The data crunchers are invading Hollywood.
The same kind of numbers
analysis that has reshaped areas like politics and online marketing is
increasingly being used by the entertainment industry.
tells customers what to rent based on algorithms that analyze previous
selections, Pandora does the same with music, and studios have started
using Facebook "likes" and online trailer views to mold advertising and
Now, the slicing and dicing is seeping into one of the
last corners of Hollywood where creativity and old-fashioned instinct
still hold sway: the screenplay.
A chain-smoking former statistics
professor named Vinny Bruzzese - "the reigning mad scientist of
Hollywood," in the words of one studio customer - has started to
aggressively pitch a service he calls script new evaluation. For as much
as $20,000 per script, 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.
What do you like? What should be changed?
"Demons in horror movies
can target people or be summoned," 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, 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.
His recommendations, delivered in a 20-to
30-page report, might range from minor tightening to substantial
rewrites: More people would relate to this character if she had a
sympathetic sidekick, for instance.
Script "doctors," as Hollywood
refers to writing consultants, have long worked quietly on movie
assembly lines. But many top screenwriters - the kind who attain exalted
status in the industry, even if they remain largely unknown to the
multiplex masses - reject Bruzzese's statistical intrusion into their
"This is my worst nightmare" said Ol Parker, a writer whose
film credits include "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." "It's the enemy
of creativity, nothing more than an attempt to mimic that which has
worked before. It can only result in an increasingly bland
homogenization, a pell-mell rush for the middle of the road."
drew a breath. "Look, I'd take a suggestion from my grandmother if I
thought it would improve a film I was writing," he said. "But this feels
like the studio would listen to my grandmother before me, and that is
But a lot of producers, studio executives and major
film financiers disagree. Already they have quietly hired Bruzzese's
company to analyze about 100 scripts, including an early treatment for
"Oz the Great and Powerful," which has taken in $484.8 million
Bruzzese (pronounced brew-ZEZ-ee), who is one of a very
few if not the only entrepreneur to use this form of script analysis,
is plotting to take it to Broadway and television now that he has
traction in movies.
"It takes a lot of the risk out of what I do,"
said Scott Steindorff, a producer who used Bruzzese to evaluate the
script for "The Lincoln Lawyer," a hit 2011 crime drama. "Everyone is
going to be doing this soon." Steindorff added, "The only people who are
resistant are the writers: 'I'm making art, I can't possibly do this."'
research has been known to save a movie, but it has also famously
missed the mark. Opinion surveys - "idiot cards," as some unimpressed
directors call them - indicated that "Fight Club" would be the flop of
the century. It took in more than $100 million worldwide.
the stakes of making movies become ever higher, Hollywood leans ever
harder on research to minimize guesswork. Moreover, studios have trimmed
spending on internal script development. Bruzzese is also pitching
script analysis to studios as a duck-and-cover technique - for "when the
inevitable argument of 'I am not going to take the blame if this movie
doesn't work' comes up," his website says.
Bruzzese, who taught
statistics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long
Island before moving into movie research about a decade ago, motivated
by a desire for more money and a childhood love of movies.
acknowledged that many writers are "skittish" about his service. But he
countered that it is not as threatening as it may sound.
"This is just advice, and you can use all of it, some of it or none of it," he said.
ignore it at your own peril, according to one production executive.
Motion Picture Group analyzed the script for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire
Hunter," said the executive, who worked on the film, but the production
companies that supplied it to 20th Century Fox did not heed all of the
advice. The movie flopped. Bruzzese declined to comment.
emphasized that his script analysis is not done by machines. His reports
rely on statistics and survey results, but before evaluating a script
he meets with the writer or writers to "hear and understand the creative
vision, so our analysis can be contextualized," he said.
is also unapologetic about his focus on financial outcomes. "I
understand that writing is an art, and I deeply respect that," he said.
"But the earlier you get in with testing and research, the more
successful movies you will make."
The service actually gives
writers more control over their work, said Mark Gill, president of
Millennium Films and a client. In traditional testing, the kind done
when a film is almost complete, the writer is typically no longer
involved. With script testing, the writer can still control changes.
Oscar-winning writer who, at the insistence of a producer, had a script
analyzed by Bruzzese said his initial worries proved unfounded.
was a complete shock, the best notes on a draft that I have ever
received," said the writer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity,
citing his reputation.
Script analysis is new enough to remain a
bit of a Hollywood taboo. Major film financiers and advisers like
Houlihan Lokey confirmed that they had used the service, but declined to
speak on the record about it. The six major Hollywood movie studios
declined to comment.
But doors are opening for Bruzzese
nonetheless, in part because he is such a character. For instance, he
bills himself as a distant relative of Einstein's, a claim that is
unverifiable but never fails to impress studio executives.
Bruzzese, a movie enthusiast with a seemingly encyclopedic memory of screenplays, also speaks bluntly, a rarity in Hollywood.
screenwriters think their babies are beautiful," he said, taking a chug
of Diet Dr. Pepper followed by a gulp of Diet Coke and a drag on a
"I'm here to tell it like it is: Some babies are ugly."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service