Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Don't Sweat the Statisticians

A New York Times Article, Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data, has been creating a lot of discussion in the past few days. It's a profile of Vinny Bruzzese, a statistician who is part of a new trend in Hollywood: subjecting scripts to content analysis to try and maximize financial impact. From the examples given in the article, this seems to involve weeding out unpopular elements like bowling alleys and Ouija board scenes that are associated with less successful movies. Now script analysis is just starting to become prominent, and it's largely unproven, but there's quite of bit interest in it.

However, of course, there are also plenty of naysayers. Filmmakers are understandably perturbed about their creative process being subject to the kind of analysis that is clearly designed to facilitate our movies becoming even more generic and repetitive than they already are. However, this isn't a remotely new phenomenon. Studio executives have been using similar tools for years, specifically market research, focus groups, and test screenings, to inject some outside opinions and try to make films that are less risky and have wider appeal. Bruzzese's analysis is an extension of this impulse, the big difference being that it happens during the script stage instead of when the film is nearing completion.

The eternal conflict at the heart of the movie business is between the creative talent who make the movies and the businessmen who run the studios and need to make a profit. The creatives prefer to treat the movies as individual works of art, but the businessmen prefer to treat the movies as products, and the more predictable and formulaic the better, because that means less risk. This is why we're seeing so many PG-13 franchise films and cartoons in theaters, what Danny Boyle refers to as the "PIXAR-ification" of the movies. The studios have figured out that these are the movies that tend to draw big audiences the most reliably, and bring the biggest worldwide box office returns.

There's nothing wrong with making money, of course, and making money doesn't necessarily mean a compromised or lower quality film. Though some filmmakers hate them, test screenings have long been recognized as a helpful tool in some situations, to gauge audience reactions and figure out where the weaknesses in a movie are. I expect the same thing will prove true of script analysis. It's just another tool that may prove useful in the making of a movie, appropriate in some situations but not others. For one thing, this kind of analysis would seem to completely discount the value of novelty. I don't know about you, but the movies that appeal to me most are the ones that look like they're going to show me something I haven't seen before.

Now I love movies, and I'm on the side of more creative freedom and more original films whenever possible, but I've been around long enough to know that you can't have the big giant blockbuster movies like "Iron Man 3" without both the creatives and the businessmen. Commercial filmmaking on this level is always a collaborative process between art and commerce, and can't exist without catering to the general public. So it's perfectly understandable why you'd want tools like script analysis available to help ensure that your big summer blockbuster is going to make its intended audience happy. Of course smaller films for smaller audiences aren't going to get much use out of it, but some of those bloated CGI action-fests that are already artistically suspect? I don't see how script analysis could really hurt them.

And if the executives try to use the statistical analysis results like a bludgeon, the way they often do with focus groups? So what? Their job has always been to do all they can to minimize risks, and if they have a new kind of hard data to rely on, I think it's preferable for them to focus on that instead of generating the famously arbitrary notes that have come up in the past. Remember Jon Peters and the giant mechanical spider that he wanted to put in the last "Superman" reboot? Whatever Bruzzese's analysis covers, I don't think it's going to come up with anything nuttier than that.

Ultimately, I'm highly doubtful about the effectiveness of applying statistics to any kind of creative endeavor, and it has been proven time and time again that nothing is a sure thing in Hollywood. Audiences can be fickle, remember, and just because they like something once, doesn't mean they'll keep liking it in the future. The hits and flops aren't always obvious, and it's difficult to quantify why something worked or didn't work. It's certainly more complicated than not having scenes take place in bowling alleys.

What's wrong with bowling alleys anyway? Maybe the statistics are just reflecting that it's harder to do these scenes right.

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