'The Wizard of Oz' Is the Most Influential Movie of All Time

As the film approaches its 80th anniversary, a new ranking shows that the classic retains its cultural cachet.
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A lobby card from The Wizard Of Oz (1939) shows an illustration of American actress Judy Garland as Dorothy, Frank Morgan as the Wizard, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, and Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow.

A lobby card from The Wizard Of Oz (1939) shows an illustration of American actress Judy Garland as Dorothy, Frank Morgan as the Wizard, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, and Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow.

What would you consider the most influential film of all time? That is, the one that has been referenced, remade, or parodied more than any other?

To find the answer, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Instead, take a quick trip over the rainbow, and follow the yellow brick road.

Using a novel ranking method, an Italian research team led by Livio Bioglio of the University of Turin has christened The Wizard of Oz as the No. 1 movie of all time, in terms of its influence on the films that followed.

"The success of a film is usually measured through its box-office revenue, or the opinion of professional critics," the researchers write in the journal Applied Network Science. "Such measures, however, may be influenced by external factors, such as advertisement or trends, and are not able to capture the impact of a movie over time."

In search of a better gauge, Bioglio and co-author Ruggero Pensa used network science—the study of how people and things are connected to one another—to determine which films have been referred to most often in subsequent works of cinema.

Using data from the Internet Movie Database, they focused on six different connections between pairs of movies: a mention of the earlier film, such as a poster or a scene in which a character in the new film is watching it; a mention of or homage to a specific aspect of the earlier film, such as a memorable piece of dialogue or famous shot; and whether a new movie is a sequel, remake, spinoff, or spoof of the earlier one.

After compiling data on 47,000 films (almost all from the United States and Europe), the researchers came up with this ranking:

  1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  2. Star Wars (1977)
  3. Psycho (1960)
  4. King Kong (1933)
  5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  6. Metropolis (1927)
  7. Citizen Kane (1941)
  8. The Birth of a Nation (1915)
  9. Frankenstein (1931)
  10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
  11. Casablanca (1942)
  12. Dracula (1931)
  13. The Godfather (1972)
  14. Jaws (1975)
  15. Nosferatu (1922)
  16. The Searchers (1956)
  17. Cabiria (1914)
  18. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
  19. Gone With the Wind (1939)
  20. The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Interestingly, nearly all of these movies deal seriously with social issues that we're still grappling with. Anyone studying America's changing—or unchanging—attitudes around war, racism, our fraught relationship with the natural world, the role of media in society, or our fear of scientific overreach would be smart to study one or more of these movies.

The only unfamiliar name on the list is Cabiria, a silent Italian film set in ancient Rome. Introducing a 2006 restoration, Martin Scorsese declared that that its director, Giovanni Pastrone, had "invented the epic," which presumably accounts for its subsequent influence.

Using the same system of analysis, the researchers also ranked the most influential directors. The top five were George Cukor, Victor Fleming (of The Wizard of Oz), Alfred Hitchcock, Mervyn LeRoy, and Steven Spielberg.

Although it was based on a popular book, there was never any guarantee that the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz would be a hit. The huge production went way over budget and took a full decade to break even. Surely there were times when a nervous MGM executive quietly moaned that he would never have given it the green light if he only had a brain.

But as it turns out, stories about fearless females confronting aging male con artists are apparently timeless.

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