Top of the Charts: Can Hit Songs Make Hit Movies?

Three songs this year that reached the top 10 on the weekly Billboard Hot 100 are from film soundtracks: “Just Like Fire” by Pink, from Alice through the Looking Glass,“Can’t Stop the Feeling!” by Justin Timberlake from the upcoming release Trolls, and “Heathens” by Twenty One Pilots from Suicide Squad. Yet Alice has underwhelmed at the box office, and current projections are not favorable for Trolls. This raises the question: do hit songs actually correlate with box office success for their source films?

According to a analysis of hit songs from both recent years and historically, the answer mostly appears to be yes.

So far this decade alone, every soundtrack song that has charted top-10 on Billboard came from a movie that made at least $100 million, if not much more. If Alice continues at its current lackluster pace, “Just like Fire” will be the first top-10 song from a film that earned less than $100 million since “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus from 2009’s Hannah Montana: The Movie. Since then, top-10 songs came from such blockbusters as:

But did the success of those songs help meaningfully contribute to the sizable hauls of their respective films? Or was it primarily vice versa, that the films’ success led to the songs selling well? The “correlation versus causation” paradox is of course impossible to ascertain or precisely quantify.

Yet while factors such as trailers, marketing campaigns, star power, reviews, and word of mouth doubtless matter most to revenue, hits songs surely play at least a small role in increasing awareness of films. And sometimes they play a large role. The “See You Again” music video prominently features Furious 7 clips and has become the second-most-viewed video in YouTube history (behind only “Gangnam Style”) after barely more than a year since its original upload, with more than 1.9 billion views. The “Love Me Like You Do” music video similarly featured clips from its source film and is currently the 19th-most-viewed YouTube video of all time, with more than 1.2 billion views.

In fact, there has almost never been a hit song from a poorly grossing movie, but there have often been hit songs from poorly reviewed movies. Top-five charting songs including “Kiss From a Rose” by Seal from 1995’s Batman and Robin, “Wild Wild West” by Will Smith from 1999’s film of the same name, “Bring Me To Life” by Evanescence from 2003’s Daredevil, and “Doesn’t Really Matter” by Janet Jackson from 2000’s The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps are all from films that grossed at least $140 million when adjusted for ticket-price inflation, despite their bad reviews from both critics and audiences.

Some of the most famous popular songs have come from movies, starting with the first “talkie,” 1927’s The Jazz Singer, which featured several songs performed by vaudeville star Al Jolson. The movie musical era’s heyday, from the 1930s through 1950s, produced classic tunes like those from The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain. Then came the pop and rock-’n’-roll musicals of the 1950s and 1960s, notably the more than two dozen films of Elvis Presley.

The rise of single-artist soundtracks in the 1960s, like the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 and Simon & Garfunkel’s The Graduate in 1967, producing the number-one hits “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Mrs. Robinson” respectively. Producer Jon Peters engineered several top-10 songs for Barbra Streisand and others for his 1976 soundtrack to A Star Is Born, including the number-one “Evergreen.” This helped kick off an era of soundtrack albums producing several top-10 songs apiece, such as 1977’s Saturday Night Fever with “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, 1978’s Grease with “You’re the One That I Want” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, and 1984’s Footloose with “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” by Deniece Williams.

Since then, some of the most massive hit songs have come from movies. Among the number-one songs from films ranked in the 100 highest-grossing films domestically after adjusting for inflation are:

And that’s only the number-one songs—there are numerous top-10 or other instantly recognizable songs from among the highest-grossing films of all time including The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, West Side Story, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Here are five other insights gleaned from analyzing the chart performance of soundtrack songs:

1. Remixes can help. “Cups (When I’m Gone)” by Anna Kendrick from 2011’s Pitch Perfect and “The Hanging Tree” by Jennifer Lawrence from 2014’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 were both done a cappella in the films themselves, but both charted high (the latter reaching number 12) after remixes with backbeats were released for radio airplay. Even 1977’s “Star Wars” theme reached number one through its now largely forgotten disco remix by Meco and not through the iconic John Williams orchestral version from the movie’s opening scene.

2. These days, have lyrics. Instrumentals from films used to reach number-one on the Billboard charts, such as 1960’s “A Summer Place” by Percy Faith, 1969’s “Theme from Romeo and Juliet” by Henry Mancini, 1971’s mostly instrumental “Shaft” by Isaac Hayes, 1977’s “Gonna Fly Now” by Bill Conti from Rocky, and 1982’s “Chariots of Fire” by Vangelis. Such a feat is impossible to imagine today in the era of the lyrics-focused song, where only one instrumental song (“Harlem Shake” by Baauer) has topped the Billboard chart in the past three decades (and it wasn’t from a film).

3. A hit song attempt won’t always yield fruit. Even with a blockbuster film earning hundreds of millions of dollars and an A-list music act providing your main song, sometimes for whatever reason that song just won’t catch on. Examples of such songs that failed to even chart in the top 100 during the past few years include “I See You” by Leona Lewis from 2009’s Avatar, even though it was shortly after Lewis’s number-one hit “Bleeding Love”; “I See Fire” by Ed Sheeran from 2013’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; or any of the several Rihanna songs from 2015’s Home, even though Rihanna has notched more top-10 songs than any other act in the past decade.

4. Sometimes you don’t even have to try. Take the Batman franchise, for example. 1989’s Batman produced the number-one song “Batdance” by Prince, 1995’s Batman Forever produced the number-one song “Kiss From a Rose” by Seal, and 1997’s Batman and Robin produced the number-two song “Foolish Games” by Jewel. Yet more recent installments The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice all made tons of money without even attempting a radio single.

5. There isn’t always a correlation. Famously, almost every installment in the James Bond franchise has featured an original theme song by an A-list music act. Yet the three highest-charting themes—1985’s “A View to a Kill” by Duran Duran, 1973’s “Live and Let Die” by Paul McCartney and Wings, and 1977’s “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon from The Spy Who Loved Me—are all from films that rank in the bottom half among all 25 Bond films by inflation-adjusted box office revenue.

So what’s the takeaway? Ultimately, from a studio’s perspective, trying for a hit song may be a smart bet. The numbers indicate that most soundtrack songs that chart highly do so attached to films that earn more than $100 million, both recently and historically, when adjusted for inflation. At the same time, it is not a requirement for box office success. In fact, none of the six highest-grossing films so far in 2016 — Finding DoryCaptain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book, Deadpool, The Secret Life of Pets, and Zootopia — have produced a hit song. Actually, the recent blockbuster soundtrack with the most hit songs may likely have been 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy—except that all those songs were from the 1970s and 1980s.

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