A deep dive into what makes a great movie

Discover more about the movie industry and your favorite films and actors.

Let's start!


Nowadays, movies are part of everyone’s life. Whether you’re young or old, you prefer watching your favorite movie at home or the theater, alone or with other people. You might like watching movies just for the sake of fun and relax, and see that as a bonding activity with your friends and family. Movies might be your way to temporarily escape from real life and problems that surround you. Or you might be more serious movie lover, which appreciates movies as an art form and always tries to learn lessons and acquire knowledge and inspiration from them. Whichever group you belong to, you will find something intriguing in our visualization.

Movie making is a visual art and visual entertainment on its own. We would all rather watch the latest blockbuster then look at the statistics about it, right? But we’ve discovered that visualizing the data about the movies can be fun as well. With this data story, we want to enable you to discover patterns of what makes a great movie. We are giving you the opportunity to interactively explore the most popular movies of all time, by broadening your knowledge about the evolution of the movie industry and thinking critically about upcoming megahits.

To help you get into the core of the most popular movies and the complex relationships that exist between them, we have prepared three visualizations which you can explore. In order to keep the spirit of the topic, we decided to name our visualizations using some of the popular movies which seemed adequate for our graphs. Brace yourself, because “Back to the future”,“Once upon a time... in Hollywood”, and “The social network” are about to start.

Back to the Future

Ever wanted to see all of the most popular movies in the last 50 years, this visualization is meant for you. In the graph below you will be able to dive into the history of movies an see what movies were the most popular, how much they earned, and how much was the budget to make them.

Here are a few ideas of interesting things to look at. Let’s start with the launch of the largest grossing franchise in history: “Star Wars”. Go to the year 1977, and try to find this historical hit. Incredibly popular right, but the budget (size of the dot) isn’t a lot bigger than the flops of that year. You can observe the same trend with the next star wars movie in 1980. Let’s move on to another classic franchise that started in 1981. Do you have an idea which one we are thinking of? If you had Indiana Jones, you were right. Look at the budget, it’s not the most expensive movie that was made that year but it grossed almost double the revenue in the box office.

Now let’s have a look at some of the biggest hits of all times. Let’s start with E.T in 1982, you'll notice that it didn’t have an extravagant budget but that it manage to gross more than 4 times the revenue second best movie that year in the boy office. Let’s finish off with James Cameron legendary hit, Titanic. If you don’t remember the year use the search bar to find it. Titanic shows a different trend than what we observed before. The budget to produce the movie was astronomical, but the return revenue made it the first movie ever to break the 1B$ mark.

We can see that in the 20th century a good movie didn’t have a huge budget. Let’s now look at how things have evolved in the 21st century. Use the timeline control to play through time. We can see a clear trend that the smaller budget movies tend to be less popular and yield les return. To take another great hit made by James Cameron, Avatar, released in 2009. We can observe that it is production budget was one of the largest that year. It was also the first movie ever to gross more than 2B$.

Now, it is your turn to explore!

Once Upon a Time... in Holywood

If you explored the most popular movies, it’s time to switch your focus from movies to genres and see how the genres evolved in the previous half-century. We will also include one more factor in this analysis of the movie history - production houses. Which genre you think of when you see the famous MGM lion roar in the beginning of the movie? What is your first guess when you hear the popular 20th century fox jingle? And can you believe that Walt Disney actually made some thriller movies?

Choose your starting point: genres or production houses. Then, check how the movie production changed through years according to the criteria you’ve selected. By hovering over the graph you can see how many movies of that particular category were produced every year. Don’t forget to take a look at some of the most popular films for your current selection which will appear in the bottom of the graph. Then, click on your favourite genre or production house and do another exploration. We found out which production house managed to shine and fall in 10 years, which genre is becoming more popular than drama and who produced the second best movie of all times - the Godfather!

What will you discover?

The Social Network

Let's now focus on actors! At first sight, with the default parameters, we can see several clusters of actors and the biggest is the Harry Potter saga cluster! Can you remember the name of the actors behind your favorite characters? If not, it's time to refresh your memory and discover what the actors did apart from this saga (yes, they are not only wizards) by right-clicking on the nodes.

If you want to find your favorite actor, try to write his name in the input box and see if it's in our dataset! If it is not, try to decrease the minimal number of common movies between actors, for example let's go big and select 3. Try to look for Ian McKellen and you will see how connected he is with several clusters. After right-clicking on the edges we discover that he's one of the key connections between the Hobbit's saga and Lord Of The Rings' saga, make sense right when you are Gandalf.

At the other edge case (10 common movies at least), looking for actors that work a lot together we find an iconic duo Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson who played together in well-know/classic comedy movies such as Starsky & Hutch, Night at the Museum's saga and main roles in the Fockers' family.

Are you ready to sharpen your knowledge of actors?


And we’ve reached the end of this story. Make sure you reflect on the goal that we’ve set in the beginning - which conclusions and connections did you pull from our movie visualization? From a historical point of view, movies represent a reflection of our society and our culture. As society changed, the movies changed as well, and by looking at the characteristics of the most popular movies of all time, we believe that we could see some interesting patterns and insights.

Although we sometimes watch movies just because they are exciting, thrilling and fun, their value is undoubtedly in acquiring ideas and lessons that we can apply in real life. We would love that the same applies to the data story we created - we hope that you enjoyed the interface and had fun trying out the interactions, but that you also gained knowledge and found inspiration for your future work.


Here is a bit of background on the team behind this project:

Maja Stamenkovic

Computer scientist

Studying for her master's in computer science at EPFL. Bachelor's degree in information technology from the university of Belgrade.

Jeremy Mion

Computer scientist

Studying for his master's in computer science at EPFL. Bachelor's degree in computer science from the EPFL.

Johan Barthas

Data scientist

Studying for his master's in Data Science at EPFL. Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from CentraleSupélec.

Let's Get In Touch!

Comment's or criticism? Don't hesitate to reach and let us know what you think of the project.

Data sources

This product uses the TMDb API but is not endorsed or certified by TMDb.