Spoiler Alert: Leaked Details Can Actually Help Films

What kind of movies benefit the most from viewers knowing what they're getting? No more spoilers; you'll have to read on to find out!


Whether it’s the latest Marvel movie or or a new Star Wars sequel, one thing most movies have in common is the difficulty of keeping surprise plot twists hidden after a premiere.

Spoilers are everywhere, and no one seems to agree on how soon is too soon to discuss them. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that the directors of Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame had to release an open letter ahead of the film’s premiere begging fans not to spoil the ending for fellow moviegoers. Clearly, spoilers are bad for business — or are they?

While many might think that knowing how a movie will turn out before watching it unfold on the screen would harm ticket sales, a new study from Western University has found just the opposite: reviews that spoil a movie’s plot can actually help to boost the movie’s box office revenue.

The study was led by Jun Hyun (Joseph) Ryoo, a doctoral candidate in Western University’s Ivey Business School, and published in the Journal of Marketing.

To spoil or not to spoil?

While movie spoilers may intuitively seem like a bad thing, Ryoo was interested in creating a metric that determined whether or not this was actually the case — and, if so, how severely spoilers impacted a movie’s success.

“I’m a big fan of the entertainment industry, and it’s just such an intuitive question — do spoiler alerts really keep moviegoers away? — that it deserved to be answered by providing a new metric,” Ryoo said in a press release.

To answer this question, Ryoo and his collaborators assembled a data set of more than a hundred thousand movie reviews from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) for nearly 1,000 different movies released in the US.

IMDb movie reviews can be tagged with a spoiler label, and the team took advantage of these tags to determine which words or phrases were most likely to be associated with spoilers for a given movie. They did this using a machine learning algorithm that was able to sort through the thousands of reviews in their data set, creating a metric that described how intense the spoilers were for each movie — in other words, how much of the movie was revealed in its spoilers.

The team then compared these “spoiler intensity metrics” to each movie’s box office revenue, finding that in general, movies with a higher spoiler intensity tended to earn more at the box office.

Experimental films reap the rewards of spoilers

After determining that spoilers can indeed help a movie achieve box office success, the team was interested in learning whether or not this metric affected all movies equally. For example, while big-budget Hollywood movies from popular franchises are likely to draw audiences regardless of their reviews, will spoiler-laden reviews provide a bigger boost to more obscure, limited-release films?

Ryoo and his colleagues investigated this question by separately considering the release type, movie age, advertising budget, and average user rating for each movie in their data set. They found that movies characterized by greater uncertainty for moviegoers — for example, limited-release movies or those with small advertising budgets — benefited much more from high spoiler intensities than more mainstream films.

“The independent, experimental, avante garde films — those movies tend to increase ‘purchase concern’ because of quality uncertainty,” Ryoo said.

Moviegoers typically know what to expect with big-budget franchise movies — but for a lesser-known film of uncertain quality, a spoiler-heavy review may be the nudge consumers need to give the movie a chance.

The team also found that spoilers were most advantageous to movies with moderate or mixed ratings, as opposed to those with very high or very low ratings. In cases where ratings are extremely skewed in one direction or the other, moviegoers have likely already made up their minds about whether the movie is worth seeing.

“[I]f consumers are highly uncertain about seeing a movie, and spoilers provide more information about it, consumers are on average more likely — not less likely — to make that purchasing decision,” Ryoo explained.

“For those who have no intention of watching the movie or plan to watch it anyway, spoiler reviews are expected to make no difference in their plans.”

Using spoilers to a movie’s advantage

Ryoo’s results can help movie studios decide where to focus their efforts when promoting a movie. Rather than trying to keep major plot twists hidden, for example, producers of lesser-known movies may benefit from leaving spoilers up on movie review sites — as long as they come with a spoiler label, of course.

For movies with limited advertising budgets, spoiler-heavy reviews could also be a cost-effective way to increase audience sizes and box office revenues.

“They can think about the budget and try to allocate their funds better after a movie release,” Ryoo said.

Movie spoilers may not be for everyone — but when it comes to independent or experimental films, they may be the difference between a box-office success and a box-office flop.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.