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