So we’ve talked before on this blog about using analytics in the bedroom (Count Your Everything). Here’s something that might be even more shocking: analytics for creative writing. And I don’t mean the process of writing (number of pages per day, word repetition, etc.). I mean analytics-inspired created writing.
The New York Times has published an article about Vinny Bruzzese, a chain-smoking, Diet Coke and Diet Dr. Pepper mixing, former statistics professor who is turning the world of screenplays into somewhat of a science, much to the chagrin of creatives and the excitement of executives.
His company takes a script and then uses comparative analysis and a database of audience surveys to determine what should and should not be included in a story for it to be a financial success.
So this isn’t the infinite number of monkeys at a typewriter conundrum (art by accident), more like software at a typewriter (art by science). And I realize that software-at-a-typewriter is a dumb way to write “computer.”
Here are some of his example suggestions from the article:
“Demons in horror movies can target people or be summoned,” Mr. Bruzzese said in a gravelly voice, by way of example. “If it’s a targeting demon, you are likely to have much higher opening-weekend sales than if it’s summoned. So get rid of that Ouija Board scene.”
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. “A cursed superhero never sells as well as a guardian superhero,” one like Superman who acts as a protector, he added.
And, remember, this is all in the context of making money, so The Big Lebowksi and its genius bowling scenes flopped in the theaters. And we know that the inciting incident of The Exorcist incorporated a Ouija board, but, you know, exceptions (or it could have been even more profitable without it). Also, we’ve had Superman movies that did terrible and Superman movies that did great, so protector superhero is just one data point to take into consideration.
The examples are pretty funny, actually, but you can see where this is going. It can turn the creative endeavor into less one of vision and personal instinct and idiosyncrasy and more one of numbers and bottom lines. It’s the ultimate in pandering to an audience, and it’s the best way to achieve success in the movie business. Most businesses.
Seriously, though, the whole thing is disconcertingly like a refinement on the human process anyway, which is one of borrowing and learning from other stories and from audiences. And it’s not too different from what Aristotle and Freytag did with story structure. Aristotle just didn’t weigh in on bowling scenes.
I mean, sure, every once in a while some weirdo comes along and creates something ground-breaking that we didn’t even know we wanted to see, and it’s a huge success, but that’s the exception. Industries like the storytelling industry, whether in the movies or literature or television, cannot be built off exceptions.
Honestly, it sounds, I don’t know, sickeningly right in a way. After all, the idea that there are no new stories has been a cliché for hundreds, thousands of years. And in today’s world, where storytelling mass has escalated to the point where we’re spitting out hundreds, thousands of stories every day across multiple media in an almost industrial process, we should be able to hand the heavy lifting over to analytics. We have the database now.
Over time, techniques like Bruzzese’s will be refined, so that it’s less analysis and more outright creation-by-algorithm. Then that, combined with James Cameron and George Lucas-style CG will mean people in front of the camera are just as unnecessary. Eventually, we won’t need any human creators…we can just turn the computers on and all be the audience together.
Nobody promised us that the more we learned about ourselves, the more we’d like ourselves.