Family films appear to be getting edgier, and for good reason: those that push the envelope in terms of content tend to do better both critically and commercially.
That’s the conclusion of a research team led by psychologist Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis. It’s a follow-up to a 2009 paper that looked at films in general, and concluded that while violence tends to boost box office performance, sex and nudity do not.
The equation is significantly different for family-oriented fare, the researchers write in the journal Empirical Studies of the Arts. Within the boundaries of the G, PG and PG-13 ratings, films that contain “adult themes and hints of sex and violence” tend to be better received.
The researchers evaluated 220 family-oriented films released between 1996 and 2009. They noted the presence or absence of a variety of factors, including blood and gore, smoking, alcohol or drug use, frightening or tense scenes, sexual behavior (shown or implied), and “jump scenes,” described as any scene, “such as a person suddenly being grabbed, that will make you and your child jump.”
These elements were measured against a film’s performance on a number of metrics, including critical response, consumer ratings (taken from the IMDb.com website), awards and, of course, box office performance.
The researchers found an increase in many types of mature content over the 13 years they studied, including blood/gore, frightening/tense scenes and scenes involving sexuality. “Apparently, the films that emerge each year are increasingly pushing the envelope,” they write. “The only mature content to decline over the years is profanity and smoking.”
Further analysis revealed why: making content more provocative consistently trumped toning things down, in terms of both audience and critical appeal.
Specifically, films with a greater number of “jump scenes” had higher domestic box-office grosses, higher consumer ratings, and more Academy Awards. Films that dealt with sensitive subjects—ones “you may want to discuss with your children”—got more positive reviews, higher consumer ratings and more Academy Awards.
Finally, films containing violence (within the limits of their rating) had higher domestic box-office grosses, and were more likely to win Teen Choice Awards.
“Increase the presence and intensity of jump scenes, topics to talk about, and violence, and the result is a family film that pleases almost everyone except the children, but without alienating the latter,” Simonton and his colleagues conclude.
The researchers caution, however, that they haven’t come up with a sure-fire money-making formula. As they wryly note, “The criterion least susceptible to prediction—and this should be no surprise to producers—is net profit.”