Data-mining for Screenplays

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‘“It’s the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.” – Andy Warhol

I had planned to continue discussing the story of Jorinda and Joringel from the Brothers Grimm, but a pair of articles I saw on successive days suggested a compelling interlude.  We’ll return to the forest shortly.

The first article, “Big data,” outlines ways that new software and methods can identify structures in parts of the oceans of data that retailers and governments have not been able to access before.  Everyone knows that advertisers target us based on our Facebook likes.  Now there are ways to do the same with the photographs we post and other aspects of our online behavior.  New algorithms find new patterns in all our activities, online and off.  This includes the movies we pay to watch.

The second article appeared in the May 5 New York Times, “Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data.” In it, Brooks Barnes writes about Vinny Bruzzese, a highly paid script consultant, who charges up to $20,000 for a sophisticated analysis of a screenplay in terms of past box office performance.  Bruzzese, a former statistics professor, can tell you which sort of demons do best in horror films and warn you that bowling alley scenes are a hallmark of low-grossing movies.

Though Bruzzese’s services are still too taboo for most movie people to cop to, Barnes says studios have hired him to analyze at least 100 scripts, including an early version of Oz the Great and Powerful.  Meanwhile, Scott Steindorff, who produced The Lincoln Lawyer said, “Everyone is going to be doing this soon.  The only people who are resistant are the writers.”

“This is my worst nightmare,” says Ol Parker, who wrote the script for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  “It’s the enemy of creativity…It can only result in an increasingly bland homogenization, a pell-mell rush for the middle of the road.”

I wonder if there is a greater nightmare lurking for writers like Parker – not just computer driven analysis, but computer driven generation of screenplays?  I’m certain it’s possible.

First of all, interactive online books have been around for some time.  Secondly, I’ve seen how this works in the field of computer graphics.  My day job involved microchip design automation, starting over 15 years ago – chips helping to draw the next generation of chips.  But what really convinces me that elements of screenplays could be synthesized is a computer generated astrological profile I ordered on whim last winter.

I plugged in my birthdate, place, time and, paid $50.  Sixty seconds later, I was reading a 20 page, Jungian-style analysis of my natal chart, that was uncanny in describing my relationship with parents, among other things.  It’s not that hard to understand how it is possible.  The Sun in Aquarius, at one degree, forty-four minutes, in the second house, has a defined meaning.  Assemble text to match the possibilities, and the rest is just number crunching.  A literary outline would have fewer data points.

Colonel Mustard in the library with a wrench, for those who remember Clue.

Or this.  Pick your genre – teenage slasher movie.  Choose setting (urban, suburban, rural).  Choose decade.  Chose your villain (insane human, mutant, supernatural creature).  Choose your hero (I’ll go with brainy nerd who has a congenital limp and can’t get a date for the prom).  Choose the hair color of a cheerleader he will rescue.  Finally, pick a screenplay structure (Save the Cat), add any notes, and hit send.  A few minutes later, you’ve got your outline and pitch, with no hint of a bowling scene.

Oh brave new world!  Andy Warhol saw it coming 50 years ago when he said, “Some day everybody will just think what they want to think, and then everybody will probably be thinking alike; that seems to be what is happening.” 

The alternative is simple too – we keep our day jobs and write all the damn bowling scenes we want to.  Life is to short to let someone else dictate our demons.  As my computer generated horoscope said: “You need to face your fear of the world’s criticism, and your tendency to sabotage your creative efforts out of a deep need to be approved of by society.”

Feel free to borrow that bit of advice whenever you want to.

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9 Responses to Data-mining for Screenplays

  1. Strike! And I mean that in the best bowling sense 😉

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  2. Rosi says:

    Ah, if I could only face my fear of the world’s criticism, maybe I could get some writing done.

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    • Here’s something very interesting that Amy Rogers posted on her Facebook page. From The Christian Science Monitor, this lists book sales for 2013 for the five books awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the year on April 15.

      – “Embers of War,” by Fredrik Logevall, had sold 40 copies before the award (rising to 353 after).
      – Tom Reiss’s “The Black Count,” inched up from 135 to 501 copies.
      – Sharon Old’s “Stag’s Leap” from 51 copies to 492.
      – “The Orphan Master’s Son,” by Adam Johnson, saw sales increase from 413 copies to 2,477 after the award announcement.
      – The nonfiction winner “Devil in the Grove” by Gilber King had been remaindered before his Pulitzer win.

      I’ve met self-published authors at CWC events, selling books out of their trunks, with sales figures that probably equal some of these.

      Considering factoids like this can lead me to kind of refreshing, “Screw it, what difference does it make,” realization that makes “the world’s criticism” seem far less significant…

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  4. xandranihilo says:

    I’m glad Paul Thomas Anderson ignored the advice about bowling alley scenes when he wrote the screenplay for “There Will Be Blood”. And if I hear “if you like this, you’ll love…” one more time, I’ll beat the perp over the head with a ninepin. Death to algorithms.

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    • I guess this screenplay consulting service is pretty new, so it will be interesting to see what happens from here. Hmmm – let me guess. I bet we’ll see lots of sequels, and superheroes, and superhero sequels, and 3D digital effects at the expense of story!

      I just counted up and I’ve been to the theater three times this year and that was to see movies made in 2012 (Lincoln, Argo, and Skyfall).

      Of course now I’m going to have to break whatever purist fantasy that statement hides to see StarTrek, but in general, we are in agreement!

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