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A cursed superhero never sells as well as a guardian superhero
May 6, 2013 7:12 PM   Subscribe

The same kind of numbers analysis that has reshaped areas like politics and online marketing is increasingly being used by the entertainment industry. "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 new evaluation". For as much as $US20,000 per script, 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 research has lead to conclusions like "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." and "Bowling scenes tend to pop up in films that fizzle"
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants (74 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I want to hurt this guy.
posted by goatdog at 7:15 PM on May 6, 2013 [15 favorites]


Man, that Great Lebronski sure bombed. Wait, was it Bold Lewinsky? I can't even remember, but I do recall that terribly unimpressive bowling scene.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:20 PM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is the future: a boot of numbers-analysis-research driven entertainment products stomping on the face of your love of novel stories and storytelling approaches FOREVER.
posted by hippybear at 7:21 PM on May 6, 2013 [13 favorites]


Hollywood is over and has been for some time. This is just the last of the turds going down the bowl.
posted by unSane at 7:22 PM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Seems like fascinating work if you can get it. What will the laudatory biopic be called? Moneyfilm? Cinecash? Moviebucks?
posted by hoople at 7:24 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Your violent response was probably predictable...

It is a business, if you are an investor, this is a way to somewhat hedge your bets, which means you can make the movie.

James Cameron has been doing this for years. Titanic and Avatar are both the results of this kind of pre-planning. Those are the #1 and #2 all time domestic and worldwide box office grossing movies. Adjusted for inflation, Avatar is #14 and Titanic is #5. Point being - Cameron has done rather well checking his assumptions before releasing a film.

Think about it also this way, G.I. Joe 2 might have not required a rewrite and significant delay in release with something like this.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:24 PM on May 6, 2013


I am a social scientist who does these kinds of analyses, and this made me roll my eyes hard enough that they nearly flew out of the sockets.

I spent three years developing an analysis (and collecting data) that would allow me to separate out the individual effects of different factors on video game sales as part of a paper I wrote. Even with the best econometrics around, and a big data set, huge amounts of the variations in how games perform could not be accounted for.* There is absolutely no way that this could work.

Aside from it just being dumb, here is why, technically:
1) There are too many variables, and too few movies. This results in overspecification (bowling scenes are present in how many movies?) and in a lack of identification (how do you know it was the bowling scene?)

2) Multicollinearity: The elements of the movies combine in complex ways that make it impossible to separate out elements of plot in a coherent way.

3) Selection bias. Movies that are released have already been tested with various audiences, and have had resources committed to them based on the chance of success. You can't just look at released movies and learn much about outcomes.

4) Endogenity. Particular movie types have particular characteristics, you can't separate out how a demon is summoned from the type of movie it appears in - the two are related in complex ways.

And this is all added to the fact that art is hard to quantify and harder still to work with.

*I was looking for aggregate effects, that is, the amount of the performance of games that was attributable to the designer, producer, and the rest of the team within each company. It turns out that the producer was actually the most important person in terms of determining the performance of a game - larger than everyone else in the organization combined.
posted by blahblahblah at 7:25 PM on May 6, 2013 [85 favorites]


They're only charging $20k a script though, which means that nobody is taking this very seriously.

The consultant script writer on $500k+? They are getting taken seriously.
posted by jaduncan at 7:26 PM on May 6, 2013


I've been the 'consultant script writer' on mid three figures and trust me we're not taken as seriously as the marketing department.
posted by unSane at 7:27 PM on May 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


Twenty whole thousand dollars? If there was any evidence this worked he'd be charging 20 times that amount and people would be happy to pay. Therefore I conclude it does not.
posted by fshgrl at 7:29 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Fuck it, dude. Let's go bowling.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:30 PM on May 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


on mid three figures and trust me we're not taken as seriously as the marketing department.

Not for $500, you're not.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:30 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am a social scientist who does these kinds of analyses, and this made me roll my eyes hard enough that they nearly flew out of the sockets.

The thing is, whether these guys are doing anything real or something entirely eye-rolling doesn't matter. They have set up a business and are talking like they can guarantee big corporations and financial backers a better return by using their service. All it will take is for the first few scripts they consult on to make some bucks (but would they have been lesser bucks if their services had not been used? IMPOSSIBLE TO TELL) and they will have themselves set for life. They will be schmoozing with the entertainment industry elite, having hookers and cocaine thrown at them at parties, they will rake in the bucks, and they will 1) do this until they die, 2) do this until they decide to sell and bail, or 3) do this until it can be proven that their involvement had zero involvement with (or even was a detraction to) the bottom line.
posted by hippybear at 7:32 PM on May 6, 2013


It would be great if, every time, after numerous calculations and analyses, each script always came back as the 1997 film Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:33 PM on May 6, 2013 [12 favorites]


All it will take is for the first few scripts they consult on to make some bucks...

Which is exactly what every movie executive has ever said, ever.

"Nobody knows anything." -- William Goldman
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:36 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can they deliver that Barton Fink feeling?
posted by octobersurprise at 7:37 PM on May 6, 2013 [9 favorites]


But I mean, charlatans or not, just the idea of "considering the distribution of targeted vs. summoned demons" is interesting to me; unfortunately the article is seemingly silent on how such questions were identified in the first place.
posted by hoople at 7:45 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I should be clear - it isn't that movies can't be analyzed, there is actually lots of really amazing social science done on film. For example:

Some cool work has shown that mass market films are helped by mainstream reviewers, while art house films are hurt by them - it helps to be seen as an outsider if you are looking for artistic credibility.

The stigma of the Red Scare was contagious
, where working with just one writer or actor who was branded a communist would hurt careers.

You can be "consecrated" by being credited with working with award winners, which increases the chances of winning an award later in your career.

There has also been a lot of studies of success in the movie industry, they just aren't this granular, and would never suggest that a bowling scene, or the way a demon is summoned, would be relevant, because, even academics in the field realize that nobody knows anything abut these detailed factors.
posted by blahblahblah at 7:46 PM on May 6, 2013 [13 favorites]


Hippybear has it -- while it seems highly unlikely that the methods they're talking about have any predictive power regarding movie grosses (for the reasons that blahblahblah explains) but predictive power is not actually what their product. They're selling producers a certificate that says "we consulted with those math eggheads you read about in the newspaper, so if the movie bombs, it's not really my fault, since I took all the right precautions."
posted by escabeche at 7:49 PM on May 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


From the article:

"It takes a lot of the risk out of what I do," says Scott Steindorff, a producer who used Bruzzese to evaluate the script for The Lincoln Lawyer, a hit 2011 crime drama. "Everyone is going to be doing this soon. The only people who are resistant are the writers:

funny that.
posted by philip-random at 7:50 PM on May 6, 2013


Pretty much Lisa's tiger repelling rock.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:58 PM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, based on actual box office results (and Hollywood's propensity for cloning), all future Comic Book-based movies must be about millionaire superheroes.

Oh yeah, and start with Part Three.
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:59 PM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's Lisa's tiger-repelling rock if you imagine a situation where she gets attacked by a tiger and then her boss asks her completely seriously, "Did you have a tiger-repelling rock?!"
posted by cribcage at 8:00 PM on May 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


OK, cool.

Here's my pitch. MY new company, Transgalactic Motion Picture Group, will, for a stiff fee, evaluate your film project after it has failed to meet the exacting criteria of Worldwide Motion Picture Group.

Then we will take you out for a beer and a nice sandwich, and we'll be all "fuck those guys, man, you're an ARTIST. Just be TRUE to your VISION" and we'll bro-hug it out.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:05 PM on May 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


Summon demons with a Ouija board? Seriously? This guy clearly doesn't know a damn thing about goety.
posted by prize bull octorok at 8:14 PM on May 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's Lisa's tiger-repelling rock if you imagine a situation where she gets attacked by a tiger and then her boss asks her completely seriously, "Did you have a tiger-repelling rock?!"

Nobody wants to be the idiot with no rock. If you get attacked it was your own damn fault, you didn't even spend the 20k on the rock. What's 20k compared to your life.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:18 PM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


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 website says.

20k is pretty cheap if it gives you good excuse as why you're not to blame after you've lost 100 million of other people's money on a high concept Teddy Ruxpin reboot starring Michel Cera as Teddy and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Grubby.
posted by Grimgrin at 8:22 PM on May 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


Summon demons with a Ouija board? Seriously?

Well, there was The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity. I don't think they did very well.
posted by RobotHero at 8:25 PM on May 6, 2013


Paranormal Activity wasn't a ouija board, it was an ancestral thing.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:32 PM on May 6, 2013


Oh right, they had a Ouija board, but the demon was already around at that point.
posted by RobotHero at 8:34 PM on May 6, 2013


I keep wondering where Vinny taught as a professor (of either sociology or statistics -- the field depends on the biography you're reading). Even his official company bio doesn't say. Surely an upstanding gentleman like Vincent wouldn't be misleading us about that sort of thing?
posted by barnacles at 8:40 PM on May 6, 2013


But doors are opening for Bruzzese nonetheless, in part because he is such a character. For instance, he bills himself as a distant relative of Einstein's, a claim that is unverifiable but never fails to impress studio executives.

What a fascinating article press release!
posted by Lemurrhea at 8:43 PM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Thank god. I was getting tired of all of these new and innovative films with complex stories. Finally, someone willing to pander to the lowest common denominator! Enough of these thoughts! Jeeves, attach my bib, and ready my nutrient slurry!
posted by Ghidorah at 8:48 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well you see barnacles, the thing is, statistically, the clients who care about where specifically he was a professor tend to be the bad clients, you know, the less-paying ones and all that, so upon reflection it made sense to boost returns by leaving those details out. It's like bowling or summoned demons.
posted by hoople at 8:50 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Surely an upstanding gentleman like Vincent wouldn't be misleading us about that sort of thing?

Of course not; what are the odds of that happening?
posted by benito.strauss at 8:51 PM on May 6, 2013


Let's Kickstarter a movie about somebody who summons a demon to help him win a bowling tournament, just to stick it to this guy.
posted by prize bull octorok at 8:54 PM on May 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


Actually, upon reflection, this could have been an interesting gambit of someone with strong ideas about movies who arrived at an interesting backdoor route into the "pay me to tell you what I think about this script" business.
posted by hoople at 8:58 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


According to this version it was Stony Brook.

Searching for that gets me this nice rebuttal and Mr. Bruzzese's Linked In which lists Stony Brook under education but doesn't specifically say he taught there.
posted by RobotHero at 9:02 PM on May 6, 2013


Man, that Great Lebronski sure bombed.

Well, yeah. The Big Lebowski is a terrific film, but it was a complete flop at the box office. Not that that proves this guys thesis one way or the other, of course.
posted by yoink at 9:32 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


They're selling producers a certificate that says "we consulted with those math eggheads you read about in the newspaper, so if the movie bombs, it's not really my fault, since I took all the right precautions."

Pretty sure this is also how McKinsey, Bain, and BCG make money.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:33 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


btw, fshgrl, Matthew Yglesias over at Slate made basically the same argument: "Spending $20,000 to try to get an edge just shows that you don't actually take the technology seriously or rely on it in any way." Which, as blahblahblah so cogently pointed out, they shouldn't, because this is statistical quackery.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:37 PM on May 6, 2013


Well, yeah. The Big Lebowski is a terrific film, but it was a complete flop at the box office.

Brazil, Labyrinth, Blade Runner, Highlander... all were flops at the box office.

I find myself wondering how much influence Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World will have in 20 years.
posted by hippybear at 9:49 PM on May 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


just the idea of "considering the distribution of targeted vs. summoned demons" is interesting to me; unfortunately the article is seemingly silent on how such questions were identified in the first place.

Well, he doesn't want to give away his Secret FormulaTM.


My favourite of this sort of thing is Dramatica, which manages some clever insightful things and then buries it under mounds of baroque occultic language. I used to subscribe to his blog because it was an interesting perspective, and unsubscribed when he started writing 9 paragraphs of "anyone who badmouths Dramatica is driven by ego more than making good stories" for every 1 paragraph of actual analysis.
posted by RobotHero at 10:29 PM on May 6, 2013


Summon demons with a Ouija board? Seriously? This guy clearly doesn't know a damn thing about goety.

Witchboard. Don't remember it doing very well either.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:49 PM on May 6, 2013


he bills himself as a distant relative of Einstein's, a claim that is unverifiable but never fails to impress studio executives.

How is that either unverifiable or impressive?
posted by jaduncan at 12:05 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've been the 'consultant script writer' on mid three figures and trust me we're not taken as seriously as the marketing department.

The starlet was so dumb, she slept with the consultant script writer instead of any of the other writers.
</antiquated sexism>

James Cameron has been doing this for years. Titanic and Avatar are both the results of this kind of pre-planning.

Really? That would be the movie that had two Hollywood studios shitting bricks (especially when the final cut was 194m) -- Gitesh wrote, "Before moviegoers could even see the film it was surrounded by negative press that focused on the enormously overbudget production, delays in its release date, and the movie's reliance on unproven stars." -- and the movie that was considered Cameron going down a bizarre technological vision quest hole -- Is Avatar destined to flop? -- ? Now, he did get both funded, but neither of these was considered a slam-dunk before they were bona fide hits.
posted by dhartung at 12:37 AM on May 7, 2013


Nanukthedog: "James Cameron has been doing this for years. Titanic and Avatar are both the results of this kind of pre-planning."

James Cameron "does this" in the sense that he has a really good nose for what people like, and is really good at whipping his scripts into shape. You can say what you want about Cameron as a director, but he's second to none as a screenwriter (Strange Days is a good example).

But I don't think he sits down with a spreadsheet. Part of this is second nature to him (which allows him to be much smarter and more creative about it), and part of it is input from others, focus groups, etc. But trying to reduce this to maths seems silly. There are, as someone said, too many variables, too few data points, and generally it all gets really fuzzy and difficult really fast.

It's the sort of thing (the right) people can be very good at, while computers not so much.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:48 AM on May 7, 2013


I'd like to see of this formula can be applied to non-film endeavors. I have a strong feeling it would show us, in painting, for example, the true superiority and genius of Thomas Kincaid over penniless nobodies like, say, Van Gogh.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:02 AM on May 7, 2013


Summon demons with a Ouija board? Seriously?

I was in a movie with that premise.

It will never make money, or be released.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 2:21 AM on May 7, 2013


I find myself wondering how much influence Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World will have in 20 years.

I'm guessing not as much as it might have if there was even half as much courage in the last 80 minutes as there was in the first 30. That right there is a film that lost the courage of its convictions very quickly.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:35 AM on May 7, 2013


while this sounds pretty ridiculous, Netflix House of cards is an example of data-driven story telling. They basically had some data that said people who like TV shows about "X" also liked shows about "Y" and also liked movies with Kevin Spacy. So they decided to make a show staring Kevin Spacy about X and Y, basically.
posted by delmoi at 3:56 AM on May 7, 2013


Comforting, somehow, to know that there's still an audience for snake oil and phrenology.
posted by Twang at 4:30 AM on May 7, 2013


Yeah, I doubt this will work as specified, but House of Cards worked. It's the difference between trying to do the producer's job with data/algorithsm and trying to do the writer's job with data and algorithms. Amusingly, it's the producers who can be replaced.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:40 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I feel like I read this as a short story before. Except it was about a guy who was trying to write a book and he failed miserably so he created a book writing machine that basically tried to recreate the characteristics of a "best selling" novel. And then it started to knock out all the real authors off the best selling list and they basically had to pay the machine to write for them because it wrote better books than they could. Or like, the publishing companies forced them to use the machines. And they made so much money, authors basically made more money not writing but being paid to consent to put their names on the machine written books instead.

I forget how this story ends. Does this ring a bell with anyone? Because if this the real life beginning of this I want to know how it ends.
posted by like_neon at 5:02 AM on May 7, 2013


like_neon: That's The Great Automatic Grammatizer by Roald Dahl. His short stories remain fantastic if you haven't read them all.
posted by solarion at 5:54 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Let's Kickstarter a movie about somebody who summons a demon to help him win a bowling tournament, just to stick it to this guy."

Huh. I can think of a couple of interesting variations of that right away. A slightly kooky but ultimately scary teen-oriented slasher story that might be commercially successful, and a darker, more indie version of the same idea — something is making me think of Buffalo 66.

Actually, I can totally see Gallo summoning a demon via a Ouija board to help him win a bowling tournament. Not in one of his films, but in real life.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:03 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Let's Kickstarter a movie about somebody who summons a demon to help him win a bowling tournament, just to stick it to this guy.

It's been done (as backstory, at least).
posted by cog_nate at 6:28 AM on May 7, 2013


I find myself wondering how much influence Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World will have in 20 years.

The film, not so much. But the comic was (seriously) one of the best and innovative comics of the 00s, and I believe it will have a profound influence on the medium.

I'm guessing not as much as it might have if there was even half as much courage in the last 80 minutes as there was in the first 30. That right there is a film that lost the courage of its convictions very quickly.

Not coincidentally, the first 30 minutes were the part that stuck most closely to the comic, and the more it veered away from the comic, the worse it got.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 6:38 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Brazil, Labyrinth, Blade Runner, Highlander... all were flops at the box office.

Sure--and that list (works we now consider important and influential which were ignored on first publication) is a very, very long one. But if the claim is "you won't make money if your film contains a bowling scene" then The Big Lebowski is not the film to cite as a counter instance--because it didn't make money. If the guy's claim was "your film won't ever get to be a cult hit and eventually get recognized as a classic if it contains a bowling scene" then, sure, The Big Lebowski would be a problem for the hypothesis.
posted by yoink at 6:47 AM on May 7, 2013


Well, yeah. The Big Lebowski is a terrific film, but it was a complete flop at the box office.

So it was. "It grossed USD $5.5 million on its opening weekend, grossing US$17 million in the United States, just above its US$15 million budget. The film's worldwide gross outside of the US was $28 million, bringing its worldwide gross to $46,189,568."

Still, I wonder where "skilled actors" and "capable directors" ranks in these movie metrics. A great script can fall flat if other elements great, too.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:17 AM on May 7, 2013


I love how "made over three times what we spent on it" equals "complete flop". I thought that was reserved for movies that actually lost money.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:09 AM on May 7, 2013


From the $47 million, subtract the exhibitor's cut. Then subtract the distributor's cut from what's left. Then submit prints & advertising (probably around the same as the production budget, if not more in this case). It's around break-even.
posted by unSane at 8:11 AM on May 7, 2013


How are these cuts calculated? I would guess prints and advertising are not always "probably around the same as the production budget" (if so, how could any movie make money). I should probably read Hollywood Economics.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:13 AM on May 7, 2013


I would guess prints and advertising are not always "probably around the same as the production budget" (if so, how could any movie make money).

You'd guess wrong, and that is why it is extremely hard for movies to make money.
posted by unSane at 8:17 AM on May 7, 2013


Ok, so if all that's true, what singles out the Big Lebowski as a "complete flop" compared to every other movie?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:33 AM on May 7, 2013


Because some movies do make money. Investors don't invest in films to break even.
posted by unSane at 8:50 AM on May 7, 2013


And anyways, one example of a successful movie that goes against the trend doesn't prove anything. (Assuming that there actually is a quantifiable trend, which I doubt)
posted by cdward at 9:00 AM on May 7, 2013


Ok, so if all that's true, what singles out the Big Lebowski as a "complete flop" compared to every other movie?

The Big Lebowski debuted at #6 in its opening weekend and went rapidly downward from there. It made -36.8% less in its second weekend than in its first, despite opening on more screens. It then dropped basically 50% in each of the next two weeks, falling out of the top ten by week 4. By pretty much any metric you like for a major studio release starring reasonably big-name talent that's a flop.
posted by yoink at 9:04 AM on May 7, 2013


Clearly Soderbergh's speech was wrong in that he underestimated the amount of bullshit.
posted by Artw at 9:59 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sure, The Big Lebowski was a flop at the box office. But it was released on video, where it became wildly successful and probably raked in the millions it failed to make at the theater. In the long run, it's hardly a flop.
posted by goatdog at 11:52 AM on May 7, 2013


Roll your own script consultancy with the CMU Movie Summary Corpus:

42,306 movie plot summaries extracted from Wikipedia + aligned metadata extracted from Freebase, including
*Movie box office revenue, genre, release date, runtime, and language
*Character names and aligned information about the actors who portray them, including gender and estimated age at the time of the movie's release

posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:17 PM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I find myself wondering how much influence Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World will have in 20 years.

It's already influenced several films and music videos, but I can't be the only person who ALREADY SAW THE WORLD THAT WAY when the movie came out.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:53 PM on May 7, 2013


Sean O'Neal snarks on the story

Apparently the guy behind it has popped up in the comments sections of websites to defend it, but he hasn't shown up here, maybe because I didn't link to the original article.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:41 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure I read an Escape Pod story along these lines.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:11 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


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