Can computers beat critics at naming best movies? Study says maybe

Using data from IMDb, researchers at Northwestern University created a system to measure a film's significance

Move over, critics: Computers are the new film experts in Hollywood.

According to a Northwestern University study released Monday, computer analysis has the potential to be as good or better at identifying significant films than human experts in the field.

Using data from Internet Movie Database, researchers at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering created an analytical system that measured the influence a film has over its history. Influence was measured by the number of times a film was credited in citations or attributions as a reference for other movies on IMDb. Citations between 15,425 U.S.-produced films on IMDb were analyzed.

For comparison, researchers also looked at other approaches, including expert opinions and wisdom of the crowd. The researchers examined ratings from the late Roger Ebert "because of his long history as a renowned film critic." They also looked at the aggregate critic review score reported by the website Metacritic because it "provides a simple and self-consistent way to incorporate the ratings of multiple critics." They examined IMDb user ratings and the total number of user votes received on IMDb, and they considered statistics obtained from total citations and PageRank score.

They compared their findings with the 625 movies that the U.S. Library of Congress' National Film Registry considers "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" or "of enduring importance to American culture."

The researchers' ranking system suggested well-conceived automated methods "can perform as well as or better than aggregation of expert opinions at identifying significant films, even when we do not account for missing rating data."

Their analysis of IMDb film connections revealed additional information "about how ideas and culture spread over time," the researchers wrote in the study, to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Some films may not nab Oscar nods from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or four stars from critics, but they can still have cultural significance. Likewise, "significant films from any given year will be definitively known once 25 years have passed, as those films will be the ones that continue to receive citations."  

For example, "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" was considered a box office disappointment in 1971. However, researchers determined the film gained a "significant following a decade later" with home-video sales and airings on cable television. Today it's "considered a top cult classic" even though it is not listed in the National Film Registry.

"A film's significance should ultimately be judged on how its ideas influence filmmaking and culture in the long term," the researchers wrote.

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