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Last week there was a long and well-written piece in The Guardian commenting on the recent trend of action stars getting older.  It covers a number of topics but its main thrust is that action stars are getting older because we want different things from our action heroes than we once did.  The author, Adam Mars-Jones, posits that increasingly the most important attribute for an action heroes is ‘gravitas’. He writes…

Gravitas is the indispensable element in this context: the moral stature that can complement physical power and even make it irrelevant, which seems to be viewed culturally as a male preserve. This quality is hard to define, though, even as it applies to men. Perhaps it is simplest to describe it in negative terms, as “what Tom Cruise will never have”… To have gravitas means to inhabit your history, and not to be diminished by your losses. And if that isn’t quite the same thing as real-world maturity, on the big screen it is the best we are going to get.

The piece looked at a few particular stars, rather than measuring the average over time.  So I thought I’d take a look and see if indeed our action stars are getting older.  In summary…

  • Between 1996 and 2015, the average age of an ‘action star’ was 40 years old
  • The year with the lowest age was 2005, when the average ‘action star’ was a sprightly 35.5 years old
  • In the first six months of 2015 we have seen the oldest average age at 48.4 years
  • 40% of action stars were aged 30 to 40 years old and 28% were 40 to 50 years old.
  • During 1996-2015, the average age of directors of actions films was 45 years and 10 months. 

Warning – Research such as this is always slightly speculative. Defining which movies to include as well as what makes a ‘star’ will inevitably affect the results. Therefore, at the bottom of the article I’ve been clear about my methods and criteria so you can judge for yourself how valid you think my findings are.

In fact, if we go by length, a whopping 47% of the following article is the methodology, caveats and mitigation, with just 37% showing the results.  Sorry – normal service will be resumed next week.

Average age of action stars

Between 1996 and 2015, the average age of an ‘action star’ was ever-so-slightly under 40 years old (39 years, 11 months and 15.8 days, to be precise).  

The year with the lowest age was 2005, when the average ‘action star’ was a sprightly 35.5 years old.  In the first six months of 2015 we have seen the oldest average age at 48.4 years.  

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Ed emailed me to ask “It seems to me that most of the best British films… are documentaries.  Is this true?”

Thanks for the question, Ed.  In order to look at this, I built up a list of feature films shot in the UK between 2003 and 2014 (2,688 films) and looked at the genres of the highest rated films according to both film critics and audiences.  In summary…

  • The average score given by film critics to British films (2003-14) was 58 out of 100
  • The films loved most by film critics were disproportionately dramas, historical films and biographies
  • Horror accounts for 13% of the films made in the UK but only 3% of the films with a MetaScore of at least 80
  • The average IMDb user rating for British films was 6.2 out of 10
  • The top British films according to IMDB users feature a larger than average number of documentaries, biographies and action films
  • Documentaries account for 23% of the top British films according to critics and 38% according to audiences.

Defining “The Best of British”

I built my list of films shot in the UK from BFI tracking data, cross-referencing their genres from IMDB (which I’ve written about previously).  MetaCritic’s MetaScore combines all of the major reviews for a film and provides an average score out of 100, giving me a good measure of each film’s critical reception.  To gauge each film’s appeal to audiences I looked at IMDb user ratings, which is a score out of 10. 

I regarded a MetaScore of 80 or above to be the film critics’ “Best of British” as this is equivalent to at least a four out of five star review. Likewise, I chose an IMDb rating of 8 or above to be the audience’s “Best of British” list (40 films).

Half of all films scored between 50 and 70 from critics, with an average score of 58 and the average IMDb user rating was 6.2.

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Currently on its sixth week of release, Asif Kapadia‘s feature documentary Amy is performing extraordinarily well and looks like it will become the best performing British documentary of modern times (beating Asif’s previous film Senna). Its current box office gross is around £3.5million and so only time will tell if it will unseat Fahrenheit 9/11 as the UK’s best performing documentary ever, which grossed £6.55million in the UK in 2004.

The success of Amy has led a couple of people to ask me how documentaries normally fare in UK cinemas.  In summary…

  • Amy has already grossed more than 166% of all the documentaries released during 2010 combined
  • Documentaries account for over 20% of feature films made in the UK
  • But only 1.9% of the total spend went towards their budgets
  • 95% of UK documentary features are made without support from a US studio
  • During 2001, there were only 4 documentary feature films released in UK cinemas.  
  • By 2013, that figure had grown over twentyfold to 89
  • In 2010, documentaries accounted for just 0.2% of the UK box office
  • The average documentary release is in UK cinemas for 7 weeks
  • Amy has been released in more UK cinemas that the average action movie

One in five UK films is a documentary

Documentary is the most popular genre for UK filmmakers, accounting for over one in five films made in the UK.  That said, we don’t seem to spend all that much money on them.  Despite documentaries making up almost 21% of the films made in 2013, only 1.9% of the total spend went towards their budgets.

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