Big data coming to a screen near you!

Used to be the common locus for public anxiety over computers was their ability to beat us at chess.  That’s so 1997. Now we can be nervous about them, in the guise of big data,  determining what we see in movies.

To wit: a recent Marketplace piece on Epagogix, a big data firm that advises studios as well as outside investors in films.

EpagogiX analysts read a script and place a value on all of the plot points, everything from love scenes to car chases to quirky sidekicks. “And they score them according to a directory, in the way a teacher might score a test,” says Meaney.

(Do they use Atlas.Ti or nvivo? Are they sociologists who went to the dark side?)

Those scores are fed into the computer algorithm, which then calculates how much the movie will make at the box office, plus or minus about 10 percent. Epagogix will also recommend script changes to make a movie more marketable and profitable, like setting it in a different place. Or scaling back a character’s role, a recommendation that thrilled one studio executive.

Of course, the search for some “algorithmic solution” to a hit movie is an old one. And even EipagogiX must have an error margin. Could anybody have expected that a clunker like “Silver Linings Play Book” would be a hit?

Screen Shot 2013-07-20 at 9.54.03 PM
A formula from yesteryear, George DuMaurier’s blockbuster, Trilby, every Victorian cliché in the book. Now pretty much unreadable. But probably would have gotten a high score from the Epagogix of its era.

In truth, as somebody who fools with words for an avocation, and sometimes even a living, it doesn’t get me too agitated. Formula and schema have always been with us, what could you write with out them? Still, I suppose I would like any screenplay I do ever manage to write not to be “machine graded.”

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