Mid-Summer Diversions

The summer movie season is basically over. Actually, it kind of wrapped up around May 5 with the opening of Iron Man 3. Sure, there were later jolts from Fast and Furious 6 and  Despicable Me 2. But basically this summer has been a massive run of over-produced movies with huge budgets and mediocre box office returns.

For example, Star Trek Into Darkness produced a worldwide box office of $448 million. Not bad. Unfortunately, that was just what it needed to break even. Pretty much the same goes for World War Z, Man of Steel, The Great Gatsby and virtually every other movie that has come out this summer. In a certain sense, the massive failure of The Lone Ranger is almost a godsend. It’s at least the one overt failure that Hollywood will freely talk about.

The enormous production cost of these movies means they must hit close to a billion at the worldwide box office. Only a few have come close to the mark; most will make about $300 to $500 million. It sounds good only if you do not tally in all the production and advertising costs. The truth is that the commercial system is limping very badly. In fact, it is starting to resemble a person having a mild stroke who is feeling woozy and is about to pitch over.

You would think Hollywood would be looking for radically new solutions. New ideas. New ways of creating, marketing, and distributing films. But the reality is that they are not seeking anything more than a revamping of old ideas and the application of a few pseudo-modernized band-aids.

For example, look at how Warner handled Man of Steel and The Great Gatsby. Both productions set new records for product placement, thereby using ad dollars to balance out the production cost. A bunch of haute couture fashion companies were banking on The Great Gatsby to jump start a retro 1920s look while Sears was planning a major corporate rebound with Man of Steel.

However, nobody is wearing spats and Sears is still doomed.

From the viewpoint of the companies placing the products, this process has to be seen as a major bust. It only did all right by the studio, which was able to off-load some of its own exorbitant production cost; the companies would have been better off spending less money elsewhere. Notably, The Great Gatsby retro look was previously attempted with the release of the 1974 version. It didn’t work back then either. Obviously he who does not study history is doomed to product placement.

Advertising has returned with a vengeance. OK, advertising has never gone away, but many of the majors have spent the summer unloading movie ads on billboards (yes, they have gone back to the Antediluvian billboard form), TV, radio, YouTube and Yahoo. Heck, there were days when it was difficult to open Yahoo because of the movie ads they were trying to jam down my throat. Did this do anyone any good?  Probably not (though we now know how Superman shaves). This type of movie is mostly sold (or not sold) to the audience before the filming starts. The advertising impact is usually negligible.

But the news stories about Hollywood’s attempt to use science are the real hoot this summer. As a general rule, American companies only resort to science when they feel truly desperate. The concept of data analytics is not really all that new or radical. However, I am concerned about the type of data analytics approach that Hollywood is embracing.

So, first, a disclaimer. My associates and I are involved with the design and operation of the FilmScore data system designed as a tool for financing low budget indie movies by securitization. It is not meant to be a merely predictive model. Rather, it uses various key components of the movie’s production process to project the film’s financial value and risk under different artistic choices, and to guide the bundling of the individual film into a portfolio package of titles. In short, it is a model for valuing film assets.

But mainly what Hollywood is resorting to using is a data analysis of screenplays. In a recent blog, I briefly dealt with one such system by trying to take the high road and attempting to stay focused on the overall general application. Now, thanks to a recent piece on American Public Media Marketplace, I finally feel the need to make some more pointed comments.

In the podcast What’s Behind the Future of Hit Movies? An Algorithm, Hollywood presses boldly backwards. Seriously. This approach is nothing but an elaborate screenplay analysis, where the analyst runs through the script and scores it by slapping numerical values onto various elements of the narrative structure. Which is half OK, although the choice of numerical values is open to debate, and the process relies on a never ending stream of audience surveys of untested empirical validity.

In short, this is the test screening process revamped and applied to the script (instead of the first-cut of the movie) on mega-budget productions where most of the scripts are so simplistic to begin with, a couple of grad students with lots of coffee and a week to kill could probably get you the same results. I might add that some of these companies uses a ten per cent margin of error per item, which is actually pretty wide (3 to 5 per cent is more standard for the final analysis).

And if I really wanted to be rude, I could even point out that most of the movies limping this summer are exactly the type of film to have been run through such a process. So the results don’t appear too exciting. As I recall, science is all about results being predictive.