Posted on 15 May 2013.
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 analyse previous selections. Pandora does the same with music, and studios have started using Facebook “likes” and online trailer views to mould 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 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 company, Worldwide Motion Picture Group, also digs into an extensive database of focus-group results for similar films and surveys 1500 potential moviegoers. What do you like? What should be changed?
“Demons in horror movies can target people or be summoned,” Bruzzese says 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, Bruzzese, 39, continues. 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 adds.
His recommendations, delivered in a 20-to 30-page report, might range from minor tightening to substantial rewrites: More people would relate to this character if she had a sympathetic sidekick, for instance.
Script “doctors”, as Hollywood refers to writing consultants, have long worked quietly on movie assembly lines. But many top screenwriters – the kind who attain exalted status in the industry, even if they remain largely unknown to the multiplex masses – reject Bruzzese’s statistical intrusion into their craft.
“This is my worst nightmare” says 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 homogenisation, a pell-mell rush for the middle of the road.”
Parker draws a breath. “Look, I’d take a suggestion from my grandmother if I thought it would improve a film I was writing,” he says. “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 Bruzzese’s company to analyse about 100 scripts, including an early treatment for Oz the Great and Powerful, which has taken in $US484.8 million worldwide.
Bruzzese, who is one of very few, if not the only entrepreneur to use this form of script analysis, is plotting to take it to Broadway and television now that he has success in movies.
“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: ‘I’m making art, I can’t possibly do this’.”
Audience research has been known to save a movie, but it has also famously missed the mark. Opinion surveys – “idiot cards”, as some unimpressed directors call them – indicated that Fight Club would be the flop of the century. It took in more than $US100 million worldwide.
But as the stakes of making movies become ever higher, Hollywood leans ever harder on research to minimise guesswork. Moreover, studios have trimmed spending on internal script development. 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.
Bruzzese, who taught statistics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island before moving into movie research about a decade ago, motivated by a desire for more money and a childhood love of movies.
He acknowledges that many writers are “skittish” about his service. But he counters that it is not as threatening as it may sound.
“This is just advice, and you can use all of it, some of it or none of it,” he says.
But ignore it at your peril, according to one production executive. Motion Picture Group analysed the script for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, said the executive, who worked on the film, but the production companies that supplied it to 20th Century Fox did not heed all of the advice. The movie flopped. Bruzzese declines to comment.
Bruzzese emphasises that his script analysis is not done by machines. His reports rely on statistics and survey results, but before evaluating a script he meets the writer or writers to “hear and understand the creative vision, so our analysis can be contextualised,” he says.
But he is also unapologetic about his focus on financial outcomes. “I understand that writing is an art, and I deeply respect that,” he says. “But the earlier you get in with testing and research, the more successful movies you will make.”
The service actually gives writers more control over their work, says Mark Gill, president of Millennium Films and a client. In traditional testing, the kind done when a film is almost complete, the writer is typically no longer involved. With script testing, the writer can still control changes.
One Oscar-winning writer who, at the insistence of a producer, had a script analysed by Bruzzese, said his initial concerns proved unfounded.
“It was a complete shock, the best notes on a draft that I have ever received,” said the writer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing his reputation.
Script analysis is new enough to remain a bit of a Hollywood taboo. Major film financiers and advisers such as Houlihan Lokey confirmed that they had used the service, but declined to speak on the record about it. The six major Hollywood movie studios declined to comment.
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.
Bruzzese, a movie enthusiast with a seemingly encyclopaedic memory of screenplays, also speaks bluntly, a rarity in Hollywood.
“All screenwriters think their babies are beautiful,” he said, taking a chug of Diet Dr Pepper followed by a gulp of Diet Coke and a drag on a Camel.
“I’m here to tell it like it is: Some babies are ugly.”
New York Times