Making Movies With Statistics Isn’t Just Artistic Suicide — It Won’t Work

Sunday’s New York Times included a story that movie fans should find as terrifying as anything since the last 20 minutes of Silence of the Lambs. In it, writer Brooks Barnes introduces us to Vinny Bruzzese, a “chain-smoking former statistics professor” who has “started to aggressively pitch a service he calls script evaluation. For as much as $20,000 per script, Mr. Bruzzese and a team of analysts compare the story structure and genre of a draft script with those of released movies, looking for clues to box-office success. His company, Worldwide Motion Picture Group, also digs into an extensive database of focus group results for similar films and surveys 1,500 potential moviegoers.” In other words, studios write Bruzzese and his company a check, and in exchange, they’re told how to make their movies as bland, homogenous, and predictable as possible. Sounds like the recipe for a golden age of moviemaking!

Like any mass entertainment, the movie business is an uneasy marriage of art and commerce, in which the individual vision must somehow thrive within a business where decisions are made by committee. And there are already countless ways in which that individual vision is second-guessed, stifled, or strangled: studio notes, editing room coups, test screenings, and audience polling. The artistic side of the business has already been compromised, in other words, so it’s not like Bruzzese and his Worldwide Motion Picture Group are breaching the creative process for the first time.

It’s the specific way in which they’re doing it that’s worrisome. Much is made in the Times piece of the statistical framework of Bruzzese’s service, in which numbers are crunched, surveys are vaunted, and broad precedents of previous successes are taken as gospel. As the Times piece recounts, “‘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.’”

At risk of putting too fine a point on it, that kind of plot-point parsing is fucking insane. Bruzzese doesn’t take into account anything as pertinent as context or quality; there is, after all, a chance that those “summoned demon” films didn’t do well because they weren’t any good. Does he actually think that Joe Moviegoer is swayed by something like a demon’s origin, on even a subconscious level? It’s doubtful. Yet proclamations like that, handed down for a fee from the numbers guru on high, and passed from studio heads to frustrated writers, are influencing the films that are being made right this second. It’s like all of those pitch meetings from Robert Altman’s The Player (“It’s like The Gods Must Be Crazy except the Coke bottle is an actress”), played straight and with statistical voodoo to “back them up.”

But it gets stickier. Back to the Times: “Bowling scenes tend to pop up in films that fizzle, Bruzzese, 39, continued. Therefore it is statistically unwise to include one in your script.” So you’re telling us that if Gramercy Pictures had used Worldwide Motion Picture Group back in 1997, the Coen brothers would have had to make the Dude and Walter and Donny into, what, softball players?

But that’s the problem with the whole paradigm anyway. No one’s saying to hell with commerce and art for art’s sake; it’s a business, and that’s understood. But there should be some room for both. Sure, The Big Lebowski didn’t have a bananas opening weekend, and it wasn’t a smash in its theatrical release. But it was a great comedy, and because it was so unique and bizarre, such a product of its makers’ distinctive voice and not the result of a bullshit mathematical theorem, it found an audience. That audience is motivated and passionate, and as a result, The Big Lebowski continues to make money a decade and a half after its release. Oz the Great and Powerful, one of the few movies specified in the Times piece as a Worldwide Motion Picture Group Success Story, made a tremendous amount of money this spring. But do you think anybody’s still going to watch it in 15 years?

To be sure, the folks at Disney who made the decisions that led up to Oz’s $484 million (and counting) worldwide gross could probably care less what people think about Raimi’s candy-colored nightmare 15 years from now. But three things are worth bearing in mind here:

1. A writer’s voice and big box office are not mutually exclusive. In the Times piece, Scott Steindorff, a producer who has used Bruzzese’s service, sneers, “The only people who are resistant are the writers: ‘I’m making art, I can’t possibly do this.’” Spoken like a true producer. But the fact of the matter is, writers (whether they think they’re “making art” or not) are part of the process, and sometimes — not always, but sometimes! — they actually have something to add beyond creating a rough clothesline for producers to hang last year’s storylines and stock characters on. Iron Man 3 is noteworthy not just for being a deliver-on-the-goods summer tent-pole movie, but for hiring a writer/director with a distinctive voice, and allowing him to let it fly. The result? A jaw-dropping opening weekend. Were those numbers the direct result of Shane Black and Drew Pearce’s snappy wordplay and unconventional plotting? Probably not; at this point, they could slap the words Iron Man 3 into the opening titles of Blankman and still do a killer opening weekend. But word, from around the globe, that Iron Man 3 was actually a good movie with some wit and self-awareness certainly helped create those numbers. More importantly, its intelligence and genuine sense of play is going to make Iron Man 3 more than an opening-weekend phenomenon; people will be coming back, in the weeks to come, to enjoy the witty repartee and relationships between the characters (just as they did with last summer’s The Avengers).

2. Big successes often buck trends. You know how many science-fiction swashbucklers they were making in 1977, when Star Wars became the biggest grossing movie to date? Zilcho. How about boldly romantic maritime tales in 1997, when Titanic made a boatload of cash? None. The Godfather nearly didn’t get made, because no one had made a gangster movie in decades that hadn’t tanked. And so on, and so on. It’s easy enough to look at a big hit and decide to give audiences more of the same — but the movies that changed the game and genuinely engaged audiences did so not because they were exactly like every other movie out there. They did it for the opposite reason: they provided an alternative to audiences hungry for a respite from the same, tired thing.

3. You can’t reverse engineer success. Green Lantern, The Spirit, The Invasion, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Sahara, Speed Racer, Stealth, Treasure Planet — all of them sounded like hits on paper, with marquee stars, marketable elements, and easily discernible precedents of success. And these are among the biggest bombs in movie history. They all seemed like safe bets, just as Star Wars and Titanic and The Godfather didn’t. But you can’t predict what audiences will and won’t respond to, because — whether they want to admit it or not — moviemaking is an art, and when making movies, one must give at least some limited power to artists. You can’t just combine a pleasing menu of ingredients and assume success, as though you’re making energy drinks. Movies aren’t widgets, or hamburgers, or cars. They’re movies, and at their best, they’re art.

Not that Bruzzese is listening. As the Times profile points, out, he “is plotting to take [the process] to Broadway and television now that he has traction in movies.” Oh goody. Who’s curious to see what’ll happen when he gets his hands on the next Mad Men?