You know, the one your mother, father, sister, brother, second cousin, ex-spouse sent you today: “Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data”. Choice excerpts:
LOS ANGELES — Forget zombies. The data crunchers are invading Hollywood.
The same kind of numbers analysis that has reshaped areas like politics and online marketing is increasingly being used by the entertainment industry.
Netflix tells customers what to rent based on algorithms that analyze previous selections, Pandora does the same with music, and studios have started using Facebook “likes” and online trailer views to mold advertising and even films.
Now, the slicing and dicing is seeping into one of the last corners of Hollywood where creativity and old-fashioned instinct still hold sway: the screenplay.
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. 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?
My Twitter feed and email was inundated today from people asking my opinion about Mr. Bruzzese’s business, so let me try to provide a reasoned response. But if you’d like to cut to the chase, you may skip to below the fold where I will provide the single biggest reason why Mr. Bruzzese’s underlying concept is in my humble opinion fraudulent.
First some historical context. When Thomas Edison tried to corner the market on the earliest forms of motion pictures, he saw it strictly as a money-making venture. Not art. Commerce. Indeed the early movie moguls — Fox, Goldwyn, Laemmle, Mayer, Warner, Zanuck — each jumped into the burgeoning movie business because they thought they could make money at it. While French visionaries like Georges Méliès were making cinema, Americans were making movies… that raked in cash.
Filmmakers, on the other hand, realized they had an opportunity to tell stories in exciting ways with this new medium, and spurred the evolution of technology from single reel to multi-reel films, the use of intertitles and the roots of dialogue, and eventually to sound and the era of ‘talkies’.
So wherever there have been movies, there has been a dynamic tension: Art vs. Commerce. The relationship between creatives and business types has ebbed and flowed throughout the years, but at its core Hollywood has had an instinct to codify the creative process to make it more viable as a commercial product.
If movies were widgets, that would be one thing. But by and large, they are not: Movies are stories. And stories — good ones at least — require certain human elements such as inspiration, spontaneity, vision, craft, and so forth.
But that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from trying. The studio system that evolved in the 30s and 40s was in large part about one thing: control. From vertical integration of development, production, marketing and distribution, to signing writers and actors to long-term contracts, the studios did what they could to manage talent and wrangle their artistic impulses into viable movie products. Likewise Eisner, Katzenberg and Diller brought a similar approach to Paramount in the 80s, then Eisner and Katzenberg to Disney in the 90s.
Given all that, it would be easy to conclude the Hollywood film community is a bifurcated scene with creatives all on one side [writers, directors, actors] and business types all on the other side [producers, studio execs]. But that is far too simplistic. There are plenty of creative people who work on the business side of things. And most writers, at least the ones I know, are quite capable of putting on their ‘producer’s hat.’ We may mumble and moan about script changes, but for the most part, we writers understand we’re all trying to make movies. A screenplay that doesn’t get produced is a sad and lonely thing.
So when someone such as Mr. Bruzzese comes along — by the way, he is not the first person to assert they have some sort of statistical model to assess a story’s market viability — what I see is someone playing to the lowest common denominator on the studio side: Fear of failure. If you do this with the script project, chances are the movie will do worse. If you don’t do this, chances are less likely your movie will bomb. To wit:
“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.
But, as the stakes of making movies become ever higher, Hollywood leans ever harder on research to minimize guesswork. Moreover, studios have trimmed spending on internal script development. Mr. Bruzzese is also pitching script analysis to studios as a duck-and-cover technique — for “when the inevitable argument of ‘I am not going to take the blame if this movie doesn’t work’ comes up,” his Web site says.
It’s a system. An approach. The guy has done studies. They have statistics. In other words, Mr. Bruzzese may find a home for his services due to the fact that it plays to a long-standing instinct of Hollywood studios to control the process and minimize risk.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Except for this [hit More].
“You’ve heard of Chaos Theory?”
That great screenwriting guru Dr. Ian Malcom, so goddammed smart, God (or in this case Michael Crichton) gave him two first names, knows the truth on this score. Try as we might to squeeze the life out of them — and heavens knows, some movies do a pretty damn good job of it — stories are by nature organic, living entities charged with a will and energy of their own.
That is where the surprise come from. That is where the magic lies. That is how the art emerges.
And that is almost by definition chaotic.
So movies with bowling scenes in them will stink at the box office? Chaos theory dictates that sooner or later, there will be a big box office hit that features a bowling sequence.
“Fuck it, Donny! If we’d only cut out these fucking bowling scenes,
we coulda had a fucking box office hit!”
And sure as shit the very morning Mr. Bruzzese delivers another $20K script analysis arguing the virtues of a “targeting demon” over an agent of chaos [worked that idea in again!] who is “summoned,” there will be a spec script that sells that afternoon for a zillion dollars featuring a summoned Bad Guy.
“Alan, please, last time I played this game, it ruined my life.”
Look, I get it. All writers who work on movies get it. Spending gobs and gobs of dollars to acquire, develop, produce, market and distribute a movie is a scary thing. It’s a gamble, a risk, and pretty much an insane way to make a living. It is completely understandable to want to do everything to minimize one’s risk. Yes, you do have to be as smart as you can when making choices about where to put your resources and what projects to green light.
But before Easy Rider came out, the studios had no idea there was a counter culture.
Before Jaws was released, there was no such thing as a blockbuster movie.
Before Star Wars exploded onto the scene, there were no sci-fiction space franchises.
Hell, every single current tentpole movie, Hollywood’s go-to wet dream of risk minimization and maximum reward, started out as the creative instinct of a writer or writers.
So as much as suits may complain about writers — when even the most hardcore business types know in their heart of hearts that good movies require good stories — would they really opt to trust creative decisions to someone who “taught statistics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island,” or writers who if not necessarily understanding the mysteries of the creative process, are at least at home with it.
Evidently some people are willing to shell out money for Mr. Bruzzese’s analysis. That’s their choice. But if fear is part of the marrow of the film business, I wonder if they aren’t the least bit afraid that what Mr. Bruzzese is selling is this week’s snake oil. And that around the bend, there is Chaos waiting. Some great script, some great writer, some great take on a genre piece that defies every last damn thing Mr. Bruzzese’s statistical analysis suggests.
In other words, while wading through those 20-30 pages reports from Mr. Bruzzese…
You may miss the Next Big Thing.
For more of the NYT article, go here.
UPDATE: Billy Mernit weighs in on the article here.