May 282013

Quite a few of my writery friends have been shouting in despair about how big data is being used to profile screenplays. The long & short of the article is that, contrary to public belief, there is something of a formula to building hollywood blockbusters, and that certain things can reduce take in a film. I wonder if & when they’ll add in snack data. More red hots are sold in dragonlance films, more popcorn sold to romances? What about the perennial coke-versus-pepsi debate?

The concern and alarm seems to boil down to one of two things:

  1. Oh, no! It’s the end of Art!
  2. This is going to affect my pocketbook, badly.

The second is fairly straightforward to deal with: Authors (generally) don’t sit back and write and make cash. A few do – a very few. For the rest, they make up the difference between royalties and advances and the ability to make their rent each month from a few different areas, one of which is (often) writing or revising film scripts. There are lots of good ideas out there, often written by people who don’t understand story structure. Script doctors get in to help them.

The other dirty secret of the film industry is that of all the scripts optioned (or even bought) a tiny proportion are ever produced. I personally know of a dozen authors who have had tens of screenplays purchased, none of which have ever been produced.

So, it kind of boils down to Change is Bad. Scary. Might take money from my pocket.

There are always winners and losers in change, but this kind of excites me, actually. See, we’ve been here before, in film, and things got better.

The last big data-type thing that happened with film was the focus group. Focus group science came into its own in the 70s and 80s, right around the time that culture was converging. In my mind, it peaked at one Thursday evening in the mid-80s when everyone in America was watching the Cosby Show.

It wasn’t everyone of course. Henry Rolllins was probably throwing his telly out the window, three was a kid in Muscogee, Iowa, who was grounded for setting off firecrackers, and Edwin Edwards was strategising how he was going to purchase another juror. But pretty much everyone else.

We got sick of it. Some of us. Culture started to diverge. Clerks came out shortly thereafter. Redford started Sundance. There’s a theatre in New Orleans called Zeitgeist who was – and remains – firmly indie-indie, not mainstream indie. René’s ethos could be “if you’ve heard of it, I won’t screen it”.

And there have been some brilliant things that have come up in the last howevermany years.

On the one side: we (as a species) have the science of story structure down, cold. Hollywood can make you choke up with the most horrible, derivative schlock they put out. There are some side benefits, and there are larger audiences for film.

The other side, however, is what’s fabulous for me. Indie producers have given us Primer, all the Dogme95 stuff, and a few other things.

We’ve got brilliant filmmakers who have nothing to say. I hope we’re in for an explosion in new experiments and forms of storytelling, breaking boundaries and doing new things. Low-tech. No-tech.

There’ll always be a market for blockbusters, just like there’ll always be Superman reboots and frankly quite average (if enjoyable) films. If they can make the average more enjoyable and leave space for more people to come in and make low-budget brilliance, I’m all for it.

Or, perhaps, at least it’s not the end of art.

(and when is Upstream Color going to get a release in the UK?)