Evolution within cinemetrics: A quantitative study of American mystery films

Artyom Shelya, Oleg Sobchuk, Peeter Tinits
University of Tartu, Tallinn University

The growing datasets on film production and reception that are increasingly available to researchers have been little used so far in research on style and genre. Our study utilized a corpus of films in order to investigate an apparent trend in the construction of storylines in “mystery” films from 1970 to 2009. Following the observations of Bordwell (2002) on the narrative structure of American cinema, we tested the hypothesis that the amount of temporal discontinuities (i.e. flashbacks and flashforwards) has systematically increased in “mystery” films during the last four decades, similarly to the intensification of some other cinematographic devices (see DeLong et al. 2013). A representative sample of 80 films based on their ranking in imdbPro database was assembled and annotated according to the temporal discontinuities found in the films, as well as their direction, markedness, and several other criteria. The general hypothesis was confirmed, as there was a significant increase of temporal discontinuities in the chosen sample. Additionally, films clustered into two groups depending on the amount of discontinuities present, also differed in their temporal structure, demonstrating a possible divergence within the genre. We interpret the data in light of the models of cultural evolution (Mesoudi 2011) and nomothetic literary studies, addressing the genre evolution as an example of exaptation. This research contributes to the increasing efforts to use quantification for modeling the evolution of artistic genres.


  • Bordwell, D. (2002). Intensified continuity: Visual style in contemporary American film, Film Quarterly 55: 16–28.
  • DeLong, J., K. L. Brunick, and J. E. Cutting (2013). Film through the human visual system: Finding patterns and limits. In: J. C. Kaufman & D. K. Simonton (eds). The Social Science of Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 123–137.
  • Mesoudi, A. (2011). Cultural Evolution. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.