Do spoilers really harm box office returns? Surprising study suggests they actually help!

HOUSTON, Texas — Directors, actors, and movie studios often go to great lengths to ensure the plots and surprises in their films remain a secret. Leaked early plot details, or “spoilers,” are especially prevalent when it comes to blockbuster franchises like The Avengers or James Bond. Fans are anxious to find out what happens to their favorite characters next. Interestingly, a new study finds that all the movie studios out there may want to change their approach to spoilers. Researchers from the University of Houston and Western University say more spoilers usually leads to increased box office revenue.

Most in the film industry have believed for decades that spoilers are bad for business. If everyone knows what happens, why would anyone pay to see it? That certainly makes sense in theory, but researchers find today’s fast-paced, inpatient culture has a high tolerance for spoilers. Modern consumers are happy to read the spoilers and pay to see the genuine product.

Researchers also theorize that many would-be moviegoers just want to know what they’re getting themselves into.

“We postulate that uncertainty reduction is the driving mechanism behind this positive spoiling effect. If potential moviegoers are unsure about the quality of a movie, they are likely to benefit from the plot-related content of spoiler reviews when making their purchase decisions,” says study co-author Jun Hyun (Joseph) Ryoo in a media release.

Analysis of movie reviews by critics and box office performance

Researchers examined box office revenue for movies released in the United States between January 2013 and December 2017. The team also matched each movie with its reviews on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). To measure spoilers leading up to theatrical release, the team closely analyzed movie reviews to see how much critics discuss the film’s plot.

This process came to a surprising conclusion. Spoiler intensity has a positive and significant link to box office performance. Spoilers seem to help movies that receive moderate reviews more than films that garner either high praise or bad reviews. Movies with smaller advertising campaigns also benefit more from spoilers.

“The positive spoiling effect is also stronger for movies with limited release, which is a strategy often employed by independent and arthouse studios associated with greater uncertainty in terms of artistic quality. And the positive spoiling effect declines over time, likely because consumers have greater uncertainty in the earlier periods of a movie’s life cycle,” notes study co-author Xin (Shane) Wang.

“The uncertainty-reduction mechanism suggests a spoiler-friendly review platform can help consumers make appropriate purchase decisions. We recommend that review platforms keep the warning labels on spoiler reviews because of the benefit of allowing consumers to self-select into the exposure to spoilers,” study co-author Shijie Lu adds.

The study is published in the Journal of Marketing.

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