Friday, February 14, 2014

Easy tips for Hollywood Producers 101: Cast Leonardo DiCaprio! (but cast him quick!)

My wife and I were thinking of going out to see "The Wolf of Wall Street" the other day. Why did this movie catch our eye more than the other twelve or such showing at our local movie theatre?

Had we heard great reviews about it? Nope. Had word-of-mouth finally reached us? Nope. Had we fallen prey to a cleverly engineered marketing campaign? Well yes and no.

Not owning a TV at home, so the least you could say is that our TV ad exposure was quite minimal. And as far as I can remember (although one could argue that this is exactly the purpose of sophisticated inception-style marketing) we din't see that many out-of-home ads nor hear any radio ones. Marketing was involved, but the genius of the marketers behind "The Wolf of Wall Street" was restricted to creating the poster, and not because of the monkey in a business suit nor the naked women, but simply by putting Leonardo DiCaprio right there. My wife and I's reasoning was simply that any movie with Leonardo had to be good.

Now don't go and write us off as Titanic groupies/junkies. I won't deny we both enjoyed that movie, but we don't have posters of him plastered all over our house. But here's the question we found ourselves asking: Can you name a bad movie with Leonardo in it? And harder yet: a bad recent movie with him in it?

Made you pause for a second there didn't it? Few people will argue against the fact that Leonardo is a very good actor and that his movies are generally pretty darn good. But are we being totally objective here? How does Leonardo's filmography compare to that of other big stars? The Marlon Brandos, Al Pacinos, De Niros, Brad Pitts...?

In order to compare actors' filmographies, I turned to my favorite database from IMDB. IMDB has a rather peculiar way of listing actors, directors, producers in its database, and I was unable to find a logic between the individual and the index in the database. But I did notice that all the big actors I wanted to compare Leonardo to had a low index (never above 400), so decided to pull data for all indices less than 1000. Now in the process I got some directors or actors with very few movies, so excluded from the analysis anybody have acted in less than 10 movies. The advantage of pulling this way was the fact that it provided a very wide range of diversity in gender, geography and time. So we have Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Louis de Funès, Elvis Presley...And to get an even broader picture, I added 30 young rising new stars to the mix. All in all, 826 actors to compare Leonardo to.

Going back to our original question of how good Leonardo is, I've looked at two simple metrics: ratio of movies with an IMDB rating greater than 7, and ratio of movies with an IMDB greater than 8. So how well did Leonardo do? The mean fraction across the actors was 22% for the 7+ rating (median 20%). Leonardo had... 55%! That's 16 out of his 29 movies! Only 15 actors have a higher score. Top of the list? Bette Davis, with 76 of her 91 movies (83.5% having a 7+ rating). The recently deceased Philip Seymour Hoffman also beat Leonardo with 31 out of 52 (59.6%). Fun fact, what male actor of all times has the best ratio here? You have to think out of the box for this one as he's more famous for directing than acting, yet makes an appearance in almost every one of his movies. That's right, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, has 28 of 36 movies (77.8%) rated higher than 7.

Name Number of movies Number of 7+ movies Ratio of 7+ movies
Bette Davis 91 76 83.5%
Alfred Hitchcock 36 28 77.8%
François Truffaut 14 10 71.4%
Emma Watson 14 10 71.4%
Bruce Lee 25 16 64.0%
Terry Gilliam 16 10 62.5%
Andrew Garfield 13 8 61.5%
Alan Rickman 44 27 61.4%
Frank Oz 31 19 61.3%
Daniel Day-Lewis 20 12 60.0%

What about for movies rated higher than 8? Leonardo does even better according to this metric! The average actor has only 2.7% (median 1.7%) of movies with such a high rating. Leonardo has 5 out of 29, 17.2%! And only 8 actors do better with this metric. No more Bette Davis (plummets to 3.2%), but replaced by Grace Kelly (3 out of 11, 27.3%) who tops the chart. Sir Alfred is impressive once again with 9 out of 36 (25%).

Name Number of movies Number of 8+ movies Ratio of 8+ movies
Grace Kelly 11 3 27.3%
Alfred Hitchcock 36 9 25.0%
Anthony Daniels 12 3 25.0%
Chris Hemsworth 12 3 25.0%
Terry Gilliam 16 3 18.8%
Elizabeth Berridge 11 2 18.2%
Elijah Wood 56 10 17.9%
Groucho Marx 23 4 17.4%
Leonardo DiCaprio 29 5 17.2%
Quentin Tarantino 24 4 16.7%

Now the big stars we mentioned earlier do pretty well, just not as good as Leonardo:

Name Number of movies Number of 7+ movies Number of 8+ movies Ratio of 7+ movies Ratio of 8+ movies
Marlon Brando 40 18 4 45.0% 10.0%
Brad Pitt 48 23 6 47.9% 12.5%
Robert De Niro 91 32 8 35.2% 8.8%
Leonardo DiCaprio 29 16 5 55.2% 17.2%
Clint Eastwood 59 19 6 32.2% 10.2%
Morgan Freeman 69 24 7 34.8% 10.1%
Robert Downey Jr. 68 17 1 25.0% 1.5%

Another thing worth repeating to put these numbers in perspective: we are not comparing Leonardo to your "average" Hollywood actor. Because of the way IMDB has matched actors with indices, we are comparing Leonardo to some of the greatest of all times here!

Remember how earlier one we mentioned that it was even harder to find a recent bad movie by Leonardo? Let's look at his movie ratings over time to confirm this impression:

Wow. With the exception of J.Edgar in 2011, every single one of his movies since 2002 (that's over this last decade !) has had a rating greater than 7! 12 movies!

Now one might argue that there is a virtuous circle here: the more you become a star, the easier it is to get scripts and parts for great movies and do the easier it becomes to continue being a super star. For each actor in my dataset, I ran a quick linear regression to see improvement of movie rating over time. Leonardo stands out here quite a bit too, for he is among the rare actors to have positive improvement. The "average" actor's movie lose 0.01 IMDB rating points per year, Leonardo gains 0.1 per year, putting him in the top 15 of the data set:

Name Number of movies Number of 8+ movies Number of 7+ movies Improvement
Taylor Kitsch 11 1 2 0.26
Rooney Mara 11 1 4 0.26
Justin Timberlake 18 0 3 0.23
Chloe Moretz 24 1 6 0.19
Bradley Cooper 26 0 7 0.18
Juliet Anderson 50 1 12 0.17
Mila Kunis 23 1 3 0.16
Chris Hemsworth 12 3 7 0.15
Tom Hardy 27 3 12 0.14
Andrew Garfield 13 0 8 0.12
Mia Wasikowska 21 0 9 0.12
Barbara Bain 14 1 2 0.11
George Clooney 38 1 15 0.11
Jason Bateman 32 2 9 0.11
Leonardo DiCaprio 29 5 16 0.10

What's quite surprising in the last table is that those topping the list in terms of year over year improvement are not the old well-established actors having great choice in scripts, but the new hot generation in Hollywood!

What happens to the megastars? Well let us look at the rating evolution of some of these stars:

Fred Astaire:

Marlon Brando:

Bette Davis:

It appears that they all go through some glory days. Remember Leonardo with his 12 years of 12 movies greater than 7 aside from J. Edgar? Well Bette Davis had 46 such movies, without any exceptions, over a span of 29 years! But not a great way to end a career... Same goes for Fred Astaire and Marlon Brando, started off doing well but end of careers are tough even for big stars, or might I say especially for big stars. Naturally, the hidden question is whether ratings of later movies go down because actors aren't as good as they were, or because good roles don't come as much, because they only get casted for grumpy grandparents in bad comedies. Correlation vs causation...

So back to Leonardo. He's still young, so the primary impulse my wife and I had of "Leonardo's in it so it's got to be good" was not completely irrational, but it might be in 5/10 years from now. Same goes for all the rising top stars. Cast them while they're hot, cause nothing is eternal in Hollywood.