Quantified: John Travolta

John Travolta has been on my mind lately. I’m not sure why, exactly, though it probably started when I watched Blow Out a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the career of John Travolta. The way I was introduced to him was through the Look Who’s Talking films but I never fully appreciated him until Pulp Fiction. He’s been in some really great films and some really horrible films, and I thought he would be a perfect candidate to kick off a new column about film and statistics.

Before we get started, however, I have to admit I am not a statistician. Most of the numbers I will look at are pretty basic. My background in stats is really just looking for relationships and interpreting trends. I can do chi square tests, linear regression, and multiple regression, and that’s about it. If I make a mistake, please let me know.

Travolta didn’t begin his acting career in film, but in television. His first hit was in Carrie, but he didn’t become a superstar until Saturday Night Fever. That was followed up with another classic in Grease. The seventies were very kind to Travolta and it earned him an Oscar.

Then the eighties came and out went Travolta as a superstar. His big comeback was Pulp Fiction, of course, and that revived his career as a leading man. Despite a few bumps in the road since, he’s stayed pretty even since then, but has never really matched either two peaks of his career and has started to again fade into the background.

About the Data

Feel free to skip this section if you’re just here for the interesting stuff.

For this article I wanted to use data that was readily available. So I collected Travolta’s list of films, added in the release dates, average IMDB ratings, assigned genres, and included domestic gross. All of that was easy enough to find through IMDB and The-Numbers, but not all films included domestic gross. Because of this, I removed those films from the data set. I also removed any documentaries and television movies. One other movie I decided to cut was Austin Powers: Goldmember due to Travolta’s part being a cameo, and because the film was a smashing financial success, and would have been an outlier that Travolta had little or nothing to do with.

Assigning genre was a little difficult. I wanted to assign only one genre to each film to cut down on the number of variables. For a few films, this was difficult. How would you classify Pulp Fiction? Is it a drama? Not exactly. Is it an action film? Not technically. Is it a mystery? Well, no, it is a crime film, but that is a subgenre, and it’s an ambiguous subgenre at that. In the end, I decided to label it as action. Carrie was also difficult. Not that I can’t decide what genre it is, but because Travolta has only ever done one horror film. So I mixed that in with action, as well. I had the same problem with Battlefield Earth. It’s the only science fiction film Travolta has ever made as well. To stay consistent, I figured that would be an action film, too. In the end I ended with drama, comedy, action, and family. I can completely understand if someone isn’t comfortable with that, but given the sample sizes, I made a compromise.

The Basics

John Travolta isn’t really one of the more constantly working individuals in Hollywood. That’s not to say he isn’t a hard worker. I have no way to know that. Maybe this whole acting thing is pretty easy for him. Maybe he doesn’t really act at all. It’s possible he walks on set without any preparation and reads from cue cards while heavily intoxicated. I don’t know. But I can tell you how many films he’s made (that I’ve included in the dataset), how much money his films have all made domestically, and the average IMDB score of said films. Here. Take a look. I built this chart just for you. No, really, move your eyes down a little and take a look for yourself. Do I have to spoon feed this to you? Look!

John Travolta Film Summary

Number of Films42
Total Domestic Box Office$2,405,619,085
Average IMDB Film Rating5.9

I mention there will be stats in this post and now you don’t want to look at a table. This stuff won’t kill you, you know. I even made the cells highlight when you mouse over it. It’s to make it easier to read.

Is this enough to do any sort of analysis? Well, yes. But there are some assupmtions to be made or debunked. First, the domestic gross of a film makes no difference in how good the film is. By including domestic gross we can’t judge the quality of a film, but we can judge whether or not John Travolta is a bankable star or if studios want to avoid him. IMDB scores are also interesting in that there could be bias toward older films or brand new films with the voting public. Older films don’t have nearly as many votes as new releases. Remember the internet hasn’t really existed for that long of a time. Imagine how people got their movie information before the internet! I remember looking up movie times in the newspaper or calling the theater and pressing buttons until you got the showtimes. So take IMDB scores with a grain of salt. They tell us a lot, but they don’t tell us all we could know. Continuing along…

As you can see, Travolta has pumped out 42 films. That’s 42 films in 36 years, which is around 1.2 films per year. Maybe I’ve used the wrong adjective. Maybe I should have said “Travolta has birthed 42 films”, doesn’t that imply a slightly more laborious* process? That’s not a lot if you compare someone like Sam Jackson. Sam Jackson has 140 films to his credit in roughly the same span of time. Sam Jackson is an acting fool. He acts in his sleep. Half his films are done with his eyes closed. And while it looks like Travolta’s films have made a lot of money, it comes out to about 57 million per film. For a domestic gross, that’s not considered great. It’s certainly not bad. Most films take much less to create, so it’s safe to say that Travolta is somewhat of a bankable quantity.

*I can’t decide if that was intentional or not.

That IMDB average of 5.9 is a little worrisome. If I wanted to cast John Travolta in a film, there’s a good chance the movie is going to be mediocre. It should make its money back, but it may not last in the minds of movie goers. I bet you can’t’ think of all 42 Travolta films I have on this list, can you? Now take the bad ones out and how many have you remembered so far? See what I mean? So is a 5.9 good or bad? Well, first it helps to know that IMDB doesn’t allow people to choose anything other than a whole number. No one actually rated a movie as a 5.9, so it’s safe to say most people are probably rating his movies at around a 6 or so, with enough rating it lower to decrease the whole. I sure wish I could get my hands on the mode for each film. But this is also the average score over 42 films. A true 5 score is in the middle, suggesting that a viewer didn’t enjoy or dislike the film. At least that’s what I’m thinking when I rate a film on IMDB. Below a 5 is certainly bad. Above a 5 is slightly good or memorable. At least that’s my interpretation. So a 5.9 over 42 films is okay.

To break all this information up a little, let’s look at his films by decade. And here comes another table. This is a nice table, you will like this one.

DecadeAverage RatingAverage Domestic GrossNumber of Films

Notice anything? Well, yes, that is a sexy table. Thank you. I’m glad you two are getting along so well now. Travolta started with a bang. That’s a decent chunk of change and a nice IMDB score, to boot. Again, the seventies were good for Travolta. Adjusted for inflation and that $117 million becomes an incredible $642 million. That would be like being in three films as successful financially as Titanic to start a movie career. No wonder Travolta was a huge star then! And then the next decade came along and Travolta planted his urban cowboy boots squarely on the back ends of movie lovers. And it is his fault. He turned down Splash. He turned down American Gigalo. He turned down An Officer and a Gentleman. Travolta couldn’t pick a decent film despite having almost free reign to do anything he wanted while commanding a hefty salary.

The nineties were good, and included his highest rated film ever, Pulp Fiction. He re-established himself as a leading man, and began working again at a much faster pace than before, which is a trend that has continued, with above average results, but he hasn’t found great success since Pulp Fiction.

Take a look at another table. This one is simple, but says a lot!

Highs and LowsTitleDomesticRating
Highest Grossing Film:Grease$181,813,7707
Highest Rated Film:Pulp Fiction$107,928,7629
Lowest Grossing Film:A Love Song for Bobby Long$159,1717.1
Lowest Rated Film:Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000$21,471,6852.4

Here are John Travolta’s peaks and valleys, essentially. Highest grossing film isn’t a mistake. I checked that twice. I checked it three times. And perhaps this is the thing that’s made me happiest about doing this. I thought Wild Hogs was his highest grossing film. It’s not! We don’t even have to factor in inflation! Wild Hogs can suck it!

Travolta would be proud of this table. He’d want everyone to see it. Except for that last line, of course. That was a doozy.

Diving Deeper

This next table (another table!) is one of my favorites. It says a lot. Well, I think it says a lot. It actually says very little. But it implies much more than the words it contains. Is that better? But wait, don’t look yet. What’s wrong with you? Before I couldn’t get you to look at a table, now you’re skipping through all the words and just looking at tables. Did you see my pie charts down below already, too? You’re horrible.

What I wanted to say, before you check out this next chart, is that I’ve done something sneaky. Up until now, I’ve included IMDB as a per film rating, or an average of multiple films. While I am still doing that, it is now a running total. I’ve started to use it as a kind of score for Travolta, himself. I know that the IMDB ratings are for the movie, and it’s possible for a movie to be bad while the actor is good. It’s also possible the other way around. So when someone rates a movie that John Travolta has been in, they aren’t really rating John Travolta. But what I am trying to capture is Travolta’s legacy, to an extent, and this is the easiest way I know how. So with that out of the way (like it was in your way to begin with) take a look.

IMDB AverageFilm TItle
Biggest Improvement0.27
Pulp Fiction
Worst Loss-0.47
Staying Alive
Career High7.40
Career Low5.28
Look Who's Talking Now

See what I’ve done? I have tracked the running average of all Travolta’s films, as they happened. Another caveat, I also realize, and you should too, that IMDB scores change over time. IMBD didn’t exist when Carrie was in theaters. But with this we can see, based on IMDB scores, where Travolta was at the top of his game and when he was at his lowest. Despite the fact that Battlefield Earth is the worst movie ever filmed, and almost caused every director in the world to just give up, it isn’t Travolta’s lowest point in his career. Remember he was working much more at that point and he had been stringing together successes along the way. His lowest total came with Look Who’s Talking Now, while the biggest sinkhole in his career came from Staying Alive, which was pretty early in his career and was the start to a whole lot of bad decisions.

So why has Travolta made the decisions he has? In my opinion, it’s related to genres. Let me explain, but first, a table!

GenreAverage RatingAverage Domestic GrossNumber of Films

Please remember I had to do a little work to make the genres fall as they have. It may not be perfect, but I think grouping both Pulp Fiction and Battlefield Earth into the same genre pretty much negated one another. Out of these four genres, the two that are the highest rated have not made the most amount of money. It’s easy to see why an actor may keep making choices or keep getting work that turns into bad films; Travolta can’t help but to make money! Family movies don’t limit an audience with a strict rating like R rated action films do. Comedy films are generally more universal. That’s not to say a good career cannot be made through family films or comedy films. But it hasn’t been overly successful for Travolta, but it has made more money per film on average.

To visualize this differently, I grouped films into more appropriate categories; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. A film is considered good if the IMDB rating is greater than or equal to 6. A film is considered ugly if it is equal to or less than 4. Everything in between is just bad. Maybe those films aren’t bad, but Good, Mediocre, and Bad doesn’t fit in with my movie motif quite as well. Clint Eastwood would be pissed if I tried to make that work. So look at the breakdown of films based on those three categories.

Notice how many more of the films fall into the Good section than the Ugly? That’s not a bad breakdown, really. That little wedge of Ugly is actually perfectly sized for a single serving. I think an actor is allowed a single serving of Ugly. Perhaps that means they are trying different things and experimenting. The rest of the pie looks pretty appetizing. That middle third is probably the part where you’ve realized you’ve eaten too much pie. It’s still good, but you’ve gorged yourself on it, so it’s not as much fun anymore.

Now let’s look at the same pie, but we will fill it with money this time. Mmmmm, money pie. Writing while hungry is perhaps a problem. Keep in mind this is average domestic gross still.

That pie you thought was pretty tasty? It’s been hiding some gross stuff under that nice looking crust. Now it’s time to go stick a finger down your throat. You don’t want that stuff getting into your system.

I think this tells us a whole lot of why Travolta has made the decisions he’s made. A man’s got to eat, right? Those ugly films sure made a lot of money. Looking at it this way shows there is less reason to care if the film is good. If it makes as much money as the good stuff, who cares?

I sure hope Travolta has got some great films left in the tank. When he’s on, he’s great. When he’s off, I guess he still gets people’s money, but boy does that crap stink.


I will be working on a second part to this analysis and the details of that, well, here’s a little clue what it might be about:


Film TitleDomestic Box Office GrossAverage IMDB Rating
A Civil Action$56,709,9816.4
A Love Song for Bobby Long$159,1717.1
Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000$21,471,6852.4
Be Cool$55,849,4015.6
Blow Out$13,747,2347.2
Broken Arrow$70,645,9975.8
Domestic Disturbance$45,207,1125.4
From Paris With Love$24,077,4276.4
Get Shorty$72,021,0086.9
Ladder 49$74,541,7076.4
Lonely Hearts$188,5656.4
Look Who's Talking$140,088,8135.6
Look Who's Talking Now$10,172,1243.8
Look Who's Talking Too$46,614,4484.0
Lucky Numbers$10,014,2344.9
Mad City$10,561,0386.1
Old Dogs$49,492,0605.1
Primary Colors$39,017,9846.7
Pulp Fiction$107,928,7629.0
Saturday Night Fever$139,486,1246.7
She's So Lovely$7,281,4505.8
Staying Alive$63,841,4744.0
The Experts$169,2034.2
The General's Daughter$102,705,8526.1
The Punisher$33,664,3706.3
The Taking of Pelham 123$65,452,3126.4
The Thin Red Line$36,400,4917.6
Two of a Kind$23,700,0004.2
Urban Cowboy$46,918,2875.9
White Man's Burden$3,622,4335.1
Wild Hogs$168,213,5845.9
All films in final data set of John Travolta films. Data collected through The-Numbers and IMDB.

  • Anne

    Really interesting work. Makes you think!

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