A demand analysis of historical fiction in film

5 January, 2024

Image: Oppenheimer

Humans have long been fascinated with the past and with the great people that have shaped our history. In the last century, films and television series have been a useful vessel through which to view the past, whether a non-fiction documentary or a fictionalized retelling of a specific event or person. This latter genre is often dubbed historical fiction or, in the case of “great people”, a biopic. Works of historical fiction have long been a staple of Hollywood, but with a particularly strong showing from the genre in 2023, it’s worth re-examining the particular demand trends and traits of historical fiction and biopic films.

Several of the biggest films of 2023, both at the box office and in the mind of critics, fell into the category of historical fiction or biopic. This includes but isn’t limited to: Oppenheimer, Maestro, Killers of the Flower Moon, Napoleon, and Priscilla. In terms of demand for these films, the below chart shows that these titles each sat at above 10 times the average demand for films in the latter half of 2023. In fact, Oppenheimer was the third most in-demand film overall for that period, regardless of genre, and was the third highest grosser at the global box office.


For a three hour biopic largely reliant on complex political plotlines and the audience’s assumed knowledge of its subject, this kind of success is unusual. Of course, many factors played into the achievements of Oppenheimer but its remarkable story as well as the above average demand from other films in the genre begs the question: is historical fiction back? The genre never really “went away”, but its popularity has been historically confined to critics’ circles and the awards circuit. Below shows the top five in-demand “history” films released in 2023 and the top five of the same category from 2018. 


Here we can see that in 2018 only three historical films were above 10x the average demand, with none reaching 20x. Similar numbers hold for 2019 and 2020 as well. In 2023 by contrast, all five are above 10x and three are at least 25x.

In order to better understand who exactly is watching these types of films, it’s worth looking at audience demographics such as age and gender. When comparing these four in-demand historical films from 2023, we can see that, unsurprisingly, the audience is overwhelmingly male and older than 30 (Millennials or Gen X). This isn’t necessarily a new trend, but it does point to the fact that even with a “resurgence” in historical dramas recently, the genre is still heavily populated with stories about male figures and/or wars or conflict throughout history, which of course will appeal more to male audiences, especially of an older generation. 


But, there were a few standout genre-benders last year like the aforementioned Priscilla which mainly follows Priscilla Presley, played by Cailee Spaeny, as opposed to her husband Elvis, himself the subject of a biopic in 2022. Killers of the Flower Moon additionally presents itself as different from the norm due to its positioning of the men in the film as the antagonists and the protagonist being an indigenous woman, played by Lily Gladstone. Both Spaeny and Gladstone were relative newcomers to the film world before landing their respective roles, but demand data shows that portraying a real-life person can offer tremendous boosts to the popularity of talent.


Notice how each actress gets a boost in demand around the time of her film’s release date and is even sustained at these levels after the initial jump. All of this goes to show that there is serious demand for historical dramas or biopics in the film world as well as a highly interested, identifiable target market with clear taste preferences. Considering how well films of this genre performed this past year and how much of a boost it gave their stars, studios would do well to put more historical fiction on the development slate.

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