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Paint by Numbers? Hollywood Rewriting Scripts Based on Statistical Analysis to Boost Box Office

Hollywood rewrites statistical analysis matrixIf there is one axiom about screenwriting for the studios that holds true above all others, it may be this: your screenplay will be rewritten. If you’re lucky (depending on how you define “lucky”), you’ll get to rewrite the script yourself. You may even get fired off your original screenplay only to be rehired a few drafts down the road to fix what other screenwriters have changed, like screenwriter Michael Arndt on his Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine, according to his introduction to the published version of the script. Studios want to take the guesswork out of rewrites to figure out which changes will lead to the biggest return on their investments. Enter the world of statistical analysis and script consultants who make script notes purely based on the numbers.

A recent New York Times article by Brooks Barnes profiles Worldwide Motion Picture Group, a Hollywood consulting firm led by CEO Vinny Bruzzese, that offers script evaluations for up to $20,000 that uses statistics gathered from extensive focus group and customer survey research to determine which elements in a script deliver the best box office return. For example, according to Barnes’ article:

Bowling scenes tend to pop up in films that fizzle, Mr. Bruzzese, 39, continued. Therefore it is statistically unwise to include one in your script.

So now I know why scripts that I have written with bowling scenes aren’t generating interest among producers. Or do I?

I chose the example above because this particular recommendation seems so arbitrary, but it also points out the fact that making script rewrite recommendations based on statistical analysis will, by its very nature, make Hollywood screenplays regress to the mean. In other words, if it worked before, do it again. In fact, do it again the same way you did it before. Don’t be an outlier. Outliers write scenes in bowling alleys, and according to the statistics, nobody pays money to see those movies. Ever.

Studios need to mitigate risk, especially when they spend hundreds of millions of dollars to produce their summer tentpoles, then tack on several tens of millions of dollars more to market those tentpoles. They are in the risk management business, I get it. Hiring a script consultant who strips away the subjective nature of story notes and instead only supplies notes based on cold, hard data I’m sure sounds like a very enticing way for a studio executive to cover his/her… protect his/her job.

Let’s be clear. Getting the chance to fix a script before it shoots to make the best movie possible is certainly the goal of the screenwriter (or should be). So if the screenwriter is given the opportunity to make changes to a script based on notes prior to cameras rolling that will make the movie better, this should be a good thing. But the question remains, does the data make the movie better? Even with suggestions from statistical analysis, films will be screened in front of test audiences so they can be tweaked based on those audience reactions, and those audience reactions won’t always be right. Barnes’ article points out that Fight Club had horrendous test screenings and went on to generate over $100 million at the worldwide box office.

Writers will stand up for their art and creative process. Studios and financiers will look to protect their investments and generate the biggest possible return on those investments, using whatever tools they have available to them. Statistical script evaluations are one of those tools. So, if you plan to write screenplays for the studio system, you may want to sign up for a statistics class to hold your own in the notes sessions.

For further discussion on this article from professional screenwriters, listen to the most recent episode of Scriptnotes with John August and Craig Mazin. Mazin takes umbrage in the most spectacular way, targeting this consulting firm and the studio executives that pay for its services.

Be sure to check out Barnes’ complete article in The New York Times, and let us know your thoughts. Do you think statistical analysis will shape screenplays into the movies that audiences want to see, or does it lead to derivative product that audiences will eventually avoid? Does statistical analysis taint the entire process altogether? Share your thoughts with us in the Comments.



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Description image 44 COMMENTS

  • I was just reading about this this morning. Thanks for the condensed version!

    A major blow to screenwriters and their creativity.

  • This is where Art and Commerce sometimes don’t mix.

  • We know how profit focused the Studios have become over the last 3 decades, maybe their entire history, but this is just plain ridiculous. I really hope they all start using this inane process. The lack of guts or just plain trusting your instinct will lead to endless rewrites and more mediocrity from the stories in Hollywood.

    I don’t care that Hollywood would waste money on this process, I only mourn that amidst all of this business horse-shit, stand the most talented creative minds the country can produce. And none of them get the chance to take a chance.

  • This is utter, unmitigated bollox and an insult to the intelligence of not only creators but audiences. For this, and many other reasons, the mainstream film industry is rapidly going down the shitter. The studios need more people who actually give a damn about movies rather than spineless lawyers and MBA’s

  • Well, my cursed superhero bowling summoned-demon thriller just got a LOT less profitable. Is “Bowlingman: A Haunting at the Bowlodrome” EVER going to see light of day?

  • I hope all the studios take this path and pay for it in the end by going bankrupt. New studios will start popping up who will have learnt from their past mistakes. Maybe then real creatives will return.

    • Ya, that is never going to happen. Independent films lack the budget needed to advertise which is how studios get butts into seats. Most Sundance films fail to make any profit whatsoever. Independent productions may be able to make some of their money back through self distribution via the web but unless you are able to get theatrical distribution, you are not going to make any money. Studio films rule the box office because they are the only films that are advertised to mainstream audiences. Hollywood is going to get bigger, not smaller.

  • I think The Dude might be crying. But that may just be over the loss of his rug. What am i saying The Dude doesn’t cry. He abides. And then burns one.

  • I think Pandora and netflix do a pretty good job with guessing what I will enjoy. When they are wrong, I give them feedback and they try to correct themselves. It is not perfect but I prefer this to the old days of flipping through dvd’s and cd’s at the store hoping I find something I like never knowing that the real gems were miscatagorized or had terrible cover art.

    I am also glad Netflix is making more Arrested Development, again thanks to statistical analysis.

    Notes are just notes. They don’t have to be followed if there is a clear vision being violated (presuming someone has a clear vision). That is why you hope for a really good producer who will go to battle for the story. I have a friend who wrote a big hollywood movie and they gave him all sorts of notes like this and while it infuriated him at first that he needed to add a horse, the movie was a huge commercial success and has had several sequels. Sure the script was completely changed but when people talk about his movie they mention how much they loved that horse he put in it. Just because it wasn’t the screenwriters idea doesn’t mean it is wrong either.

    The music industry has been doing the same research on what makes a hit for years. If people don’t like these big Hollywood movies then they wouldn’t make so much money. I think it is the same as the fast food industry; I don’t take it as an artistic offense that mcdonalds exists when a local diner makes the best burger in town. Sometimes I crave awful fast food with the extra salty fries and ketchup in a package.

    I actually think there needs to be MORE statistical analysis on film and scripts to find out which of these points really matter. Having data is not the same as understanding data. If it can make the story better or more engaging, I am all for it.

    And seriously, how many of you are writing a scene that MUST be in a bowling alley? (Yes we all loved the Big Lebowski, and best of luck emulating it!)

    • “Donnie! You’re out of your element!!”

    • This is why I think Netflix will be a dominant player in the future. Personally, I really don’t go to the movies anymore unless it is something I really really want to see and know it will be good. I want to see Iron Man 3, but I’m not gonna go out to see it. I’ll watch Man of Steel though. Mainly, I love watching shows like Mad Men, Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, etc…

      Netflix is doing a better job with analyzing what people like because they aren’t being specific and saying stuff like “bowling scenes are in movies that suck”. They are being more general and saying “people like David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and political dramas”, then they are mostly giving creative control to those people. House of Cards is a great example of this. Netflix knows more about the audience than anyone else because everything you do on Netflix is tracked and they can gather a tremendous amount of data from that.

      Hitchcock didn’t need numbers to figure out what the audience would like, he just knew. Kubrick would have never made a movie if they did this to him, but over time, his movies have won people over.

      I think to a certain extent it’s okay to look at these numbers to try and make sense of it, but it should only be used as a piece that fits into the overall picture.

      To make an Apple analogy, how can people tell you what they want if they don’t even know what it is? What will happen to the really great scripts that don’t fit into these molds?

      Also, There Will Be Blood had a bowling alley… but they didn’t bowl on it, not sure if that makes a difference…

      • Big Lebowski was independently financed I believe (worldwide premiere at Sundance 1998). There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men were both financed by Miramax and Paramount Vantage (Paramount’s art house division) partnered together. Because only No Country for Old Men turned a profit out of all the films on Vantage’s slate Paramount dissolved Vantage. Miramax has been bought and sold a bunch of times since.

        Both companies failed because they did not turn a profit. Even a slew of academy awards couldn’t save them. These are the kinds of things taken into account when doing statistical analysis because if you don’t make money, you don’t get to make more movies in the studio system.

    • Nick Hiltgen on 05.10.13 @ 4:30AM

      But honestly The Lord of the rings wouldn’t have been the same movie if your friend hadn’t added that horse that Vigo rode on.

  • I don’t understand what they can hope to accomplish with this. I work in digital media for my day job – I do this exact sort of analysis for online ads for clients day in and day out. Data can tell you history and what *has* worked, not what *will* work. There’s money to be made from reproducing success, true, but never as much as there is being the first one to do something that works. Who’s bigger, Coke or Pepsi?

    Fair play to these analysts charging $20k to tell movie producers that ‘action films and romcoms play well to the masses.’ It’s a hell of a hustle. Ultimately, though, it’s selling a bogus cure to a dying industry. To take an example from Telly Land, no amount of data would of suggested that dredging up a stagnant 20 year old fantasy political melodrama staring a whoring midget and containing straight up incest in the first few chapters could possibly work, but Game of Thrones is now one of the biggest entertainment properties in the world. You’d think sooner or later one of these graphs would show that ‘That HBO company sure are making a shitload of money, I wonder what they’re doing right?’

    Big budget Hollywood is dying not because there isn’t any appeal for their output – people still enjoy turning off their brain and looking at the pretty explosions for an hour just like they always did – but because there’s so much more to see out there right now and their business models are still based on the presumption that there is a choice of three films in the cinema or maybe an old video rental. Those days are done, there’s no discernible difference in quality (either production or creative) between most TV and Film, and the diversity and heart of online video more than makes up for the often amateur-hour production values

    No company will ever again make what the studios made from cinema in the 90′s. The big studios will eventually consolidate until the output is in line with commercial demand again, and the profits and subsequent power that used to be consolidated into the hands of a minority is now better spread. Less people will get rich, but more people will make a living, and that means more ideas which is a good thing! This is what progress looks like! You can commission all the pie charts you want, it won’t stop the pie shrinking.

    I hope one of those reports simply contains a line graph showing internet usage over time and a solitary bullet point that just reads ‘Deal with it’.

  • This is why Hollywood is doomed…

    • Iron Man 3 just had the second highest opening weekend ever in history and it had a fantastic script to boot. I would not be surprised if Black’s script was passed through some kind of statistical service prior to shooting. If you think this is something new, you are wrong. Studios have been comparing new scripts against old successes for decades.

      • But Iron Man is an action movie. I have a rule, if it’s a movie that will be enhanced by the big screen, I’ll go see it in a theater if it’s a movie I really want to see. But there is no way I’m paying to see a movie in the theater that is just a normal story, I’ll wait to watch it at home because it will be just as good of an experience. But I’m not even going to see Iron Man because I have no money and there are other movies coming out that I’m more excited about, like Man of Steel. That Hans Zimmer score in a theater will be amazing!

        However, in a theater I’m not tempted to constantly take out my phone to look up facts about the movie. Watching TV and Movies at home has a lot of distractions.

  • c.d.embrey on 05.7.13 @ 6:54PM

    At one time Hollywood was run by people who liked movies. Now it’s run by corporations. Meh!!

    • Hollywood was always run by corporations. Nothing has changed. We fondly remember the classics but there was a ton of garbage from the golden age of cinema that we don’t remember. Hollywood always catered to what the masses enjoyed. Musicals, Westerns, Film Noir, Comedies, Horror. If anything, our options at the cinema are much more diverse than they ever used to be.

      • It’s the same thing with music from the ’60s and ’70s. Everyone always remembers the great music, but none of the crap. But today, just like back then, we are exposed to everything. In the end, time only remembers the good stuff. Nobody liked Kubrick films that much when they were first released, but now they are very respected and have withstood the test of time.

  • I find the “Bowling theory” pretty funny considering the movie “CURFEW” just won an OSCAR for BEST 2013 short live action film.
    See It Here!:

    It’s the SOUL OF THE MOVIE THAT MATTERS Hollywood! You can’t measure that!

    • marklondon on 05.7.13 @ 8:27PM

      Yes they can. By dollars. You can shepherd as many ‘worthy’ pics as you like, but if you want to keep that job, you better find a synergistic billion-dollar franchise as fast as you can. That goes for the Weinsteins and Annapurna as it does for anyone.

  • On the surface, this does sound pretty horrible. I would urge you to read the original article though. There is one bit where an unnamed Oscar winning writer stated that the notes he got back for a draft were some of the best he has ever received. If the studios allow the writer to make their own revisions, this is preferable to a script that goes through multiple revisions from a host a writers. Lets be realistic here for a minute. Very few of us will have to opportunity to write passion projects like Tarantino or Alexander Payne. Minimizing risk is one way to keep people employed. The biggest career killer is a movie that bombs. Hell, I would have told them to pass on Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter as well, like this service did. The guy who runs the service does in fact sound like he is passionate about movies, he just realizes that he needs to be blunt with his customers to help them avoid financial risk. Hollywood has always done this. This is nothing new.

    • I completely agree. The indie crowd gets upset about the big studio movies being mass audience dribble, but without those films the studios could not afford to make the smaller ones that end up going for oscars and low budget story risks.

      There is another illusion here that people need to wake up on; most established writers are NOT writing spec scripts in Hollywood. They do adaptations, rewrites, script doctoring, etc. Specs are often looked at as resume’s to see if writers can handle property already owned by a production company or studio. Of course there are spec scripts that get bought and made, but notice how often the writer is also the director and how low budget those films are in comparison to the tent poles? And as an established writer, would you be passionate enough to throw away a guaranteed paycheck for a smaller risky project? John Gatin’s had Flight as a passion project script for over a decade and while trying to get it made he wrote Real Steel for the studios because “you have to pay the bills”.

      After he wrote Batman and Robin and got a Razzy for it Akiva Goldsman realized he was only doing that film for the money and started adapting “A Beautiful Mind” which he won an Academy Award for. Of course he did Lost in Space and Practical magic in the mean time too. When they are talking about giving notes on scripts, these are usually not the screenwriters original idea. It is something they have been hired to make appeal to mass audience. Of course for everyone outside of the writers guild it is all spec, so that is what they think is happening with this service.

      This is why services like the Black List are so exciting as it gets scripts to Hollywood execs, though it has not yet made a huge impact on the spec script market. I hope it does in the future.

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  • marklondon on 05.7.13 @ 8:25PM

    Hi. This has been going on in music for the last decade. Works VERY well for the labels.
    I realise this isn’t the site to discuss this rationally, but this is how the sausage is made at the 200M+ level folks. Oh, you thought the Tennessee section of IM3 was an accident?
    By the way, nothing makes a studio exec wince more than ‘Oscar-winner’ anywhere near the word ‘screenwriter’.

  • Having worked in the development world, I’ve yet to see a script get rewritten less than 15 times, adding just one “risk assessment” revision to that will not convince anyone in the dev team to change something that’s actually important to the film, in fact getting off-the-wall ideas from an objective source is kind of what development is all about. A good team would take that recommendation and simply make the project more creative since they have the security (though it’s an illusion) of objective structural quality. If you think you are somehow more able to ignore crappy feedback than someone who works in that field, or you think that one bad idea can kill a project’s creative edge, you have absolutely no idea how film works. The good dev people are a bottomless reservoir of creativity that results in something that will be pummeled and broken and skewed through production and post.

    • +1 Completely agree. I worked in development too and everyone involved wanted to make the best films they possibly could. Rewrites often continue as the film is being shot in an attempt to make it better. Sometimes they just can’t get it right in time.

  • Well no more movies like THE BIG LEBOWSKI and KING PIN.

    • I think The Big Lebowski was independently financed. Its worldwide opening was at Sundance in 1998.

  • More test screenings, yay for lowest common denominator!

  • I’d be interested to know how much the scale of this changes depending on the budget. For $100M+ tentpole movies, I get it – on a big investment like that you want to play it as safe as possible. But I’d like to think/hope that on the smaller budget films you see a bit more openness to experimentation and the creative process.

  • If everyone’s constantly going back to see what HAS worked, how will anything NEW be created?

    If they had done this for the music choices in Django Unchained and said, ‘let’s compare the data from other Westerns that included hip-hop in their soundtrack’, I doubt there would be any to relate to. But for the type of movie it was, it worked (at least for me, although it was jarring at first).

    No big-budget studio flick will even be ALLOWED to take chances if this becomes the norm. Not that they’ve been taking any chances at all lately…

  • Fortunately most of us around here have no plans to get seriously rich from this stuff. Although we’ll take the money if we can get it. If that were our goal, we’d just keep remaking “Hangover.”

  • I think this is how German movies and tv-movies are made – it must be the reason why we get the same crap over and over again. Same stories, same look, same storytelling (“it worked two years ago, let’s make it like that again!) …

  • Corporate soulless garbage, pure and simple.

  • Marisa Torre on 05.10.13 @ 10:11AM

    It really doesn’t matter … none of it. It’s all a crap-shoot … people have different motives to be in the “biz” and not everyone can be a Zanuck.
    Just do your best work, seek out the best people and be prepared to walk away if the changes don’t do your work justice.
    1) Write at least one commercial (formula) script, let them spend and make all the $$ they want on it THEN you can call your own shots.
    2) If you can’t make a sale on your first draft, -do something else; a novel, short story, journalism, a play … stop polluting the industry with mediocre crap. Who knows what literary art we’re all missing out on because you don’t know your strengths.
    3) Get a combination of producer/financier/director who like what you’ve written and have faith in it, they will produce it and do it justice.
    4) Train movie audiences to appreciate good cinematic art … except teenagers who just want a dark place to neck.
    5) Keep your day job
    And it’s still all a crap shoot … just do your best work and enjoy the process.

  • To writers:
    When you are involved with a business venture that amounts to 150 million dollars’ investment, you are sure to work with people who in your regards are dumb, chicken or misguided about this business. But it’s a team effort. Look out for your dumb teammates. If you are one man band, do it however you see fit. Because you have all the risks.

    More on the craft. This stuff has patterns that can be traced to a single pattern – the mono-myth, the hero’s journey, the BSBS however you want to call it. There. It’s not entirely subjective. It would be a disservice to the craft to shun numeric analysis just because we have deep rooted Ludditism.

    To execs:
    Quality and value of statistic result varies.
    When dealing with a temporal art form, stats that work with “what’s there” and “what happens” is grossly inadequate. A narrative is a four-dimensional device and the writer/director you are working with are or should be craft men in the fifth dimension, meaning they manipulate the sequence and the pace of fourth dimensional beings. Think about Inception, or Hangover, If you are looking for gold in stats, you’ve got to mine the fifth dimensional data and put that into the equation. Statisticians who understand writers’ craft will yield far superior data and analysis than what was mentioned in the article.