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Can Statistics Be Used to Compute a Hit Film Script?

Photo of Ryan Lattanzio By Ryan Lattanzio | Thompson on Hollywood May 6, 2013 at 1:52PM

Online media streaming services like Netflix and Pandora have long been using algorithms to determine what customers are watching and listening to. Now, according to an article just published in The New York Times, Hollywood may start to employ such data analysis in script development.
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'House of Cards'
'House of Cards'

Online media streaming services like Netflix and Pandora have long been using algorithms to determine what customers are watching and listening to, and to calculate what content will succeed on their platforms. Netflix used this formula to bank $60 million on their original series "House of Cards." (Read our TOH! story about how Netflix used this process to pick up exclusive streaming rights to "The Killing" here, and a Salon.com article about Netflix's data analysis here.)

Now, according to an article just published in The New York Times, Hollywood may start to employ such data analysis in as early stages as script development.

A chain-smoking former statistics professor named Vinny Bruzzese -- "the reigning mad scientist of Hollywood," in the words of one studio customer -- has started to aggressively pitch a service he calls script evaluation. For as much as $20,000 per script, Mr. Bruzzese and a team of analysts compare the story structure and genre of a draft script with those of released movies, looking for clues to box-office success.

Screenplay writing has previously been regarded as an area in which creativity reigns supreme. But what will the moviemaking landscape look like if screenplays can be generated, right down to the microlevel of a scene or a plot device, using a calculator?

"Demons in horror movies can target people or be summoned," Mr. Bruzzese said in a gravelly voice, by way of example. "If it's a targeting demon, you are likely to have much higher opening-weekend sales than if it's summoned. So get rid of that Ouija Board scene."

Though Bruzzese insists that this process will be done by people, not machines, this could be a sorry day for the human screenwriter, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" writer Ol Parker points out:

"This is my worst nightmare” said Ol Parker, a writer whose film credits include "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." "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."

Read the full article over at NYT here.

Meanwhile, as we watch Hollywood crash and burn (as it collects oodles of cash), Danny Boyle frets that movies are succumbing to the influence of spinning toy movies like the "Star Wars" saga and animated family features from Pixar. And there's always Steven Soderbergh, who articulates his own set of issues with the studio system. Our favorite Spielberg observation, from an old Premiere interview: Hollywood movies look like they're directed from the window of a limousine.


This article is related to: Steven Soderbergh, Netflix


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