Scripts by the Numbers: “Garbage-in, Blockbuster-out”

Imagine a restaurant that serves nothing but peanut butter sandwiches. The executive chef wants to expand the menu but the owner is hesitant about putting new items on the menu that might turn away customers. Perhaps the grilled cheese sandwich will repel vegans. Will serving a hamburger cause brand confusion with better established institutions like Wendy’s and White Castle? The future of the restaurant is on the line so the owner hires a consulting firm to evaluate the proposed additions. The high-priced consulting firm swoops in bearing proprietary heuristics, Big Data analytics, and a database containing terabytes of diner sentiment observations accumulated through hundred of focus groups.

The consultants analyze the grilled cheese sandwich in great depth and discover that no one had ever before ordered it at the restaurant, not even once, so it is clearly a loser. Same for the hamburger. After taking a $20,000 fee from the restaurant owner, the consultant advises that the menu stick with peanut butter sandwiches. “It’s what your diners know and love – and we advise you continue to give the people what they know and love,” concludes the managing director of the consulting firm. Said another way, “It’s the only choice the people have ever had, so continue to operate in the rut you’ve created for yourself and your lemming-like customers.”

Sounds ridiculous. Now consider a company called Worldwide Motion Picture Group which for a fee of up to $20,000 will cyber-analyze a screenplay using information gleaned from focus groups and other proprietary data sources and recommend how to adjust the script so as to optimize its appeal to the target audience. When I read this story in the New York Times about the methods by which WMPG advises the film industry, I concluded that their “secret sauce” was to reveal that whatever worked (or didn’t) in the past will (or won’t) work in the future. In other words, keep churning out the same shit year in and year out. Never produce a film that deviates from what the proletariat have come to love and expect, e.g. childish adventures based on comic books, TV shows, and boys’ toys; type-cast star vehicles along the lines of Adam Sandler man-child garbage; one-joke wonders that can barely sustain a trailer for a movie like the vulgar “Ted”; a sequel to any movie that made a profit, regardless of quality (The Hangover, Taken, Scary Movie, The Expendables, Paranormal Activity, Ghost Rider, Piranha … honestly, it never ends.)

From the article: “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.” Mr. Parker drew a breath. “Look, I’d take a suggestion from my grandmother if I thought it would improve a film I was writing,” he said. “But this feels like the studio would listen to my grandmother before me, and that is terrifying.” But a lot of producers, studio executives and major film financiers disagree. Already they have quietly hired Mr. Bruzzese’s company to analyze about 100 scripts, including an early treatment for “Oz the Great and Powerful,” which has taken in $484.8 million worldwide.”

By the way, “Oz the Great and Powerful” was no great film, garnering a fairly unimpressive 60% on Rotten Tomatoes. But as we all know, the only number that has meaning is box office take.

I’m picking on Hollywood for its desire to use technology to shamelessly homogenize their product for a singular customer experience, but the deployment of advanced analytics has come to pervert the quality of service across a variety of industries, the most egregious being the US airlines oligopoly. Somehow, every US airline has tacitly colluded with their competitors to agree to charge dozens of annoying fees and to offer uniformly shitty service. They all save big money without fear of customer abandonment.

After all, when you have no choice but a peanut butter sandwich, does it matter if you really wanted a hamburger?

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