Using Audience Intelligence to understand how movie audiences respond to Biopics

The biopic has become a staple of the awards season release schedule. In October this year, two high profile titles, First Man and Bohemian Rhapsody, entered into cinemas looking to court both audiences and members of the Academy. But do audiences merely see these films as Oscar thoroughbreds designed to bring home a multitude of statues for their leading men and ladies or do they also recognise a wider significance to the genre?

Using our film analysis tool, LimeLight, we have examined the conversation surrounding several celebrated biopics of this and previous years to ascertain what aspects of this Oscar-baiting genre resonate most with movie-goers.

And the Oscar Goes to…

By looking at a general overview of the three titles we have decided to cover - First Man, Darkest Hour, and Hidden Figures – we can already see a distinct picture as to how audiences perceive and respond to biopics.

Biopic 001

It is clear that the overriding attributes in the conversation around these three biopics are “Awards” and “Acting Performances”. This is fitting since it is within the acting categories at the Oscars this century, biopics thrive like no other genre.

Of the 68 acting Oscars awarded for 21st-century films, 31 of them have gone to actors and actresses playing a role based on a real-life person. This is particularly pronounced in the leading actor category in which 11 of the last 17 awards have gone to the male lead in a biopic. And nowhere can see an audience’s reaction more focused on this than in Joe Wright’s Winston Churchill biopic, Darkest Hour, from 2017.

At this year’s Oscars ceremony, acclaimed British actor Gary Oldman finally won what many felt was a long overdue acting gong for his portrayal of Britain's war-time Prime Minister and it seems that the audience saw little else in the film beyond that purpose.

Biopic 002

The domination of the “Acting Performance” and “Awards” attributes is also reflected in the below word cloud generated by LimeLight:

Biopic 003

We can clearly see how focused the conversation was on Gary Oldham’s Oscar chances in response to the film not only by the actor’s and his character’s prominence in the above word cloud but also in the presence of this year's other Best Actor contenders - Daniel Day-Lewis, Timothee Chalamet, Daniel Kaluuya, and Denzel Washington – all gaining equal attention to the film’s director, Joe Wright, and Gary Oldman’s co-star, Kristin Scott Thomas.

The Oscar pedigree of Darkest Hour’s leading man was also the most prevalent straight away in the film’s release window of late December/early January in the US and UK territories with both “Acting Performance” and “Awards” out-scoring all other factors:

Biopic 004

While the perception of biopics as awards vehicles is undeniable and justified, it is important to stress that audiences are not completely focused on these factors as our other two examples demonstrate.

One Small Step for Biopics, One Giant Leap for LimeLight

The purpose of LimeLight is to give the clearest overview possible of which particular aspects of a film generate the most attention from audiences. Even in a genre which is so often focused on the leading actor and the real-life character they are playing, LimeLight is able to demonstrate that audiences are sometimes looking beyond those factors.

Another important aspect of biopics is the cultural, political and historical significance of their subject matter, but this is something that can swing both ways for a biopic’s fortunes. These fortunes are perhaps best exemplified by two recent biopics concerning the first moon landing in 1969 - 2016’s Hidden Figures and this year’s First Man.

Hidden Figures told the real-life but little-told story of a group of African-American female mathematicians working behind the scenes of the Apollo 11 mission. It is clear that under-played significance of these women’s contribution to the moon landing resonated strongly with audiences as Hidden Figures became a surprise box office hit at the end of 2016 and we can see below that this aspect of the film caught audiences’ attention – both in “Cultural/ Historical Significance” and in “Diversity/Inclusion”:

Biopic 005

The “Diversity/Inclusion” attribute is also reflected in the hashtags most commonly used in conjunction with Hidden Figures, with the likes of #WomeninTech, #BlackHistoryMonth, and #WomeninSTEM (women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) featuring prominently in the hashtag cloud generated by LimeLight below:

Biopic 006

Diversity and inclusion have become a major driving force at the US box office over the last two years with diversity-focused films like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians and Get Out delivering huge successes in cinemas. Hidden Figures was one of the first successes in this modern trend and LimeLight shows us that audiences to reacted positively to this particular aspect of the 2016 sleeper-hit:

Biopic 007

However, in the case of the other moon landing biopic, First Man, LimeLight demonstrates that the film’s Cultural/Political/Historical significance did it few favours at the box office. While Damon Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic was praised by critics and had a major promotional campaign behind it, First Man has failed to generate the expected box office takings (it has taken a meagre $32 million domestically in its first three weeks of release) for the first major big-screen adaptation of the first moon landing.

Although First Man was lauded for its authenticity, the film drew the high-profile ire of the American right wing by not including a scene showing the planting of the Stars and Stripes on the lunar surface. LimeLight demonstrates what seems to have become the dominant discussion point for this film by showing that “Controversial Topics” registers highest in the conversation generated so far by First Man:

Biopic 008

And while controversy can sometimes work to a film’s advantage at the box office, we can see below that audiences were perceiving this particular aspect negatively:

Biopic 009

The below hashtag cloud generated by LimeLight also shows that this negatively perceived aspect of the film could well have caused the film’s disappointing box office performance with #Boycott and #BoycottFirstMan registering highly:

Biopic 010

So it seems the box office fortunes of biopics are just as subject to the political whims of the so-called culture wars as any other genre; however, their undeniable awards potential may mitigate any collateral damage of this in the eyes of producers. And as LimeLight shows us that while audiences may recognise this aspect of biopics above all else, they are also responding to many others within the genre – whether that be to a biopics betterment or not.

If you're interested in learning more about 'LimeLight' and how it can enable better decision making in movie Planning, Production and Marketing then drop us a message to find out more

David Murphy

David Murphy

EntSight Researcher