Turning the spotlight on norms – and the success story of movies that break them

Turning the spotlight on norms – and the success story of movies that break themPress Release by: Ceretai 

infographic showing smilefactor by ceretai

Just in between the Academy Awards and International Women’s Day, Swedish company Ceretai – a diversity tech startup supported by influential partners such as WIFT International – has released the results of a study dissecting equality and diversity in cinema movies. Using machine learning to analyse Swedish and international films from the 1970’s onwards, the aim is to turn the spotlight on norms – because they are certainly there, but it seems like a new star is born: the norm-breaker movie.

The Oscar’s last month once again reminded us about the fact that only one woman (Kathryn Bigelow) has ever won an Oscar for best director in the Academy Awards’ 92-year history, and that this year there was only one single black actor nominated for an award. But Swedish startup Ceretai, who define themselves as a “diversity tech startup”, think it’s time for a new perspective on the film industry; namely the perspective of the audience – focussing on what is actually shown to us and which immense effect this industry has on our beliefs and behaviours.

“In the bigger perspective, the lack of diversity in media and popular culture hinders the development towards a more equal society”, explains Matilda Kong, CEO and co-founder of Ceretai. “In the Western world we consume around 10 hours of media per day, of course it is going to affect us!”

Ceretai have built a software that can run through any kind of video and uncover some uncomfortable truths about what we are watching. In this study they have complemented their automated machine learning analysis with looking at Bechdel Test scores**, comparing plot summaries on IMDb, and studying movies’ financial success – all with the aim of defining what is actually “the norm”, and if this norm is worth breaking.

“WIFT International are happy to support the work of Ceretai. The data they produce tells us the inconvenient truth which is necessary to create the change we want,” says Helene Granqvist, President of WIFT International.

The first result from the study gives a thorn in the side to the truths about profit maximisation:

  • Even though movies are still heavily male dominated both behind and in front of the camera**, no financial benefit of having a male lead actor can be seen when studying the 100 movies with most cinema visits in Sweden 2012-2018. If anything, movies including a female lead outperform those with a male lead in this category of highly successful movies.

“Although this specific dataset is too small to deliver statistical significance, the overall results follow the general trend: lack of equality in the film industry that has no feasible explanation”, says Angnis Schmidt-May, Head of Insights and data scientist at Ceretai.

A result that was however significant, and also historically significant since it has never been done before, was found when analysing another set of 100 movies produced in Sweden between 1970 and 2018. It is something Ceretai call “the smile factor”:

  • Women smile on average 2.2 times more than men in movies (referred to as the smile factor).
  • There are movies that have a smile factor of up to 7, but only 8% of movies have a smile factor below 1, meaning that men smile more than women.
  • A movie has the highest probability of financial success if its smile factor is slightly below the average of 2.2.

“What this last point actually tells us is very interesting; why do we as audiences prefer women to smile twice as much as men?” asks Matilda Kong. “It’s a hen-and-egg question – is it because we are taught to like this from the movies we see, or do we make movies that way because audiences like it? I think it’s both, and the smile factor says something about our unconscious biases as well as our movie-making. We all need to ask ourselves if we are okay with these different expectations on men and women.”

And this also ties to the most interesting result of the study – a never-before revealed correlation between breaking norms and gaining financial success. By looking at the content of these 100 movies and labeling them as normative or norm-breaking according to criteria that can be read in this blog post, Ceretai could determine that in the past five years, the financial success of movies that break norms has increased dramatically. Norm-breaking movies now make up more than half of the top performing movies in Sweden every year.

Schmidt-May: “Again, this is not statistically proven, but it indicates that we are witnessing a great upswing in popularity of movies that break norms and defy stereotypes – something that the film industry has long proclaimed that the audiences do not care about. Also, as a side note, it’s pretty funny that almost a third of the movies from 1970 onward that were labeled as ‘norm-breaking’ are adaptations of Astrid Lindgren books. Imagine what it would look like without her.”

In order to enlarge the dataset and determine the norm more accurately, Ceretai also used IMDb and Bechdel Test data. The complete findings can be seen on their web page, but what could be concluded was that even in movies with a majority of women gender equality is seriously lacking, and that passing the Bechdel test is no guarantee for non-stereotypical portrayal. For example, when analysing 8000 plot summaries on IMDb, the most common keyword used to describe movies where the four main roles are female is “mother”.

Matilda Kong summarises: “The most important finding is that the audiences are ready for a change. They are hungry for more movies questioning our normative world, the traditional narratives and stereotypical portrayal. Even though this is of course not the only factor determining the success of a movie, mapping out and understanding what we are watching is immensely important, and Ceretai is determined to keep spreading this awareness – to the film and TV industries as well as to the audiences”.


*Bechdel Test

** Gender distribution in international movies shown in Sweden 2012-2018 (statistics from the Swedish Film Institute)


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,