"You had me at hello."
"Show me the money!"
Since they were featured in 1996 in "Jerry Maguire," these two lines have become widely popular, and may end up being remembered long after the Cameron Crowe film is forgotten.
But their fame wasn't inevitable. A new study by computer science graduate students at Cornell University shows how many ways Crowe, the screenwriter, could have gone wrong.
He could have phrased actress Renee Zellwegger's heartwarming declaration of love, "When you said hello to me, I thought, 'I will take that man back.'" Or, "I forgave you at the moment when you said 'hello' to me." He could have written Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Oscar-winning exclamation as, "I've been hoping that when you negotiate my salary, you work hard to make sure I get paid more." Or "I'd like more money."
Each conveys basically the same meaning as the original. The same actors would have spoken them in the same high-stakes scenes. But according to the study, which looked at the impact of language on the memorability of movie lines, none would have been as likely to be remembered today.
The problem is that these alternatives are less general, have more convoluted syntax and have less distinctive diction than their models. That adds up to a more forgettable line.
To reach that conclusion, the study's authors compiled scripts from 1,000 movies, and identified, using IMDb, Google and Bing, the lines from those movies that are quoted and remembered the most today. They paired each memorable line with other lines of similar length, voiced by the same character in the same scene, then ran each pair through a computer program to identify linguistic trends.
"Our goal is to understand what general features of language will tell you how memorable a quote will be," fifth-year Ph.D. student Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, one of the study's authors, told the Huffington Post.
The features that emerged were widespread applicability, straightforward syntax and distinctive diction.
Applicability doesn't surprise Fred Shapiro, the editor of the "Yale Book of Quotations." "A lot of the quotes that last can be used in everyday life," he told the Huffington Post. "Some can even have a life after the film they're from gets forgotten."
Shapiro is less sure that unusual word choice helps a quote stick in audiences' minds. He cited quotes from "Casablanca" ("Play it again, Sam."), "Back To The Future" ("Where we're going, we don't need roads.") and "All About Eve" ("Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night.") as examples of fame defying ordinary diction.
Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil admits that his team's algorithm doesn't account for all situations. Some lines, he said, might have become popular because of an unusually effective delivery by an actor or a particularly engaging plot.
But a screenwriter hoping to write the next "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn." can't count on a Clark Gable to make his line ring throughout the ages. And recent attempts at memorability, haven't had the same resonance.
"In the early 90s, there was 'Show me the money' and 'Life is like a box of chocolates,'" Shapiro said. "Since then, there have been very, very few movie quotations that have made a big impact and that are going to last a long time."
Given the trend, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil's study hasn't come a moment too soon. He said that it could lead, at some point in the future, to a program that helps screenwriters, marketers and speechwriters craft memorable lines.
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