visible incline.

One thing to keep in mind is that IMDB only allowed people to vote for movies in the last two decades or so, so all the ratings are based on the mindset of the people living today. It is very possible that people living in a different time would vote differently for the movies and have different tastes. But from the perspective of the people living (and voting) today they preferred, on average, the movies made 70 years ago much more to the movies made 15 years ago.

Another thing to keep in mind is that people who might be fans of older movies are more likely to watch them and vote for them. So there might be a preference bias, since a fan of older movies might prefer them (and rate them higher) compared to newer ones. The average person might only vote for current movies and never have seen or voted for the older ones.

But how do the ratings look for the cream of the crop? If we count only the best movies ever made, are they getting better and better? The answer is “yes, but only slightly”. If we plot out the best 250 movies as rated by IMDB reviewers over roughly the last 75 years we can see a very slow rise in the quality of the movies in the 1990’s.

It is important to keep in mind that there are currently over 4 times as many movies made these days as were made in the 1950’s or 1960’s. And almost 8 times as many as were made in the 1920’s or 1930’s. So, yes there are good movies made today but the ratio of truly great to mediocre is getting worse and worse.

So what does this all mean? It looks like the late 1920’s and 1930’s really were the “Golden Age” of cinema. With the highest quality of an average movie made along with the slight increase in quality in late 1940’s. Ever since then, movies have been getting steadily worse and worse and bottoming out in the late 1990’s where the quality of the movies have been getting a great deal better. So while the average movie may have been getting worse and worse over the years till the late 1990’s the quality of the movies have been going up on average year after year. If the trends continue we might have already started entering into the new Golden Age of Cinema.

But wait there’s more……

After I looked at the data, one question kept popping up. Why did the movies all of a sudden start to get better around the late 90’s after getting worse and worse for decades? I found it just too much of a coincidence that the movies started to get better ratings right around the time that Amazon took over IMDB in 1998 when IMDB really started to become popular. Unless the rating algorithm was changed, which I doubt, then a possible explanation might be that people started to rate movies higher after seeing them in the movie theaters which might provide for a better experience. For example a person rating a movie from the 80’s has seen it either on TV or their laptop or in a movie theater over 20 years ago. Compare that to a movie that just came out which they might have just seen in the theater last night when it’s still fresh and new which might produce a higher rating. In other words if IMDB became popular 30 years ago, movies might have started to rise in ratings back then as well. It’s also possible that with the popularity of IMDB a lot more “average people” started to vote as well compared to movie aficionados who tend to be a lot pickier.

But regardless if Hollywood is making better or worse movies now there are so many amazing movies out there. Movies which can move you, enlighten you, inspire you and change your way of looking at the world. Next time bypass the typical Hollywood paint by numbers blockbuster and take a chance on something new and different. There are thousands of movies just waiting for you to discover them.

Information courtesy of
The Internet Movie Database
Used with permission.

Michael Page

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