How Film (and TV) Audiences Have Changed in the Last 100 Years

Yesterday we published a post by TVWriter™ bud Angelo J. Bell in which he talked about the change in audience attention spans and referred to an article he’d read about the situation. So, ace investigators that we are, the TVWriter™ minions went to work tracking down that article. And, since there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for our beloved visitors (that’s you guys), here ’tis:


Data From a Century of Cinema Reveals How Movies Have Evolved
by Greg Miller

As filmmaking technology has advanced, films have changed to take advantage of it. The 2005 version of King Kong looks and feels nothing like the 1933 version. The newer Kong appears in vivid color, and thanks to CGI he’s a convincingly lifelike beast. The original soundtrack is tinny and shrill; in the newer one, the great ape’s snorts and growls are deep and realistic.

Movies have changed in less obvious ways too, says James Cutting, a psychologist at Cornell University who’s been studying the evolution of cinema. Cutting presented some of his findings at a recent event here sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “All these things are working to hold our attention better,” Cutting said.

Here are a few of the most important ways in which movies have changed in the past century, according to Cutting.

Shorter shots

The average shot length of English language films has declined from about 12 seconds in 1930 to about 2.5 seconds today, Cutting said. At the Academy event he showed a scatter plot with data from the British film scholar Barry Salt, who’s calculated the average shot duration in more than 15,000 movies made between 1910 and 2010. That’s a lot of shots. In a 2010 study, Cutting found an average of 1,132 shots per film in a smaller sample of 150 movies made between 1935 and 2010; the King Kong remake, incidentally, had the most: A whopping 3,099 shots packed into 187 minutes.

Cutting says some people have tried to pin declining shot lengths on MTV, by invoking a sort of video-killed-the-attention-span hypothesis. He doesn’t buy it. For one thing, Salt’s graph of declining shot durations has no obvious inflection point in or after 1982, the year MTV was born. Shot durations were declining before that, and they kept declining at a similar rate after.

Cutting isn’t sure what’s driving the change. One factor could be that older films tended to pack more characters into a shot. As a result, film makers had to allow more time for viewers to look around to see who was there. In one recent studyCutting found that each additional character added 1.5 seconds to the length of a shot on average.

Different patterns of shots

A short attention span is part of the human condition, Cutting says. The American psychologist William James knew this more than a century ago. “There is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time,” James wrote in 1890.

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