Why you should care

Because it’s your $15.

Should the buddies in the buddy comedy look the same? Should the murderers who tied up an entire family in the basement have a motive or not? What should happen after the rom-com heroine suffers a breakup?

These are perennial questions for screenwriters, and more and more these days, producers, studios and investors are outsourcing the answers — to big-data companies. Call them consultants, if you wish, but the software is key. With algorithms that digest past box-office successes and money-making story structures, firms like Greenlight Essentials and Epagogix are putting their mark on many a mainstream movie by recommending certain … shall we say, tweaks. (Here’s one: The buddies should be as odd-couple as possible.) The consultants are, unsurprisingly, tight-lipped about which movies they’ve worked on, and their own bottom lines. But there are indications the practice is healthy and growing. Ben Spergel, executive vice president of consumer insights of relatively new entrant C4, says the company has worked on more than two dozen films over the past year.

The promise of “script enhancement” is to put the kibosh on flops early, before plot twists or character features become too costly to undo. For the movie industry, the stakes are higher than ever. People spent a whopping $38 billion going to the movies last year, up from $31.8 billion in 2010, according to Rentrak and a single blockbuster can rake in more than a billion dollars worldwide. The downside risk is in some ways weightier: Indie filmmakers, who generally operate on small budgets, can’t afford to fail, lest they never sell another film. Major studios like Paramount and Columbia, meanwhile, have become more risk-averse as ownership has changed hands in recent years — and the bottom line has become a top priority, says Bernard Dick, author of Engulfed: The Death of Paramount Pictures and the Birth of Corporate Hollywood.

Plenty of cinemaphiles are offended by the notion of a “Moneyball” formula for great movies, of course. But the data consultants are hardly pervasive, they say — just look at the persistence of flops like Burnt or the latest Fantastic Four, which few want credit for. Besides, the companies maintain they’re not forcing movies to be anything they’re not. “We make the most effective movies of their kind,” says Nick Meaney, head of Epagogix. And their input isn’t just the output of massive data sets, they claim; there’s a lot of art in the science. (Which tells them that killers who tie up entire families in the basement should generally be out-and-out sociopaths, instead of having rational motives.)

At any rate, the idea of a formula for a good story is old hat. Just read the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose book The Hero With a Thousand Faces has launched thousands of narrative ships — including that of George Lucas’ Star Wars. Why should corporate consultants, with their data-crunching, soulless algorithms, get all the blame for narrative structures that may reside deep within the human psyche?

The thornier question is just how effective these consultants are. Some naysayers insist that a box office formula is pure fantasy, anyway. “There’s a famous saying that nobody knows anything in Hollywood, and that’s kinda true,” says analyst Karie Bible. Not even big data is immune from wag-the-dog syndrome. Consider: In 2013, analysts correlated activity on a movie’s Wikipedia page with its box office haul. But predicting a hefty box office haul could prompt the industry to monetize a movie in other ways, like merchandising or Netflix deals, which in turn could lead to more movie revenues. Indeed, sometimes trying to game better box office returns is just that. Data may suggest that audiences prefer men in leading roles, for instance, but abiding by that data and casting men all but ensures that audiences will continue to prefer them.

Moreover, compelling narratives don’t always transcend cultural borders — an important consideration as Hollywood generates more profits overseas. Jungian theory preaches that archetypes are universal, but, as C4 discovered, there are important cultural differences. For instance, Inside Out is very popular in America, but in China, it performed poorly. Spergel’s theory? Chinese audiences would have felt indifference toward the San Francisco setting and the emotional depth of a pre-pubescent tween.

For what it’s worth, by the way, the audience will generally want the best friend of the rom-com heroine to come immediately to her assistance with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

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