Color scale
Don't believe what you see

Playful and exploratory

I share reader Bernard L.'s enthusiasm for this very imaginative chart, courtesy of the graphics people at NYT.  The chart captures the ebb and flow of weekly movie receipts over the last two decades.
The details that particularly interest me include:

  • The addition of area colors (on top of lines) serves to highlight box office successes; this really helps readers sort out the massive amount of data
  • Nicely spaced text (and dots) does not interfere with our reading of the chart
  • The hiding of text for less important films, plus taking advantage of interactivity to show their titles if the reader mouses over the respective areas

All of the above indicate a keen sense of foreground versus background.  Besides, the authors had the good sense to speak of inflation-adjusted box office sales; I'm tired of the movie industry proclaiming higher sales each year when ticket prices are rising, and the population is growing.

This is another chart where more data do not easily translate into better communication (see my guest post at Flowing Data).  While I like the playful nature of the interactive chart, it is left to the reader to discover the information buried in the data, such as the assertion in the header that Oscar-winning films typically take time to attain box-office success while many blockbusters do not Oscars make.

In this presentation, it is challenging to compare the total receipts of one film versus another (this requiring comparing oddly shaped, partially obscured areas).  It is also hard to compare across years since the data is spread out over a lot of space.

There may really be two types of graphics: the one like the example here which is a dictionary and designed for exploration; and the other kind where the designer has selected a subset of the data to make a specific point.

Reference: "The ebb and flow of movies", New York Times, Feb 23 2008.


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I also found it pretty interesting that they were putting up such a graphic. I think it shows a growing faith in what readers can interpret and maybe more importantly, what they're willing to accept.

In response to the whole movie industry box office numbers proclamations, I did a (non-statistical) graphic on the top 25 highest grossing films of all time, inflation-adjusted. There's actually very few super-recent movies in that list...

Jon Peltier

This interactive graphic was certainly playful. I spent fifteen minutes scrolling back and forth, to see which brown regions were not labeled with their respective movie names.

To compare movies, you could have an XY chart, where X is the date of release and Y is the total receipts. You would probably see an upper bound, which increases to track inflation.

Another interesting twist would be to take the "thickness" of the graphic, which represents the daily receipts, and plot one series per year, showing receipts vs. day of the year. This would illustrate the seasonal variation of receipts (e.g., higher summer and holiday movies) as well as the year-over-year increase in sales (again tied to inflation).

Janne Pyykkö

An interesting interactive chart indeed. I just wonder which is the reason for some movies being in the negative side of the X axis?


I was wondering the same as Janne, the decision seems to make comparisons more difficult than they might be with a straight baseline. I suspect it may be an aesthetic decision, the designers having seen the awesome lastgraph visualiser*. On the other hand this would lead to some steeper slopes which may be harder to read and also to films with decreasing receipts actually moving up the Y axis.



which is the reason for some movies being in the negative side of the X axis?

I wondered that too, and eventually decided it was just alternating in order of release, like a herring bone. I also decided I approve, as it helps maximise the vertical extent of the graph while preserving a good aspect ratio (if one-sided, the graph would either have to be twice as long, or else the bumps would have to be unacceptably spiky).

What I now wonder is why the center line wiggles, and what the measure that determines the wiggle is. It's not to preserve symmetry of the outside edges. Is it necessary to preserve the position of the box office peaks per release, or just an arty effect?

Jay Parkhill

Looks like the NYT's been following Lee Byron.

That's a good thing, BTW. More people should make things as beautiful as Lee does.

Jay Parkhill

Doh! Just checked out the live graphic and saw Lee Byron's name in the credits.

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