An American academic reckons he’s figured out why many blockbusters are successful: they follow a mathematical formula.   
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1 Mar 2010 - 10:30 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 2:33 PM

A Cornell University boffin with way too much time on his hands studied 150 films of various genres, shot by shot, released between 1935 and 2005. His conclusion: Many of the recent hits have average shot lengths which correspond to the typical person's attention span.

Movies as diverse as Pretty Woman, The Perfect Storm, Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith and Quantum of Solace all have an almost perfect 1/f ratio, according to Dr. James Cutting, a cognitive psychologist at Cornell.

By that he means their shot structures coincided with the average attention span measured by a team of researchers from the University of Texas, Austin in the early 1990s. Working with students Jordan DeLong and Christine Nothelfer, Cutting found that that movies made after 1980 were much more likely than earlier works, to approach the universal 1/f ratio.

“The pattern of shots in movies is getting closer and closer to what we generate endogenously -- you know, in our heads," says Cutting. “Filmmakers have got better at constructing shots so that their lengths grab our attention. The rhythm of shot sequences in film is designed to drive the rhythm of attention and information uptake in the viewer.”

Reporting his findings, the journal Psychological Science observed that the average shot length in films has been slashed from 8 to 10 seconds in the 1960s to 3 to 4 seconds in 2005. Cutting measured Quantum of Solace's average at just 1.7 seconds, typical of many contemporary films.

Cutting didn't explain the significance of his research which showed that classics such as 1955's Rebel Without a Cause and Hitchcock's 1935 masterpiece The 39 Steps had very similar 1/f rhythms to recent blockbusters.

And the journal rather undercuts his theories by noting there is zero connection between 1/f and the film ratings measured on the popular website IMDB.

New Scientist claims the attention theory chimes with other recent studies such as one by Dr. Tim Smith of Edinburgh University, who discovered that the editing style of modern films resulted in more people being focused on the same areas of the screen at the same time.

The mag predicted, “Given the gargantuan cost of blockbusters like Avatar, it wouldn't be surprising if Hollywood's next step is to use brain scanners to get inside the head of moviegoers.”

That prospect sounds like bad science fiction. And I'm willing to bet that no one told James Cameron he should aim to hit that mythical 1/f ratio.