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An In-Depth Comparison of the Cinematic Careers of Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton

In our inaugural podcast we played a game called "How Smart Are You?" This specific game included a quiz where Jordan and I had to decide whether the movie title we were given by Dean starred actor Bill Pullman or Bill Paxton. After the game, I made the assertion that both actors have had mediocre careers, but I believed Paxton had starred in more "blockbusters" than his colleague and pseudo-doppelganger Pullman. Jordan challenged this assertion and I promised to provide a thorough evaluation of their film careers including both box office records and critics' ratings. Here is the result of those analyses.

Data Collection

I compiled two separate lists of movies for both Pullman and Paxton from I did not include tv series, made for tv movies, and shorts in the list. This resulted in a total of 54 movies starring Pullman and 51 movies starring Paxton. However, one film (Brain Dead, 1990) starred both actors and was excluded from the analyses (total 103; 53 Pullman, 50 Paxton). I then went on to collect the following pieces of information:

Box office numbers - For each film I collected the recorded gross from when available. This resulted in box office data for 78% of the films. For ease of representation, these numbers are reported in millions of dollars in the following analyses.

Critical Acclaim - Where available I procured ratings (103 ratings; 53 Pullman, 50 Paxton), tomatometer scores (79 ratings; 42 Pullman, 37 Paxton), and ratings(38 ratings; 24 Pullman, 14 Paxton)


Box Office

As can be seen in Table 1, Pullman's box average box office gross is roughly 34.5 million dollars less than Paxton's box office average. This difference, however, is not statistically significant given the huge amount of variance in box office numbers. Nonetheless, it is hard to argue that a 34.5 million dollar difference is not practically significant, unless, of course, you are a banker or a politician.

 Table 1
Means and Standard Deviations for Box Office Gross Separated by Actor


# of movies
# of movies
Box Office

Recorded Gross

Note: Recorded Gross is reported in millions of dollars. 

But this leaves the question of who has starred in more "blockbuster" films to be answered. What constitutes a "blockbuster" anyway? Well, one source claims that when Jaws broke the 100 million dollar mark in 1970 it officially became the first "blockbuster" in America. Sounds like as good a cut-off as anything. Let's take a look at the top ten highest grossing films of both actors

Paxton's top 10 films out earned Pullman's by $1,096.5 Million dollars. What's more, Paxton's highest grossing film (Titanic, 1997) made more money than Pullman's top 5 highest grossing films. Finally, if we use the > 100 Million = "blockbuster" rule we see that Paxton narrowly edges out Pullman 8 to 7.

Critical Acclaim

Next up is evaluating the critical merit of each actor's films. Thus Table 2:

Table 2
Means and Standard Deviations for Critical Acclaim Separated by Actor


# of movies
# of movies
Critical Acclaim




Note: IMDB =, RT =, MC = IMDB ratings have a range from 0-10, Rotten tomato ratings represent a percentage from 0%-100%, and Metacritic ratings have a range from 0-100.

As can be seen in the table, IMDB scores are pretty much a wash for both actors, so perhaps viewers see no significant difference in the quality of each actor's body of work.

Paxton's RT average is about 5 percentage points higher than Pullman's, but this is not statistically significant. 33.3% of Pullman's movies are rated "Fresh" (> 60% positive reviews) whereas Paxton's films come in at 51.4% fresh. If you place a more stringent standard on "freshness" (i.e., 75%) you find that Paxton still just edges Pullman out (29.7% vs. 23.8%). It is interesting to note that Paxton has starred in three movies on with higher scores on Rotten tomatoes (Terminator 100%, Aliens 100%, Apollo 13 97%) than Pullman's highest rated movie (The Last Seduction 94%).

Finally, Paxton did have a higher average metacritic score by 11.19 points and this difference was statistically significant.

Oh and in case you were wondering, the only Pullman/Paxton collaboration to date (Brain Dead, 1990) was a failure on pretty much all fronts with poor box office numbers ($1.74 Million), average to below average viewer support (IMDB = 5.9), and critical disdain (RT = 17%). Here's a trailer:


Based on these analyses, I am prepared to conclude that Paxton's films have out-grossed Pullman's, Paxton has starred in more "blockbuster" films, and Paxton's films are generally more well-received by critics than Pullman's whereas the casual viewer does not seem to favor one actor's performances over the other. I'd say this is -- pardon the pun -- a titanic victory for Paxton.

There are too many limitations in this work to list. So please feel free to post them all in the comments. Oh, and if you would like access to the dataset I used, please let me know. I can provide you it in both .xls and .sav (spss) formats.

This post originally appeared on Stuff Smart People Like. Subscribe to the Podcast.


  1. I call shenanigans on Titanic there. That was some kind of "selling your soul, deal with the devil" bullshit. I only have one thing to say "Zero Effect."

  2. Interesting. I'd argue that if you wanted to count Titanic as an outlier, you would also need to eliminate Independence day. Titanic is 5.6 standard deviations above Paxton's mean and Independence day is 5.3 standard deviations above Pullman's mean (the next highest Z score for either actor is 1.3). If you eliminate both from the analysis Paxton still edges Pullman 51 Million to 36 Million. If you only eliminate Titanic, Paxton narrowly beats Pullman by $1 Million (51 vs. 50).

    Oh and The Zero Effect? ($ = 1.98 million, IMDB = 6.9, RT = .69)

  3. While Paxton may have grossed more in film, I would argue that Pullman has been better able to make a transition to TV. This is based on an exhaustive review of available information. And by information I mean a commercial I saw the other day in which Pullman has a role in an upcoming TNT original.

  4. True. I mean all Paxton did was "Big Love." What an unsuccessful endeavor that was...

  5. No one really watches HBO anyway. Plus, Pullman was on Cagney and Lacey. Bam!

  6. "Mediocre" is kind of harsh. They've had great careers for second lead/character actors! A man can make a good living popping up here and there like these guys.

    Are these Global numbers or Domestic? Would that change the outcome to only consider one? Maybe Pullman is big in Europe!

  7. True. Given these numbers I would say they have both had "good" careers. That is, if you choose to define good as box office numbers. These numbers don't reflect how much money each has made per picture. I'm not sure how to get that information (though I am sure that it exists somewhere on teh internets).

    Pullman has not been nominated for any of the major awards (e.g., golden globe, oscars, SAG) whereas Paxton has been nominated for 4 golden globes (all for television performances) and has been nominated -- as part of a cast -- for two SAG awards with one of those being a win (won for apollo 13, but not for titanic). So if awards determine quality, then I'd say both are pretty mediocre.

    The numbers here are worldwide recorded gross according to

  8. Awards are bunk in my book. Nicolas Cage has an Oscar for fucksake.