How Big Data Is Rewriting Hollywood Scripts

Ever wonder why all movies seem to look the same? Yeah, there’s a reason.

I honestly can’t tell horror movies apart. From set and costume design to the trailers that all seem to have the same…tempo…of…HE’S RIGHT THERE, OMG!!--novelty has clearly given way to successful tropes and generic market testing. But how bad have things gotten, really?

Today, box office analytics are being applied all the way to the screenplay level--that’s right, the very core of the film. The New York Times profiled former stats professor Vinny Bruzzese, who is apparently the guy for data-driven script evaluation. From the story:

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. His company, Worldwide Motion Picture Group, also digs into an extensive database of focus group results for similar films and surveys 1,500 potential moviegoers. What do you like? What should be changed?

'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.'

Bowling scenes tend to pop up in films that fizzle, Mr. Bruzzese, 39, continued. Therefore it is statistically unwise to include one in your script. 'A cursed superhero never sells as well as a guardian superhero,' one like Superman who acts as a protector, he added.

Now, one way to analyze this is that it’s nauseatingly unartistic. That’s totally true. But the traditional Hollywood film operates on a strict formula for a reason: We emotionally harmonize with the objectively trite Syd Field approach to storytelling. And if there are means to make that formula more perfect--by adding a dog sidekick or ditching the protagonist’s fedora--then why not? Because nobody shows up to Iron Man 3 for the bowling scene.

Read more here.

[IMAGE: Village of the Damned, Chris Vaughan via Flickr]

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6 Comments

  • hai

    Artists that focus solely on profit are not artists, they are salesmen and therefore sell a product, not art. Money is degrading the industry. If it gets worse, there may be a day when new box office hits are as overproduced and meaningless as new hit songs. *Sigh* I can only pray that the film industry will not suffer music's dark fate.

  • Vincent Bruzzese

    To clarify:

    The script assessment process is not an algorithm, nor is it a statistical analysis of the script.  It is an identification of the genre based elements within the script as they relate to playability and marketability, using historical information collected through moviegoer responses over the past decade.  The analysis can be granular (down to the scene level - although I'm not sure where the comment on "bowling scenes" came from) or more macro.  

    Unlike the current process which leaves the writer (and usually the producer) out of the loop, we meet directly with those who had the original vision for the film and stay within that context.  In many ways, this process empowers the artist.  

    As it stands now, a script goes into coverage where it is judged without any standard for criteria or expertise.  If it survives that filter, the script is then subject to the opinions of everyone who touches it (most of whom never speak to the writer), and then if it is lucky it is.....rewritten!  From there, the few scripts that make it through to production are then changed on set, eventually screened for an audience (and changed again) and then marketed.  I ask you, where is the art in that?  Where is the writer?

    This process is the only one that brings the writer in and simply advises what will help the script sell, or potentially improve audience reaction.  The analysis brings up issues that will be noted later on and changed; thus, allowing the writer to change the film in their vision, rather than letting someone else, who never spoke to them, change them.  

    It is not cookie-cutter and it is not used to create bland homogeneous product.  Yes, there is a fine line between art and commerce, but one can mitigate risk and maintain art.

  • T.J. Barber

    I feel that you are absolutely homogenizing film. I understand your rational, I really do but you're clearly downplaying certain aspects of lowest common denominator mentality. Processes like this want to churn out Total Recall remakes and Spiderman 3s, it fails to take into account that a large number of successful and cherished films were huge risk projects.

    Apocalypse Now, Blair Witch and Ghost Busters would have had all their originality and integrity removed.  

    I think you can definitely ad value, there is clearly a marketing aspect to this research and it's results based research. Just be honest about what value you ad.

  • Rick Presley

    The exception that proves the rule. How many Big Lebowskis are there? If you want a "formula" for success than leave the bowling alley out. If you want non-formula success, then you also have to leave the bowling alley out because the Big Lebowski has already done it and one doesn't want to be derivative now, does one.

    Unless one is Quentin Tarantino who has re-written the book on derivative...