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Soderbergh's Nightmare: Hollywood Using Analysts To Rewrite & Rework Scripts To Make Them Box Office Winners

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 6, 2013 at 12:45PM

The state of cinema seems to be a topic rearing its head once again. Steven Soderbergh opened the box last week with his pretty incisive and divisive address at the San Francisco International Film Festival, while Danny Boyle has rung the alarm that the "Pixar-ification" of movies -- meaning, the continued shift toward four-quadrant movies and away from films for adults -- is eroding cinema. Well, here's something else to spur discussion and talk.
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Steven Soderbergh
Pamela Gentile, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

The state of cinema seems to be a topic rearing its head once again. Steven Soderbergh opened the box last week with his pretty incisive and divisive address at the San Francisco International Film Festival, while Danny Boyle has rung the alarm that the "Pixar-ification" of movies -- meaning, the continued shift toward four-quadrant movies and away from films for adults -- is eroding cinema. Well, here's something else to spur discussion and talk.

The New York Times has a rather fascinating/nauseating article about the rise of data experts and analysts, who are helping Hollywood studios ensure their next tentpole is a big hit. Enter: Vinny Bruzzese. He's a "script analyst," who for $20,000 a pop through his (appropriately blandly named) company Worldwide Motion Picture Group is offering services that will take a script, run through a bunch of numbers, surveys and box office results, and predict if your movie will be a success based on content within. Basically, if a certain plot device in your script has been used before in a movie that didn't make money, the suggestion will be to take it out. And if you think executives don't want to be told how to do their job, guess again.

“It takes a lot of the risk out of what I do,” producer Scott Steindorff said, admitting he used Bruzzese to take a look at “The Lincoln Lawyer” (which was a sleeper hit in 2011 prompting talk of a sequel and TV spinoff). “Everyone is going to be doing this soon. The only people who are resistant are the writers: ‘I’m making art, I can’t possibly do this.’ ”

And yes, writers are wary, with the NYT reaching out (randomly?) to Ol Parker, the man behing the surprise smash "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," who is naturally horrified. “This is my worst nightmare,” he said. “It’s the enemy of creativity, nothing more than an attempt to mimic that which has worked before. It can only result in an increasingly bland homogenization, a pell-mell rush for the middle of the road.”

Bruzzese claims to work hand-in-hand with writers, and one Oscar winner (remaining anonymous, tellingly) claims he got the best notes ever through the service. Meanwhile, Fox reportedly ignored notes for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and the movie flopped (though the reasons why that movie didn't do well probably went way beyond the script level). But of course there are two things to counter the apparent usefulness of data driven, analytic heavy, script overhauls: merely repeating past success can possibly create a tepid gruel of formula tentpoles thus preventing cinema from growing and audience fatigue. And secondly, test scores and surveys have sometimes been famously wrong.

Again, here's Soderbergh on both points:

On big budget moviemaking: Well, how does a studio decide what movies get made? One thing they take into consideration is the foreign market, obviously. It’s become very big. So that means, you know, things that travel best are going to be action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy, spectacle, some animation thrown in there. Obviously the bigger the budget, the more people this thing is going to have to appeal to, the more homogenized it’s got to be, the more simplified it’s got to be. So things like cultural specificity and narrative complexity, and, god forbid, ambiguity, those become real obstacles to the success of the film here and abroad.

On the folly of test scoresLike on Magic Mike for instance, the movie opened to $38 million, and the tracking said we were going to open to 19. So the tracking was 100% wrong. It’s really nice when the surprise goes in that direction, but it’s hard not to sit there and go how did we miss that? If this is our tracking, how do you miss by that much? ....Magic Mike tested poorly. Really poorly. And fortunately Warner Brothers just ignored the test scores, and stuck with their plan to open the movie wide during the summer.

You know, we had a trailer for Side Effects that we did in London and the filmmaking team really, really liked it. But the problem was that it was not testing well, and it was really not testing as well as this domestic trailer that we had. The point spread was so significant that I really couldn’t justify trying to jam this thing down distributor’s throats, so we had to abandon it....This is a movie that didn’t perform as well as any of us wanted it to. So, why? What happened? It can’t be the campaign because all the materials that we had, the trailers, the posters, the TV spots, all that stuff tested well above average. February 8th, maybe it was the date, was that a bad day? As it turns out that was the Friday after the Oscar nominations are announced, and this year there was an atypically large bump to all the films that got nominated, so that was a factor. Then there was a storm in the Northeast, which is sort of our core audience. Nemo came in, so God, obviously, is getting me back for my comments about monotheism. Was it the concept? There was a very active decision early on to sell the movie as kind of a pure thriller and kind of disconnect it from this larger social issue of everybody taking pills. Did that make the movie seem more commercial, or did it make it seem more generic? We don’t know. What about the cast? Four attractive white people… this is usually not an obstacle. The exit polls were very good, the reviews were good. How do we figure out what went wrong? The answer is: We don’t. Because everybody’s already moved on to the next movie they have to release.

Of course, not all testing is bad, and many filmmakers swear by it especially for comedies, to see what gags work and which don't. But a movie toward formula driven tentpoles is worrying, though one could argue that Marvel is already there to some degree (though not without some ambition behind it all). Thoughts? You'll want to share them below.



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