Tech & Science

These Are The Most Influential Films, Directors and Actors of All Time—According to Science

Most people measure the success of a film either through the money it generates at the box office or the critical acclaim it receives (and sometimes, a combination of both).

However, a team of researchers from the University of Turin in Italy has come up with a new way to measure cinema success by looking at a movie's influence on others. Using this method, they found that the most influential film of all time is The Wizard of Oz, followed by Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, then Psycho, according to a study published in the journal Applied Network Science.

To produce the novel ranking method, the team calculated an influence score for 47,000 films using citations from the popular website IMDb (Internet Movie Database). The idea is that a movie that has been particularly influential should be highly referenced in the field.

"Recently, researchers in the field of social network analysis have proposed an alternative method for [measuring success] that exploits the artistic connections between movies," Livio Bioglio, lead author of the study, told Newsweek. "In fact, members of the crew like to insert in their production small elements—such as scenes, costumes, objects, posters, etc.—that reference other movies of the past from which they have been influenced, or that they want to honor, as hidden messages for an attentive audience."

Bioglio continued, "The idea is to collect these references and to build a network where the nodes are movies and the edges are references. Such a network can be studied through algorithms and techniques of social network analysis for determining the most important movies in terms of influence. The IMDb data set contains information that recognizes the types of connections [between movies], but among those categories we employed 'references,' 'features,' 'follows,' 'spoof,' 'remake of' and 'spin-off from.'"

For each film, the researchers also collected data on its year of release, genre and country of production, as well as the directors and actors involved. This enabled the researchers to analyze trends and patterns according to these factors.

The team found that the top 20 most influential films (see list below) were all made before 1980 and mostly in the U.S. (Notably, the IMDb data set is highly biased toward films made in North America and Europe, so the findings can be considered principally relevant for Western culture.)

Unlike critical opinion and box-office revenue, the alternative method ranking method is not affected by factors beyond the quality of the film, such as advertising and distribution, and reviews, which are ultimately subjective.

The algorithm can also be used to evaluate the careers of directors, actors and actresses by considering their participation in top-scoring movies. The idea of using network analysis for ranking films is not completely new, but the team says this is the first study that uses these techniques to also rank people involved in film production.

"Our technique ranks personalities according to the number of appearances for actors and actresses and film-directing credits for filmmakers they have collected in top-ranked movies, based on our ranking, during their career," Bioglio said. "This method is based on the assumption that the success of a movie is partially due to their participation, or that the good performance of a film had helped to boost their career."

He added, "In practice, we select the best films of each year according to our ranking and assign a point to each member of the crew. More precisely, a gold point to those who participated in the films in the top 5 percent of the year, a silver point to those in the 5 to 10 percent ranking and a bronze point to those in the 10 to 15 percent ranking. Then we order the personalities according to this score." 

When the algorithm was applied to directors, the top spots were occupied by Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma (in a ranking where the bias of older films—which could potentially influence a greater number of other movies—was removed). Another approach that did not remove the bias of older films saw the five men credited with directing The Wizard of Oz take the top places, alongside Alfred Hitchcock, Spielberg (again) and Stanley Kubrick.

When it was applied to actors, the algorithm ranked Samuel L. Jackson, Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise as the top three. In fact, there was a strong bias toward men in both the director and actor rankings. There were no females in the top 20 directors and only one—Lois Maxwell, who played the recurring role of Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond franchise—in the top 20 actors. When separated by gender, though, the top three actresses were Maxwell, Carrie Fisher and Maureen O'Sullivan, who is known for playing Jane in the Tarzan film series.

"The scores of top-ranked actresses tend to be lower compared to their male colleagues,” Bioglio said. “The only exceptions were musical movies, where results show moderate gender equality, and movies produced in Sweden, where actresses ranked better compared to actors."

He added, "Our techniques and findings are intended for researchers in the art domain and film historians, but also to cinema lovers that want to rediscover forgotten pearls or stars of the silver screen." 

He also noted that the new method has its limitations, aside from the fact that the IMDb database is biased toward Western culture.

"First of all, IMDb is a crowdsourcing platform, where users collaboratively add information about movies, so it could miss some data or relationship between movies," Bioglio said. "About the ranking of movies, we also include 'sequel of' as a relationship that benefits movies that belong to long-lasting franchises like James Bond or the Carry On series."

Furthermore, the way the technique ranks personalities particularly rewards actors that have small parts in many movies, such as "character actors" in huge franchises. This limitation is more evident in the top ranking of non-American countries.

Similar network science methods have been used to measure the impact of work in other fields, such as scientific publications and art.

Below are the most influential films, directors and actors of all time, according to the study.

Films

  1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  2. Star Wars (1977)
  3. Psycho (1960)
  4. King Kong (1933)
  5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  6. Metropolis (1927)
  7. Citizen Kane (1941)
  8. The Birth of a Nation (1915)
  9. Frankenstein (1931)
  10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
  11. Casablanca (1942)
  12. Dracula (1931)
  13. The Godfather (1972)
  14. Jaws (1975)
  15. Nosferatu, eine symphonie des Grauens (1922)
  16. The Searchers (1956)
  17. Cabiria (1914)
  18. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
  19. Gone With the Wind (1939)
  20. Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Directors (when the bias of older films was removed)

  1. Alfred Hitchcock
  2. Steven Spielberg
  3. Brian De Palma
  4. Howard Hawks
  5. John Ford
  6. Martin Scorsese
  7. Ingmar Bergman
  8. Stanley Kubrick
  9. Gerald Thomas
  10. Ishiro Honda

Actors

  1. Samuel L. Jackson
  2. Clint Eastwood
  3. Tom Cruise
  4. Arnold Schwarzenegger
  5. John Wayne
  6. Willem Dafoe
  7. Bruce Willis
  8. Vincent Price
  9. Desmond Llewelyn
  10. Ward Bond

Actresses

  1. Lois Maxwell
  2. Carrie Fisher
  3. Maureen O'Sullivan
  4. Halle Berry
  5. Drew Barrymore
  6. Lin Shaye
  7. Cameron Diaz
  8. Julianne Moore
  9. Faye Dunaway
  10. Beth Grant

This article has been updated to include additional comments from Livio Bioglio.

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