So, Simonton began collecting movies by the thousands. He has since immersed himself in trying to understand how personal creativity can sometimes prevail in the firehouse atmosphere of movie production, where highly charged personalities compete amid budgetary constraints, conflicting goals and differing visions.
"You have a lot of people working together on the same thing, and usually, no one really has control over how it's going to turn out," Simonton said. "A lot of things happen that are out of control. A lot of people do not always know what the other people are doing. Some are working together, some aren't. The composer is off in his separate world. Creativity often doesn't survive that."
Simonton's interest is, primarily, in film as art. It may be easier to make a movie that makes money than it is to create a piece of modern art out of the souls of a bunch of disparate characters and talents. Basic formulas tend to produce successful films at the box office.
"That's what producers are interested in," he said. "They finance a film to make money. If you want to make money, do a sequel. It's fail-safe, it's risk aversion [although the critics might hate it] it's playing it safe."
Ah, but art, that's a different story. Is there a formula there as well?
It turns out that there is, to a large extent. Simonton said his research shows that certain conditions tend to allow creativity to survive the turmoil of making a movie, although there's no guarantee of success.
It helps, he said, if the film is based on a serious novel or play, which was based on a true story, and if the writer is directly involved in making the film (like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"). Thus, one vision is more likely to persist.
But, it helps even more, Simonton said, if the project is run by one individual with a strong personality.
"The most successful movies are the movies where there is one person in charge," Simonton said.
That person is usually the director, who frequently participates in writing the screenplay, and may play a major character. Think Woody Allen or Clint Eastwood.
"They build up enough confidence, enough clout, that they can start calling the shots."
But, even the superstars sometimes produce bombs, so there's no guarantee of success.
Perhaps the best formula is to pick a creative genius, give him or her an unlimited budget, let him or her make more than one movie simultaneously, so the entire process can be controlled, and concentrate on a theme that would require enormous creative input from talents ranging from wardrobe to special affects. Then wait for the critical acclaim to flow in.
That sounds unlikely, and indeed it is, but it's also a bit of history.
Simonton noted that Peter Jackson was hired to direct the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and was given total control over the project. He spent $280 million, took eight years to produce all three films simultaneously and ended up with 17 Oscars and critical acclaim.
So, does that mean creativity is finally blossoming in the movie biz? Have we entered a new era?
Well, not exactly.
When Simonton was asked to name the best example of creativity in motion pictures, he picked one that was largely the work of one man who had complete control over the entire process, and even played the lead role.
It was picked earlier this year by the American Film Institute as No. 1 on its list of the 100 greatest U.S. movies of all time. The movie was "Citizen Kane," starring, directed and produced by Orson Welles. That was 1941. It fits Simonton's formula perfectly.
Individual creativity, in that, as well as other cases, trumped collective creativity, and one vision emerged. Rare, but beautiful, when it happens.
Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.