Leo McCarey Pearl S. Buck discuss screenplay Bamboo Curtain 1961

Leo McCarey and Pearl S. Buck discuss her screenplay for, “The Bamboo Curtain”, 1961

May 5, 2013

Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data


LOS ANGELES — Forget zombies. 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.

Netflix 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 even films.

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 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. What do you like? What should be changed?

“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.

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 Mr. Bruzzese’s statistical intrusion into their craft.

“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.”

Mr. Parker 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 terrifying.”

But a lot of producers, studio executives and major film financiers disagree. Already they have quietly hired Mr. 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 worldwide.

Mr. 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 Mr. Bruzzese to evaluate the script for “The Lincoln Lawyer,” a hit 2011 crime drama. “Everyone is going to be doing this soon.” Mr. Steindorff added, “The only people who are resistant are the writers: ‘I’m making art, I can’t possibly do this.’ ”

Audience 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.

But, as 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. Mr. 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 Web site says.

Mr. Bruzzese 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.

He 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.

But ignore it at your peril, according to one production executive. Motion Picture Group, of Culver City, Calif., 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. Mr. Bruzzese declined to comment.

Mr. Bruzzese 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.

But he 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.

One Oscar-winning writer who, at the insistence of a producer, had a script analyzed by Mr. Bruzzese said his initial worries proved unfounded.

“It 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. Bruzzese, a movie enthusiast with a seemingly encyclopedic memory of screenplays, also speaks bluntly, a rarity in Hollywood.

“All 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 Camel. “I’m here to tell it like it is: Some babies are ugly.”

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  1. George Kaplan
    May 6, 2013

    Oh, for ****’s sake! What an abomination. William Goldman famously said that nobody in Hollywood knows anything about what will be a real success, and this execrable anticreative bushwah won’t change that. Studios already run scared of creativity, so many idiosyncratic wonderful scripts are either thrown in the trash or ruined, and now we have this… For the love of Pete! The paint-by-numbers method of screenwriting. Bah. A curse on him. To paraphrase Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, “Damn them all to HELL!” Ahem. The writers will have their revenge! 😉

  2. Jan Evans
    May 6, 2013

    I’m off to slit my wrists. Or better yet, just shoot me now. Quickly, easily. Get it over with. Can there be anything worse than formula art? Wait, isn’t that an oxymoron? Moronic, at the very least.

    • May 6, 2013

      Can you say snake oil? Just another way for somebody to make a buck. It’s particularly infuriating, however to turn to statistics for story analysis. I wonder what the professor would have made of “The Great Gatsby”?

  3. George Kaplan
    May 6, 2013

    Jan, moronic, oxymoronic, it’s all the same in the end: imbecilic! Hey, don’t slit your wrists or ask to be shot – we should be going after the perpetrators of this vacuum-headed insanity with spiked baseball bats, rubber hoses, lead pipes, and shotguns… 😉 Too violent?!

  4. May 6, 2013

    I am going to read it again,but first reaction is-Oh for heavens sake is there not enough dough brained product around at the moment in music,film and books to satisfy those that dribble when they have their earphones on.gape vacantly at films to the specially violent parts and read books underlining the words with a following finger.Jesus wept.

  5. May 6, 2013

    First find out what idiots like then give idiots more of the same.Science is it?No good could possibly ever come from this.

    • May 6, 2013

      I think this particular con has been worked on Producers since the dawn of the studio system – it’s just a wonder that they still fall for it.

  6. May 7, 2013

    They want a bit of magic that will keep the money moving by putting rears on seats.I will not be rushing to the cinema to watch anything that I know comes from that sort of research.I am pretty sure that something like that happens in the world of publishing or at least in the mind of authors.Hmmm can you write us a Dan Brown?

    I wonder just how may books are on the shelves just now that feature mystic and sinister cabals up to no good and tied to ancient mysteries.I have seen dozens since the success of Dan Brown.Sheer co-incidence?I think not.

  7. George Kaplan
    May 7, 2013

    Agh. Edward, you spoke the accursed name of Dan Brown… Noooo! You’re right, as if he wasn’t bad enough his mini-me’s are cluttering up the shelves too. Abominable!

  8. May 8, 2013

    Well glad to hear your opinion George.I have nothing against being entertained by a book at all-it does not have to be art all the way for me.I have been entertained by some pretty awful potboilers in my time,however Dan Brown strikes me as quite dreadful.I remember speed reading The Da Vinci Code{whatever other way can you get through it} and thinking that this man just cannot write and could not if his life depended on it.However being awful does not seem to have been any impediment to success and he must be laughing all the way to the bank.I was quite swept away by just how terrble he is and kept thinking-why do people read this stuff.

    As for his knock offs some of them write better than he does{a little that is},but that must be quite an undemanding task.

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