Stuart Fischoff Ph.D.

The Media Zone

The Psychology of Movie Quotes - Part 1: If Good Quotes Are Increasingly Scarce Who's killing the movie muses?

Youth became golden geese while adults became worn out hens.

Posted Oct 26, 2010


..."it's been a while since the movies had everybody parroting a great line. Like, say, "Go ahead, make my day." That was from "Sudden Impact," written by Joseph Stinson and others, more than 27 years ago... Sticky movie lines were everywhere as recently as the 1990s. But they appear to be evaporating from a film world in which the memorable one-liner - a brilliant epigram, a quirky mantra, a moment [captured] in a bottle - is in danger of becoming a lost art."

While reading Cieply's observations, I flashed on the favorite movie quotes research my media psychology lab students and I did a while back and how much the people in the nation-wide sample we polled at the time truly loved offering them up. If we asked for two, they offered five. During the data collection phase of the nation-wide study in 1999, I appeared on several call in radio shows in L.A. and Chicago. The phone were jammed with listeners calling in to register their favorites. Quotes from the Godfather saga, Gone With the Wind, Dirty Harry and Terminator movies, and actually almost anything starring Pacino, Bogart, Brando, Nicholson, Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis, flew through the phone lines. Austin Power's lascivious "Yeah, baby" was momentarily very popular back then...(you had to be there).

I had the same enthusiastic response another time when we surveyed radio audiences on their all-time favorite movies. People love movies (I know this to be true because Dish Satellite Cable keeps telling me that when they're promoting their pay per view services) and almost anything associated with it.

Thinking about it further, Cieply seems on the money. It feels right. Take memorable quotes from the 1970s- 90s, like "I'll be back," from Schwarzenegger's cyborg character in James Cameron and Gail Ann Hurd's The Terminator or, "Yo, Adrian," from Stallone's Rocky franchise, " "You fucking cockroach" from Oliver Stone's script for Al Pacino's Tony Montana character in Scarface or "You had me at hello" from the film Jerry Maguire. They're available to relive on YouTube or via Google. But truly memorable movie quotes of recent vintage? Not so much.

What's happened?

To help answer that, I will try to do several things with this three-part blog. First, I will list the Top 20 of the over 5,000 memorable film quotes we collected in our study. See how your favorite quotes s compare with them. Then I will offer some reasons why memorable movie quotes may currently be as rare as a Democrat confident of re-election in the mid-terms.

Second, "for your consideration" I'll discuss the typology of movie quotes which emerged from analyzing the over 5,600 movie quotes we collected in our survey research. If each quote is counted only once, there were 2,638 separate quotes cited.

Finally, I will discuss how age and sex, and maybe sexual orientation can influence the kinds of quotes to which people are partial. This information comes from the research I mentioned above.

Here's the Top 20 list with additional information about each film quote.

Rank  Quote Citation Frequency Film Source Release Date
1 I'll be back - Terminator 1984
2 Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn - Gone With The Wind 1939
3 Show me the money - Jerry Maguire 1996
4 Go ahead, make my day - Sudden Impact 1983
5 Mama always said life is like a box of chocolates... - Forrest Gump 1994
6 You can't handle the truth - A Few Good Men 1992
7 Hasta la vista, baby -  Terminator 2 1991
8 May the force be with you - Star Wars 1977
9 There's no place like home - The Wizard of Oz 1939
10 Yeah, baby  - Austin Powers - 1998
11 Here's looking at you, kid -  Casablanca 1942
11** E.T. phone home -  E.T. 1982
12 (I'll) make him an offer he can't refuse - The Godfather 1972
12** Bond, James Bond - James Bond Films 1981
13 Are you talking to me? - Taxi Driver 1976
14 I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore - Network 1976
15 Fasten your seatbelts it's going to be a bumpy night -  All About Eve 1950
16 You complete me - Jerry Maguire 1996
17 Hakuna Matata - The Lion King 1994
18 Play it again Sam (actual quote "Play it once, Sam, for old time's sake. Play 'As time goes by.' ") - Casablanca 1942
18** Run, Forrest, run -  Forrest Gump 1994
18** Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more - The Wizard of Oz 1939
**= tied ranks


Movies: Our Favorite entertainment medium
Clearly, movies are pivotal sources of entertainment and gossip. Just as clearly, movie stars are the royalty of celebrities. People love to talk about movies, movie stars, even box office receipts of movies. It's no wonder some have called movies the literature of modern culture. In L.A. the undying, running joke is everyone is carrying around a screenplay... just in case they meet a producer or agent on line in the supermarket, or rear end them on Sunset Blvd. The late Jack Lemon told my wife that a bathroom attendant at the Bel Air Hotel in Beverly Hills. tried to pitch him a script idea in the men's room. It's a jungle out there.

If memorable movie quotes are scarce today, does it say something about the quality of writing? Movie stars may be Hollywood's royalty, but screenwriters are usually the power behind the throne. They write the songs the actors sing. Actors don't make up the words as they go along. So, can't today's screenwriters write quotable lines like the used to? Maybe not.

Or maybe the windows of opportunity are just not there in the abundance they once were.

Take the length of movie scripts and amount of dialogue. For decades the trend in films has been toward more action or visualization and less dialogue. This has been particularly the case as the non-English-speaking foreign market has steadily increased. According to Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service, the proportion of foreign box office receipts of the total box office receipts of American films galloped up from 20% in the 1950s to nearly 68 percent of the roughly $32 billion global film market for American films in 2009. Quite naturally, Hollywood began to make more films that "traveled well," that is, films with minimal complex and/or colloquial or idiomatic American English dialogue. This went in tandem with words (dialogue) and images that spoke for themselves and didn't require a command of English language to follow the plot and plot points.

Eventually, this bottom line trend came to mean that action-adventure, science fiction, animation, horror films, along with special effects and/or violence-suffused storylines were "in" and dramas and culture-bound American comedies (like Will Ferrell's The Anchorman or Elvis Has Left the Building, both of which flopped loudly abroad) were substantially "out," pushed to the rear of the studio production bus schedule. As far as today's Hollywood movie factory is concerned, sex, violence, simple plots, and minimal dialogue is what sells here and what sells abroad. End of story! The impact on truly clever script writing and memorable dialogue was suffocating.

Ah, Youth
Moreover, since the 1970s, as many observers of film industry have noted, movies are geared more for the youth market than for the markets of their parents and grand-parents. Youth attend movies more often will pay to see the same movie more often, are more partial to films in the comedy, action-adventure, horror, fantasy and Sci-Fi genres or classes of films. Further, as our quote research clearly indicated, memorable quotes are more likely to come from the Drama (with Romantic Comedy a close second) genre than from any of the other film genres. Monetarily, youth became the golden goose while adults became the worn out hens.

The deck, then, is stacked against a flood of memorable quotes tripping off our lips or flooding the popular culture online social media repositories like Facebook or YouTube for that matter.

Script Rules of Thumb

It naturally follows that if people are talking less and doing more or special effects are consuming vaster amounts of screen time, the chance for memorable quotes being written or uttered declines in some related proportion..

What about TV as a quote factory?
For those of you who want to write for television, TV series, especially those penned by the likes of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) or David E. Kelly (Boston Legal), or for some hospital dramas like House or Grey's Anatomy (which has its own "Quote" site), where character relationships and complex storylines demand more (and more clever) dialogue, some shows have resorted to characters simply talking faster-sometimes too fast to fully comprehend. But I haven't noticed that in movies. Premium channels like HBO and Showtime, even rebellious and cheeky and decidedly adult-oriented, anti-family-fare F/X, with series like Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck, offer series and movies that are less formulaic and procedural (NCIS or and far more dialogue-infused and special effects-lite -- except for vampire series like True Blood -- in part because of the dramatic preferences of their subscribers for series like Weeds, Dexter, Six Feet Under or The Sopranos.

Generally, TV and premium cable channels are not the source of viral quotes; perhaps because their audiences are relatively small compared to those of the broadcast universe which do, on occasion, generate, if not memorable quotes, then virally popular catch phrases like Seinfeld's, "Not that there's anything wrong with...," . "How you doin'?" -- Joey Tribbiani, Friends, Well, isn't that special?" -- Dana Carvey as The Church Lady, Saturday Night Live, D'oh!" -- Homer Simpson, The Simpsons.

Oh, yes, we now have the revivified catch phrase from the original Hawaii Five-0, "Book 'em, Dano, in the show's revival on CBS. The success of the refurbished series will tell us if we have a Lazarus on our hand or merely a still-dead catch phrase.

On the whole, though, memorable quotes from movies are having trouble finding, the right writer, the right vehicle and the right character's mouth from which to leap into the blood stream of popular culture.

At least that's how it seems from our samples and from the less "populist" tastes of judges culled from the entertainment industry to create what AFI (American Film Institute) called the 100 greatest movie quotes in American films.

Next Time Part 2: Why do we love to speak the words of others?