Menus Subscribe Search

Edginess Pays for Family Films

• September 26, 2012 • 1:24 PM

New research finds family films with more provocative content do better both critically and commercially.

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.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.


August 18 • 6:00 AM

The Problems With William Deresiewicz’s New Manifesto

Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.


August 18 • 4:00 AM

Ferguson Is a Serious Outlier

One black city council member is not nearly enough. In a study of city councils, only one place in America had a greater representational disparity than Ferguson, Missouri.


August 16 • 4:00 AM

Six Days in Ferguson: Voices From the Protests

A day-by-day chronology of what happened in Ferguson, drawn from the best reporting by journalists and witnesses on the ground.


August 15 • 4:00 PM

Skirting Ochobo: Big Business Finds a Way Around Local Customs

The “liberation wrapper,” which was designed to shield mouths from public view while eating, has helped a Japanese chain increase sales by over 200 percent.


August 15 • 2:00 PM

How Wall Street Tobacco Deals Left States With Billions in Toxic Debt

Politicians wanted upfront cash from a legal victory over Big Tobacco, and bankers happily obliged. The price? A handful of states promised to repay $64 billion on just $3 billion advanced.


August 15 • 12:00 PM

How the Sexes Evolved

The distinction between males and females is one of the oldest facts of biology—but how did it come to affect our social identity?



August 15 • 10:00 AM

Will Philadelphia Ever Be Home to a Middle Class?

Jake Blumgart has watched his friends decamp his adopted hometown for places with more opportunities and city services. Will anyone be left to build a better Philly?


Follow us


Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

Do Ticking Clocks Make Women More Anxious to Have Children?

Yes, but apparently only women who grew up poor.

Facebook App Shoppers Do What Their Friends Do

People on Facebook are more influenced by their immediate community than by popular opinion.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.