The Stanford Prison Experiment (film)

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The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Stanford Prison Experiment.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Produced by
Written by Tim Talbott
Music by Andrew Hewitt
Cinematography Jas Shelton
Edited by Fernando Collins
  • Abandon Pictures
  • Coup d'Etat Films
  • Sandbar Pictures
Distributed by IFC Films
Release date
  • January 26, 2015 (2015-01-26) (Sundance)
  • July 17, 2015 (2015-07-17) (United States)
Running time
122 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Box office $649,690[2]

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a 2015 American thriller film directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, written by Tim Talbott, and starring Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Thirlby, and Nelsan Ellis. The plot concerns the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, conducted at Stanford University under the supervision of psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, in which students play the role of either a prisoner or prison guard.[3]

The project was announced in 2002 and remained in development for twelve years, with filming beginning on August 19, 2014, in Los Angeles. The film was financed and produced by Sandbar Pictures and Abandon Pictures, and premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 26, before beginning a limited theatrical release on July 17, 2015. The film received positive reviews from critics, who commended the direction, screenplay, and acting.


Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducts a psychological experiment to test the hypothesis that the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior between them. In the experiment, Zimbardo selects fifteen male students to participate in a 14-day prison simulation to take roles as prisoners or guards. They receive $15 per day. The experiment is conducted in a mock prison located in the basement of Jordan Hall, the university's psychology department building. The students who are guards become abusive, as does Zimbardo himself, as they immerse themselves in their assigned roles. Two students who play the role of prisoners quit the experiment early due to psychological meltdowns, and, only after being chastised and roughly brought back to reality by his girlfriend, Christina Maslach, Zimbardo abruptly stops the entire experiment after only six days.



A film about the Stanford prison experiment was first announced in 2002, when producer Brent Emery signed Tim Talbott to write the script for the film. Problems beset and delayed the project for twelve years, including financing and the 2007 writers' strike.[4] In 2006, two competing films about the experiment were in development, one at Maverick Films and the other Inferno's The Experiment.[10]

On August 19, 2014, Sandbar Pictures and Abandon Pictures came on board to finance the film. Kyle Patrick Alvarez was set to direct, and producers were Brent Emery, Lizzie Friedman, Greg Little, Lauren Bratman and Brian Geraghty.[4]


On August 19, 2014, it was announced that Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller and Michael Angarano would play lead roles.[4] On August 26, Jack Kilmer joined the cast to play Jim, one of the student prisoners whose personality makes him a perfect subject to comply.[9] On August 28, Nicholas Braun joined the film to play Vandy, an abusive and sadistic guard.[5] On September 4, Brett Davern was added to the cast, playing Hubbie Whitlow, an affable young participant whose failed escape attempt leads to grueling humiliation at the hands of sadistic guards.[8] On September 9, Jesse Carere joined the cast to play Paul, Prisoner 5704, a gangly man who counts smoking as his only vice.[7] On October 10, more of the ensemble cast was announced, including Olivia Thirlby as Christina Maslach, professor Zimbardo's future wife and fellow academic, Nelsan Ellis as Jesse Fletcher, Tye Sheridan as prisoner Peter Mitchell, James Frecheville as guard Townshend, Johnny Simmons as prisoner Jeff Jansen, and Ki Hong Lee as prisoner Gavin Chan.[6]


Principal photography began on August 19, 2014, in Los Angeles, and lasted 21 days.[4][9][11]


The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2015.[12] By coincidence, Experimenter, a film about another notorious psychological experiment, the Milgram experiment, had premiered at Sundance the day before.[13]

IFC Films acquired the US rights to the film on March 5, 2015.[14] The film was theatrically released on July 17, 2015, by IFC Films,[15] and on Blu-Ray and iTunes on November 17, 2015.


Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

Upon its premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, The Stanford Prison Experiment received a positive response from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a "certified fresh" rating of 83%, based on reviews from 90 critics, with an average score of 6.9/10. The site's consensus states: "As chillingly thought-provoking as it is absorbing and well-acted, The Stanford Prison Experiment offers historical drama that packs a timelessly relevant punch."[16] On the review site Metacritic, the film has a score of 67 out of 100, based on 26 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[17]

Leslie Felperin of The Hollywood Reporter gave the film a positive review, writing "For all its flaws it's a rich, thought-provoking film which, while challenging, is not without humor and visual pleasures."[18] Kyle Smith of the New York Post felt that "Tim Talbott's dense script provides much to discuss and argue about, providing both left and right with talking points."[19] Jordan Hoffman of The Guardian gave the film four out of five stars and judged that "Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez deserves all the praise in the world for the way he cranks up this pressure cooker script."[20] Edward Douglas in his review for ComingSoon praised the film, remarking "While this is going to be a polarizing and divisive film, it's one that people will talk about after seeing it, almost as if it was made as an experiment itself."[21]

However, Justin Chang of Variety criticized the film, saying "The combination of relentless forward drive and gruesomely fastidious detail, while audacious and admirable in theory, begins to pay dwindling returns in a picture that feels rather longer than its 122-minute running time."[22]


List of accolades
Award / Film festival Category Recipient(s) Result
31st Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize
(U.S. Dramatic)
Kyle Patrick Alvarez Nominated[23]
Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize Won[24]
Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award
(U.S. Dramatic)
Tim Talbott Won[23]


  1. ^ "The Stanford Prison Experiment (15)". British Board of Film Classification. May 31, 2016. Retrieved May 31, 2016. 
  2. ^ "The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)". Box Office Mojo. 2015-07-19. Retrieved 2015-07-24. 
  3. ^ Philip G. Zimbardo (January 17, 2013). "Philip G. Zimbardo". Social Psychology Network. Retrieved October 24, 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Sneider, Jeff (August 19, 2014). "Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano to Star in 'Stanford Prison Experiment'". Retrieved September 10, 2014. 
  5. ^ a b Yamato, Jen (August 28, 2014). "Nick Braun Heads To 'Stanford'". Retrieved September 10, 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Yamato, Jen (October 10, 2014). "'Stanford Prison Experiment' Adds Olivia Thirlby, 'True Blood's Nelsan Ellis, More". Retrieved October 11, 2014. 
  7. ^ a b "Jesse Carere Takes Part In 'Stanford Prison Experiment'". September 9, 2014. Retrieved September 10, 2014. 
  8. ^ a b Yamato, Jen (September 4, 2014). "'Awkward's Brett Davern Heads To 'Stanford'". Retrieved September 10, 2014. 
  9. ^ a b c Yamato, Jen (August 26, 2014). "Jack Kilmer Joins 'Stanford Prison Experiment'". Retrieved September 10, 2014. 
  10. ^ DiOrio, Carl (October 30, 2006). "Stanford pics in stand-off". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 12, 2014. 
  11. ^ Kara Warner (July 21, 2015). "'Stanford Prison Experiment' Director Talks Film's Shooting Schedule". Screen Rant. Retrieved July 21, 2015. 
  12. ^ Leslie Felperin. "The Stanford Prison Experiment': Sundance Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 1 February 2015. 
  13. ^ Seemayer, Zach (January 22, 2015). "9 Sundance 2015 Films We Are Dying to See". ET Online. 
  14. ^ Pedersen, Erik (March 5, 2015). "IFC Films Locks Up 'Stanford Prison Experiment'; JB Blanc Joins 'Arms And The Dudes' — Film Briefs". Retrieved March 7, 2015. 
  15. ^ Moore, Debi (2014-06-20). "Take The Stanford Prison Experiment in Theaters this July". Dread Central. Retrieved 2015-04-09. 
  16. ^ "The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 19, 2017. 
  17. ^ "The Stanford Prison Experiment". Metacritic. Retrieved November 19, 2017. 
  18. ^ "'The Stanford Prison Experiment': Sundance Review". Retrieved February 19, 2015. 
  19. ^ "Thriller 'The Stanford Prison Experiment' will give you chills". Retrieved February 19, 2015. 
  20. ^ "Sundance 2015 review – The Stanford Prison Experiment: notorious behaviour test becomes masterful film". Retrieved February 19, 2015. 
  21. ^ "Sundance Film Festival Diary – Day 5". Retrieved February 19, 2015. 
  22. ^ "Sundance Film Review: 'The Stanford Prison Experiment'". Retrieved February 19, 2015. 
  23. ^ a b "Here Are Your 2015 Sundance Film Festival Winners". Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  24. ^ "Sundance Institute and Alfred P. Slan Foundation Award" (PDF). Retrieved January 26, 2014. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
I Origins
Alfred P. Sloan Prize Winner
Succeeded by
Embrace of the Serpent