Tangled Nature of the Tangible

The first step toward metric measurement with issues concerning the film business is determining what elements within the process can be quantified. In other words, what can be measured, and what sort of parameters are you using for these measurements.

Easier said than done. The film-making process is full of loose threads and slippery details and the whole thing starts to sound like another paradox about knowing “the dancer from the dance.” The simplest response would be to insist it can’t be done.

That was my first response about ten years ago. In a series of long conversations, I expounded at some length why the filmmaking process was way too complex and extremely intuitive and that it was beyond any form of quantification. I even quoted William Goldman. I gave it the works.

While I was doing this, I slowly came to realize that it could be done. The more I lectured on the intangible nature of cinema, I more I realized I was talking pure bunk. It is not magical. Oh sure, great art should feel magical. But the basic key to film-making is craft, and craft is tangible. That is why any form of metric measurement on the filmmaking process will be focused on craft, not art.

Likewise, the financial value of indie films is eminently quantifiable. Low budget movies are much easier to analysis than so-called tent pole productions. The lower the budget, the more you are dealing with hard figures that are pretty consistent and rational. The bigger the budget, the more the financial process gets very…well, strange. Quite bluntly, the financial structure of any big budget production is designed to confuse accountants. Once a movie goes past a budget of $100 million, the figures largely become a piece of fiction.

Quantifying the craft and the financial package are key, but value relationships cannot be extrapolated in a straight line. For example, the box office results of the director’s previous two or three films do not necessarily mean anything in terms of the box office outcome for the director’s next movie. Oh sure, it’s useful information. But it does not tell you all that much.

The valuation process involves layering different elements, ranging from script to scriptwriter to cast to other assorted parameters, and analyzing different combinations of them. That is why the final results (or what is sometimes called the score) will not be a single figure. It will be a range of statistical probabilities. And they will not necessarily be final. In fact, they are rarely final. Filmmaking is a fluid process. Changes made during that process will effect the analysis and will need to be accounted for within the analysis.

I want to emphasis this point because many people make two major mistakes about this type of metric measurement. The first is the notion that the projected outcome (i.e. box office returns) is some kind of absolute prediction. It isn’t. Such a prediction isn’t even possible and certainly is not the point of the process. It can only give you a range of expected results for the most basic, core-level of limited release. In the past I have characterized the process as best designed to tell you how much you can afford to lose, not how much you will gain. If the film becomes a hit, then that’s fine. Just deal with it. But you have to know and work with the most realistic, basic results. In the case of indie movies, that is most likely all (at best) that you will ever receive.

The second mistake is the notion that these figures are written in stone. The outcomes are process-determined. The many shifts and changes that occur in making a film will have an impact on the projections–as they should. In a full blown application of metric measurement in film-making, the scoring process will be done over and over again to reflect the evolving conditions of the production. There are no absolute outcomes, only results based on information, iteration and assumption.

What does the filmmaker gain with all of this? Quite possibly, a discovery that the project is not economically viable. Sad news, but essential. Or, that it is extremely viable. In my own scoring experience, I have seen it go both ways. Sometimes the process has allowed me to discover one or two elements that, if changed, could noticeably improve the film’s prospect.

One of the biggest points of resistance to scoring is the belief that such measurements will destroy the creative process. And yes, it could. If the people doing this job are real heavy-handed and extremely pushy, and like to act as if the results generated by the computer are the equivalent of Moses coming down from the mountain top, they could screw up lots of things. Such people obviously think they are producing results written in stone and are hopelessly (and mistakenly) focused solely on some type of fixed outcome.

But it is all about process. Process is ever changing and full of many variables. Sometimes, the analysis of the figures are just as important (even more important) than the figures themselves. It is a dialogue, not a monologue. It is even open to debate. Like anything else in science, it is honed through experience and observation. So, although there should be reproducibility, there is never any absolute answer.

Instead, it is about asking the right questions.