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The Aniston Effect: a Tale of Two Halves of a Career

Today, the Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston flick Wanderlust premiers in theaters. This film marks Aniston's 13th feature film in the post-Friends era. Believe it or not, Aniston's cinematic career spans all the way back to Leprechaun (1993).

Personally I think most of Aniston's films range from average to pretty terrible, with more films fitting in the latter category. However, this is just my own impression of her work. I have no data to back this up. What's more, in order to make an assertion about the quality of her work I would need a baseline to compare it to (e.g., average quality of all movies released, average quality of films released by former Friends cast members) and depending on the yardstick, Aniston could come out better or worse, so it's not really a question worth asking.

On the other hand, I can evaluate the quality of her body of work over time using data from critic and fan sites to determine if there are any interesting patterns in the data (e.g., trends in quality and box office revenue). That is what I aim to do with this post.


I collected the following information on Aniston's films: IMDB rating, RottenTomatoes score, year of release, and domestic box office sales (from This resulted in 24 films with complete data on all four indices. I further coded these 24 films based on the period in which they were released. One film was coded as pre-Friends (Before 1994), Eleven films were coded as during Friends (1994-2004), and Twelve films were coded as post-Friends (2005-Present).

I also collected and computed data on box office take for the average movie released during a given year (not just Aniston's) using data from this chart at Box Office Mojo and some good old arithmetic. I did this to have a statistical control and a benchmark against which to compare Aniston's box office numbers. I would have liked to have done the same for IMDB and RottenTomatoes scores but those data were not readily available.


It seems that there is a curious trend in the data. Below is the graph, see if you can spot it. The size of the dots represent domestic gross of the film, the x axis represents the year of release, and the y axis represents the tomatometer score. You can mouse over each dot to get specifics about that particular film.

It appears that during her Friends period Aniston made movies that were of marginally higher quality (according to critics) than in her Post-Friends period, but the opposite was true for domestic box office sales. That is, her post-Friends films made much more on average than those during her Friends period.

Here is a table with the summary statistics for those periods:

MeanStandard DeviationMeanStandard Deviation
Friends (n = 11)$42,657,838.27$70,509,941.5353.45%24.50%
Post-Friends (n = 12)$65,632,072.67$47,953,985.7638.58%21.82%

What we can see here is that the Post-Friends movies earned about 50% more than the films made during the Friends period. Because of the large amount of variability in the box office numbers (represented here by the standard deviation), these mean differences aren't statistically significant. However, if you simply look at the correlation between year of release and gross it is moderate and positive (r = .43). This relationship even holds if you control for the average film's domestic box office numbers during each year.

Conversely, if you look means for the tomatometer scores it does appear that Aniston's Post-Friends performances have been rated, on average, as worse. Again, variability in the tomatometer scores (standard deviation) prevents these associations from being statistically significant. But looking at the correlation between year of release and tomatometer score we see a small, negative yet not statistically significant association (r = -.18).

So it seems that critics have been less kind to Aniston post-Friends than during Friends, but that doesn't mean her films have necessarily gotten worse. After all, her box office numbers do appear to have increased over time. Has her performance quality declined in the eyes of the audience?

Interestingly, it seems that audiences' positive impressions of her films have slightly increased over time.

Check out this graph:

To put both indices on the same metric I multiplied the tomatometer scores by 10. You can see in the graph (or at least I hope you can) that while the critic's (i.e., tomatometer) scores go down (that -.18 correlation mentioned previously) the IMDB scores have increased at about the same rate (r = .20).

Finally, and I just threw this in for good measure, how do Aniston's movies' box office numbers compare to the average film in any given year? Last graph I promise:

Looks like right as Friends was wrapping up Aniston's movies' box office take started to greatly exceed the average haul of the standard Hollywood movie and basically every movie she has made since that point has been a cash cow. Critics be damned. They can pooh-pooh her performances all they want, it doesn't appear to have any effect on audience behavior.

I'm still not sure which source of data is more reliable in this analysis. An argument can be made that critics aren't rating Aniston's performance, they are rating the movie. However, averaging across movies as we have done here removes some of the movie-specific bias and helps us get a truer estimation of her performance in general. By the same token, audiences might not necessarily be rating her movies positively or going to see them because they think she is a good actress. Many of them might be doing these things for another reason (e.g., they are pining to see Rachel Green again, they feel bad about the whole Brad Pitt thing).

What do you think? Has the quality of her performance increased, decreased, or stayed the same over the course of her career (in which case these opposite trends represent shifts in opinions about her personally)? What about the quality of movies she stars in? Let's continue the discussion in the comments.

What does this mean for Wanderlust?

Given these results I wouldn't be surprised if Wanderlust comes in at a nice sub 40% on the Tomatometer and rakes in a cool $100 million or so. As of the time of this writing (I scheduled it to be posted on Friday) there are no reviews on RottenTomatoes so this is a pure guess based on the data here.

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

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