A Tale of Two Charts: Taking A Second Look at the Box Office

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Charts can tell stories that mere words cannot — a point we can show you by way of example: Let’s start with the most successful films of 2017, as tabulated by TheNumbers.com, and put it in two different charts. Each box office graphic will tell a different story about the same data. One appears above and one will show up halfway down this page.

Of course, we could make this point using data on anything from quarterly e-commerce revenues to the productivity of commercial fishing waters. The benefit of box office data is that movies are more interesting to a wider audience, making it more likely that you will keep reading.

You don’t need a technical background to understand or present insights from data. The only prerequisite you need is that you must care about your audience. So with that in mind, let’s look at how one set of data can tell two very different stories depending on which chart you look at.

Story 1: Beauty and the Box Office

What are the best-selling movies of the year so far and what can we imply from them?

Clearly, Beauty and the Beast is the true monster here with over $1 billion in revenues at the box office. For the audience, the long tail of 16 movies that made under half a billion fades away into insignificance. Astute viewers will note that the top four are two remakes and two sequels. What happened to original stories?

The decline of original stories is a hot topic in the industry right now. If you don’t address that, viewers may question how well you know the data or the industry. A good way into the topic goes through the film Get Out, number 12 on this list. It’s the world’s highest grossing original story by a first-time director, flying past The Blair Witch Project, which held the top spot for two decades. Moral: Originality very rarely pays.

Story 2: Journey to the East

Rewind: What are the best-selling movies internationally and what can we imply from comparing that to U.S. box office sales?

Like one of those movies where a character splits in half and makes an alternate decision at a pivotal point, let’s flash back and visualize the data in an alternate dimension.

Look at the story on the left of your screen. International audiences felt that an American take on an ancient French folk tale (Beauty and the Beast) took a distant second to the multi-continental tale of illegal street racers, based on a news article in Vibe (The Fate of the Furious).

Viewers are also likely to be struck by four films in the top 20 with no blue in the bar — their entire box office was international.

  • Xi You Fu Yao Pian (Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back)
  • Cheng feng po lang (Duckweed)
  • Gong fu yu jia (Kung Fu Yoga)
  • Buddies in India

These four Chinese films didn’t even play in U.S. megaplexes, yet there they are in the top 20. Three of them outperformed films from the indomitable Hollywood superhero genre (Lego Batman and Split) among global audiences.

Joining this Chinese quartet is a Japanese triad in the bottom of the Top 20. That is, three films are based on Japanese stories (Ghost In the Shell, Power Rangersand Rings), while a fourth does homage to the Japanese anime aesthetic plus Hong Kong action films (John Wick 2). There is no better visual of the rising financial power of Asian markets on the film industry.

The Moral of the Stories

The best data visualizations tell the main plot in a glance, so you can discuss fine details too complex to represent visually. The two worst things that you can do with data, which still happens all too often, are:

  1. Telling people exactly what they are looking at
  2. Creating data visualizations too complex to tell their own story

Best practice: Before your next presentation, plot out the story you want your data to tell. Build your visualization around the tale, then support it with insights. Just like making a hit movie, there’s a formula to follow, but there’s plenty of room for creativity inside that framework. The reward for doing it right is a reputation as a rock star data analyst. That’s the kind of story audiences love.

P.S. — If you haven’t done so already, take a look at the source data in table format on TheNumbers, and let us know whether you’d be able to come up with the two different stories as easily without the visualization. If you liked what we showed you in this story, you just might love charting with DataHero — please click here to try it out for yourself!


Mark T.

Mark T.

Chicago, Illinois, United States

Data storyteller -- Mark T is a professional writer on Chicago's Data Lakefront, using hard data and scientific research to tell data stories about innovation, startup culture, emerging global trends, and next-gen tech.

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