January 16th, 2012 / 10:56 am

How Many Movies Have You Seen?

Over the past 15 years, I’ve kept track of every movie I’ve watched. What started as a simple task has grown increasingly complicated over time, partly due to ways in which movies have changed, but mainly due to how my thoughts about movies have changed. Still, I’ve kept up the habit, first in a composition tablet (now lost), then a sprawling Excel file (a glimpse of which is above—click through or click here for a larger image). Over time, my list of titles has grown to include more relevant information: the date, location, director, run time, year, whom I saw it with, random thoughts I had.

After 15 years, I’ve seen 1925 features. (I haven’t counted the shorts, or any movies I’ve half-seen—and my list doesn’t take into consideration most of the questions I raised in my last post, “How Many Movies Are There?“, as to what constitutes a feature.) That doesn’t sound like too many, not after fifteen years of avid cinephilia. But to put it in some perspective, that’s roughly 128 feature films/year, or about one every three days. Again, this doesn’t include shorts, or TV episodes, or rewatching any of those films—it’s just counts the total of unique feature films. (I used to watch a lot of experimental shorts that aren’t included here, and I’ve taught film classes, which means I’ve seen lots of films numerous times.) (It also doesn’t take into consideration the fact that I’m a writer first and foremost, a cinéaste second.)

We found last week that there have been at least 268,246 features made. (Since then, the IMDb’s count has grown to 268,601.) So I’ve seen little more than .7% of them—and remember, I think that IMDb count far too low. I’ve seen a drop in a drop in a bucket!

But how many movies does anyone ever see? How does my viewing tally compare to, say, a critic like Roger Ebert’s?

As for Ebert, I haven’t found an official count, but let’s try figuring one out. Ebert’s been working as a professional film critic since 1967. Assuming he’s seen one unique movie a day since then—plausible, although I’d imagine that’s an overestimate, even when factoring in festivals—that would make for roughly 20,000 movies. Again, I doubt he’s actually seen that many, considering days off and rewatching; I’d guess the real total is somewhere between 10,000–20,000. But watching movies is his career and his passion, so let’s say 20,000.

That’s 10 times more than me, although it’s still only 7.5% of total features made. But it’s assuredly more than I’ll ever see. (If I keep watching films at my current rate, by the time I’m 80, I’ll have seen 5715 more, for a total of 7000–8000.)

Obviously watching all of the features out there is totally out of the question. One of the most humbling things I’ve ever read was a small observation made by David Bordwell in his introduction to Planet Hong Kong (2000):

Sometime after [my third trip to Hong Kong], at the urgings of my wife, Kristin Thompson, and my friend Noël Carroll, I decided to write a book. It was a difficult decision, not only because I don’t speak or read Chinese. For one thing, there is already a lot written about this cinema, and there is going to be a lot more. Web pages are sprouting at this moment. Further, I have seen only about three hundred seventy Hong Kong movies. (If you think that’s a lot, you are not yet a hardcore fan.) [my emphasis]


Given that even no one can see everything, a more relevant question would seem to be, “How many movies should you see?” After all, quality counts more than quantity. Variety should count for something, too. According to the MPAA, 5332 films were released between 2001 and 2010 (see page 13 of their “2010 Film Statistics” PDF), and watching them all would teach you a lot about film. But would you learn much more than the state of the Hollywood art?

Most film critics make year-end top ten lists; that implies there are at least ten movies each year that informed viewers deem essential. We’ve had nearly 100 years of feature films, and that times 10 gives us 1000. That number squares with two other possible benchmarks: Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “Essential 1000 Films,” and the 885 films that received votes in the last Sight & Sound Greatest Films Poll (2002). Conflating those two lists (I’ll assign that to my intern) will probably yield a number north of 1000, but far south of 1500.

1000 movies is still a lot of movies! (It’s 7.5 years of viewing, at my rate.) Hence the tendency of critics to whittle their choices down to 100. (Even Rosenbaum has found a way to cut 900 “essential” films to produce a list of 100.) Roger Ebert has assembled his own (contentious) list of 351 “Great Movies.”

Those lists are of course arguments for best movies out there. But should one watch only the best films? Critic Jim Emerson provides a different take with his 2006 list “102 Movies You Must See Before….” As he puts it in his intro:

This isn’t like Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” series. It’s not my idea of The Best Movies Ever Made (that would be a different list, though there’s some overlap here), or limited to my personal favorites or my estimation of the most important or influential films. These are the movies I just kind of figure everybody ought to have seen in order to have any sort of informed discussion about movies. They’re the common cultural currency of our time, the basic cinematic texts that everyone should know, at minimum, to be somewhat “movie-literate.” I hope these movies are experiences we can all assume we share.

Emerson’s list is a good starting place, although some of his choices strike me as questionable: he includes Howard Hawks’s Red River but not Rio Bravo? And Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West but not The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly? The omissions of Star Wars and The Shawshank Redemption—given the list’s stated purpose—seem curious, too. (How can one claim to be “movie-literate” and not have seen them? As opposed to Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game?) (I’ve seen all but 15 of his 102, although I won’t say which ones I’ve missed.)

That said, the problem with Emerson’s list, and with Ebert’s list, is that they’re very Hollywood-centric. (They include some foreign films, of course, but they’re rooted in Hollywood—and in the sound era, to boot.) Also, like most movie critics, Emerson and Ebert use “movie” to mean “feature film,” and only “feature film”—and in doing so, they ignore vast swaths of cinema: shorts, experimental films, amateur filmmaking, video art, TV, commercials, more. (Jonathan Rosenbaum proves, as usual, an exception here. Of all the professional critics I know, he watches the widest variety of films.)

I think about the quality of the movies I’ve seen, and I rank them by means of a simple color-coding. Dark blue means I thought it was excellent. Blue means I thought it was good. Green means it was OK or problematic. Red means I thought the film awful. Out of my 1925, the rankings stand:

  • 227 dark blue
  • 647 blue
  • 565 green
  • 486 red

In other words, I’ve seen 874 good/excellent films…and 1041 awful/OK/problematic ones. That’s not a very promising ratio for future viewing! (If I do watch 8000 movies, that means I should expect to see 1500 more bad/mediocre ones. Ugh!)

But here’s the thing: most of the feature films I’ve seen were made in the past 22 years. (586 were released in the 2000s; 465 were released in the 1990s). Here are the corresponding quality ratios:

  • 2000s: 39 dark blue + 129 blue + 184 green + 234 red = 586 total
  • 1990s: 34 dark blue + 120 blue + 172 green + 139 red = 465 total

I saw 168 “quality films” in the 2000s—29% of the movies I watched. In the 1990s, I saw 154, or 33%. That trend—of the quality percentage increasing—continues if we keep moving backward in time:

  • 1980s: 35 dark blue + 98 blue + 95 green + 101 red = 329 total / 41% quality
  • 1970s: 34 dark blue + 82 blue + 37 green + 8 red = 161 total / 72% quality

This isn’t because older movies are better than modern ones. Instead, it’s because my viewing habits regarding older films are less random—they’re guided less by the logic of “this is what’s out now, so let’s go see it,” and more by “this is what has persisted throughout time—this is what others have argued we should watch.”

I once had a conversation with a professional film critic who told me he’d seen every new Hollywood release in the theater in the 1970s. And, at the time, he and his friends thought ’70s cinema horrible; they complained endlessly about how the films weren’t as good as the ones in the ’30s and ’40s.

“But didn’t you see The Conversation?” I asked him. “Little Murders? Two-Lane Blacktop? McCabe & Mrs. Miller? California Split? The Godfather movies? Barry Lyndon? Night Moves? Taxi Driver? Annie Hall? Days of Heaven?”

“Sure,” he answered. “And we thought they were great. And they were surrounded by hundreds of other movies that no one remembers now…”

The more you watch from the present day, the more garbage you’re bound to see—but your conclusions will be your own. Conversely, the further back you go, the more you’ll be guided by the opinions of others. (If nothing else, what’s available will be largely determined by what’s remained popular.)

Here are my 2010s data so far:

  • 2010s: 4 dark blue + 10 blue + 7 green + 3 red = 24 total / 58% quality

I can only assume it’ll be sharply downhill from here…

Obviously, “quality film” will mean different things to different people. I’m one one of the few viewers who considers Jane Campion’s mid-’90s feature The Portrait of a Lady “essential viewing”—though I’m happy to say the great director Jacques Rivette agrees with me:

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) is magnificent, and everybody spat on it.

I screened it once for a film club I co-founded, but didn’t make any converts.

Some people will think Ebert’s “Great Movies” list too bland, too mainstream. (I’d agree, although it does include many great movies.) Some folks seem happy watching every movie released by the Criterion Collection (831 and counting). Some folks become aficionados of certain genres or regions or time periods—Westerns, musicals, Iranian cinema, Hong Kong action movies, 1930s cinema, silent films.

And there’s more to watching movies than watching great movies. As the cliche goes, you can learn more from a bad film that a good one—or, you can at least learn something. (This is why I’ve watched Inception numerous times, and written extensively about it, and will no doubt continue writing about it.) Thinking further along these lines: I remember Inception, whereas I’ve forgotten dozens of other movies I thought better of at the time. So it would seem that, for variety’s sake, one should see a mixture of both good and bad….

It should go without saying, also, that there’s more to life than watching movies. And even to making them:

More astonishing than the luminous black-and-white images was [Agnès] Varda’s claim that she had seen virtually no other films before making [her debut feature, La Pointe-Courte (1955)] (after racking her brain, she could come up with only Citizen Kane). Whether Varda’s assertion was true or the whim of an artist who does not wish to acknowledge any influence, La Pointe Courte is a stunningly beautiful and accomplished first film. It has also, deservedly, achieved a cult status in film history as, in the words of historian Georges Sadoul, “truly the first film of the nouvelle vague.”

That makes me feel better about my 1925. As well as the fact that I’ve watched a mere handful of Bollywood films, have never seen a North Korean film (there’s a huge industry there), know next-to-nothing about Italian giallo films, or South Korean cinema pre-1998…

It seems the answer is to make use of what you have. (Varda was an accomplished photographer before turning to cinema. And while Citizen Kane was Welles’s own first feature, he brought to it a wealth of experience gleaned from the theater, radio, literature, and stage magic.) When I write about cinema, I bring my knowledge of literature, music, contemporary visual art, dance, philosophy, fitness, um, Magic cards, …

Next week, I plan to circle back some, and try looking at all of this from another angle. Until then, may you enjoy whatever you watch, however much it is. (Including nothing!)

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  1. Anonymous

      Excellent post! There was a patch of time in the mid-2000s where I was watching movies with about the same frequency as you.  In a 5 year period, I literally saw 1200 movies.  I had no Cable TV service :)  I saw everything from the Jean Claude Van Damme to Citizen Kane (tho mostly they were newish releases or new-to-DVD releases).  It got to the point where watching any movie would literally bore me.  It has pretty much all been done before.  And that is the most frustrating part for me.  Even now, I watch VERY few movies, tho I tend to keep up on TV series now.  I commend you on your detailed record keeping and interpretation. A great read…

  2. A D Jameson

      Thanks! I, too, have slowed down a little as of late. Although that’s more because I went back to school, I think…

      Cheers, Adam

  3. postitbreakup

      this is cool although it feels like it might be the precursor to “a beautiful mind”/”pi” type insanity

      pretty soon you will have a catalog of your catalogs of what movies you’ve watched, then you’ll start noticing “patterns” and there’ll be movie posters covering your walls with pins tied together by red string at points meaningful only to you

  4. William Ballik

      I relate.  I have a movies database (database rather than Excel chart) with which I keep track of movies I see, and right now it’s sitting at 1332 movies, though I certainly have not included all the short films I’ve seen (for one thing, I’ve probably seen hundreds of Looney Tunes shorts growing up with The Bugs Bunny & Tweety Show).  Of course, the big problem is that it isn’t even enough to calculate the number of films you ‘should’ see in a lifetime, because surely it’s a more worthwhile experience to see a favourite film several times than several non-favourites.  Which films should you rewatch?  How do you decide how to spend your finite time and resources on Earth?  It’s actually a bit anxiety-inducing for a hobby.  On one hand, it’s actually reassuring and comforting that it’s actually impossible to see ALL the good movies out there — because it means there will never be a point at which there are no surprises left in store.  But on the other hand, it does mean that there will always be something missing. 

      The same applies, of course, to books, and plays, and quality television, and music, and poetry.  And it applies to learning about the great achievements in science, philosophy; knowledge of world history and politics; etc. etc.  Well!

  5. Anonymous

      Funny, I do the very same thing, and I also have four grades (A to D) with exactly the same meaning as your color codes. My sheet is at http://michna.com/movies.xls . See also the statistical evaluations on the other sheets. There is also http://michna.com/movies.htm for those who don’t have Excel or a similar program on hand, but Excel allows filtering.

      My tally stands at around 2220, which includes a few TV series, not counting each episode, only the entire series like one movie. After this lot and given that I only very rarely watch movies older than 1995 these days, I slowly begin to find it difficult to find very good movies. I usually watch about four or five a week in the home cinema.

      One thing I regret a little is that I neglected to record when I watched each movie. If you start your own recording, anyone, learn from my mistake. I also think I should have written a more extensive judgment for each movie, listing its characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. I do it, but I could have done more. The main reason is to make the list more useful for others. I find that movie tastes vary very widely, so my grades may be meaningless to somebody who has different criteria and a different taste. Therefore a more extensive description could be much more meaningful than just one out of four grades.

  6. M. Kitchell

      ” …and given that I only very rarely watch movies older than 1995 these days, I slowly begin to find it difficult to find very good movies.”

      Perhaps you should consider watching movies older than 1995?

  7. Anonymous

      Why should I reconsider? Actually my boundary is shifting up to 2000.

      The main reasons are that older movies are too slow and boring and that the behavior of men towards women and vice versa make the movies tiresome to older and unintelligible to younger viewers. Many old movies seem childish and predictable. I have given up on them.

      I know that many older viewers don’t have this experience, probably for two reasons:

      1. They have seen far fewer than 2,000 movies and are therefore not yet worn out by poorer, slower movies and are less critical.

      2. They have not regularly watched movies together with a young audience and therefore do not know the reactions and the valid criticism of the younger viewers.

      You have to watch old movies until you get tired of them.

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      […] Is this something you do? If you’re anything like HTML Giant’s AD Jameson, you may have tallied some 1925 feature films in 15 years. Which, interestingly enough, is only .7% of all movies released (according to IMDB). Some of you […]

  9. A D Jameson

      People will like what they like.

      Me, my favorite thing to watch is 1930s romantic comedies.

  10. Hans-Georg Michna

      “People will like what they like.”

      Very true. Movie tastes vary a lot.

  11. chris miller

      been doing the same since late 1999. 3,871 so far, but some of those are repeats. i keep track of director, year of release, country of origin, my grade (A+ through F- scale), if it was new to me, and if i saw it in the theater. keep track of all sorts of stupid stats on my site like average grade, how many i watch per month, most watched movies/directors, etc. i don’t keep track of all the shorts i watch very well. that’s very difficult these days with youtube, vimeo, etc. i don’t bother counting those at all. i watched 524 movies one year. my dad watched 410 in the theater alone last year. my goal is 300 every year and lately i’ve been trying for 100 in the theater each year too. only did 98 last year.
      good stuff.

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  14. BeauOnTheJob

      In a way the sheer number of movies out there makes me very happy. To me it means that no matter what there is always another good movie I haven’t seen yet.  

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      […] this all came up after I read this article by A D Jameson about watching 1,925 features over the course of 15 years. I think I have him beat, […]

  16. Lauren

      Ooh, I always like articles like this. I’m 21, and have been keeping a film log since the start of 2006. I have an Excel spreadsheet where I’ve also added everything I’ve ever seen (I’ve kept a diary since 2002 and I used those as a reference, as well as memory).

      ANYWAY, I have currently seen 2734 altogether (2093 since I started my log). For the last year I’ve been watching at least 2 movies a day, so I get quite a bit watched.

      And just because I like showing off my spreadsheet:

  17. Lauren

      Ooh, I always love articles like this. I’m 21, and have been keeping a
      film log since the start of 2006. I have an Excel spreadsheet where I’ve
      also added everything I’ve ever seen (I’ve kept a diary since 2002 and I
      used those as a reference, as well as memory).

      ANYWAY, I have currently seen 2734 altogether (2093 since I started my
      log). For the last year I’ve been watching at least 2 movies a day, so I
      get quite a bit watched. I watch anything and everything, though I tend to be hard to please and am known on some online film communities as ‘The Hater’ :'(

      And just because I like showing off my spreadsheet:


  18. Anonymous

      Great article. Have been keeping track of the movies I’ve seen using imdb.com and rating movies I’ve seen using their service. A lot of the info you guys are documenting in spreadsheets is detailed in their software and you’re able to extract this against lists. Just want to let you know in case you used their site.

  19. A D Jameson

      Thanks for the comment! I’ve used the IMDb a lot in my film research, but never thought about using it to catalog what I’ve seen. Thanks for the suggestion!

      Also, how many films have you seen? :)

  20. A D Jameson

      Thanks for chiming in, and sharing!

  21. A D Jameson

      Thanks for sharing!

  22. A D Jameson

      I usually don’t track much film data beyond title, director, year, and run time, because I figure I can look the movie up if I want to see the rest. But sometimes then I can’t remember what a film is… I also keep track of when I’ve seen it. I have a separate sheet where I track how many times I’ve seen each film.

      Part of why I like recording the things I record is that it makes watching movies more fun. Your sheet, with all its boxes to check, looks like a blast…

  23. Anonymous

      Have seen 1,089 movies so far, and use imdb.com to document what I’ve seen. Am feeling its becoming a bit of an obsession. Just out of interest what would you rate as the best film of 2011 that you saw?

  24. A D Jameson

      I know I’m obsessed!

      For what it’s worth, here’s how I currently rank the features I’ve seen, 2010–present:

      2010    Loong Boonmee raleuk chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives)
      2010    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
      2010    Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones Review
      2010    The Ghost Writer
      2011    Drive
      2012    Star Wars Uncut: Director’s Cut

      2010    Film Socialisme
      2010    L’illusionniste
      2010    Mistérios de Lisboa (Mysteries of Lisbon)
      2010    Runaway
      2010    Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith Review
      2010    You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
      2011    Captain America: The First Avenger
      2011    Haywire
      2011    Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Review
      2011    Midnight in Paris
      2011    Source Code
      2011    X-Men: First Class

      2010    Let Me In
      2010    Shutter Island
      2010    The Pink Hotel
      2011    Genesis Caul
      2011    Super 8
      2011    The Cabin in the Woods
      2011    The Tree of Life
      2011    Thor
      2012    Prometheus

      2010    Inception
      2010    Iron Man 2
      2010    Road to Nowhere

      2010    Vidal Sassoon: The Movie

      There’s more along these lines here, here, and here.

      …How about you?

  25. imranawan

      My favourite movies that I’ve seen over the last year are as follows:

      The Dark Knight Rises (saw it last week) – and thought it was a great film. Not as good as the TDK (in my opinion), but a  worthy conclusion to the trilogy. I just hope WB don’t reboot the franchise a la Spiderman.

      The Ledge (2011)
      In Time (2011)
      The Social Network
      The Big Year

      Agree with some of the titles you’ve listed in the OK/mediocre category. Really wanted to enjoy Let me in (as its a remake of a Swedish film I believe). Thought Shutter Island was over-rated and a little too clever for its own good. 

      Would disagree with you about Inception as its one of my favourite movies. I remember seeing at the cinema 2 years ago, and was blown away by the premise, story and music. I do see how the film doesn’t appeal to everybody and if you didn’t see it at the cinema I can understand your perception. I didn’t see Avatar at the cinema, and when I watched it on DVD I didn’t think it was a great movie (interestingly I still don’t).

      Have been watching a few more TV series over the last year. Have really enjoyed Seasons 1 and 2 of Game of Thrones on HBO. The production values are very high, with a great story and cast, and you often forget you’re watching a TV show. Episode 9 of Season 2 depicts a massive battle, and the action and visual effects rival many of the movies I’ve seen. Am currently watching Season 1 of Homeland which is pretty good and reminds a lot of 24.

      I often find TV series are a lot more satisfying as the characters are fleshed out and the plot takes place over a longer period of time. There’s often a greater payoff, as you’re invested in the show. I find when you’re watching movies its a lot more hit and miss. For example I watched a pretty poor thriller called ATM (2012) this weekend which was one of the weakest movies I’ve seen in a long time. 

      Am up to 1,127 movies now. Its still an obsession but am trying to control it and harness it in a good way.

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  28. The Chosen One

      Depending on what constitutes a movie, from 3500 in the most cine-centric,non-docu version, up to about 4500 when docus and long form TV presentations are counted, up to about 11000 with IMDb-able shorts, to 21500 including every IMDb rating and tens of thousands more YouTube videos and then there’s videos in video games too :)

  29. Akshay Dhar Rastafari

      OK… Here am I, after 7 months since my last post here..
      I had seen 825 flicks at that time. Now my count has gone up to 1066. That’s 241 movies in 7 months. Its like 34 each month & almost a movie every day.!!!

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      […] watch. Is this something you do? If you’re anything like HTML Giant’s AD Jameson, you may have tallied some 1925 feature films in 15 years. Which, interestingly enough, is only .7% of all movies released (according to IMDB). Some of you […]