Why Big Data is Hollywood's new rising star

March 18, 2014

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"Nobody knows anything" about predicting hits in Hollywood, said film writer William Goldman in his classic book Adventures in the Screen Trade. Thanks to Big Data, that appears to be changing. More and more, everyone from big-time to small-time creators are using data to influence the direction of their work.

This past Saturday, at Idea to Screen and General Assembly’s "Big Data” event some of Hollywood’s thought leaders sat down to discuss the future of creating content in light of Big Data’s influence.

“The great thing about digital is it allows everyone to be a content creator,” said Vincent Bruzzese, CEO of Worldwide Motion Picture Group. "But then from my perspective is it’s a bad thing that everyone is a content creator.”

Because “you’re not going to earn money off your content unless you differentiate it,” said Bruzzese. 

And the best way to differentiate content is to optimize it for what audiences want.

At the Worldwide Motion Picture Group, they know movie audiences by surveying them constantly. Over the past 10 years the company has run a movie-tracking product that has surveyed over 1 million moviegoers; cataloging movie awareness, interest, choice, definite interest intensity (a more in-depth study of interest) and title and star conversion (a measure of how the cast-makeup and title wording effect sales).

“If you are four weeks from release and we know your levels of awareness and interest, we are able to accurately predict opening weekend box office sales,” said Bruzzese.

But more and more interesting to studios is not forecasting sales with data, but using it to cook up hits in the writing room.

“What we try to deal with is archetypes and how data can inform archetypes,” said Bruzzese.

“For example, if you’ve got a horror movie: well you can break up horror into a haunting or a killer. Let’s say you have a horror movie that’s about a killer. There’s multiple killers, or a creature killer? Let’s say you have multiple killers. Well we’ll look through 10 years of data we’ve ever screened that has multiple killers in it, and what we find is that the killers have to be insane, and by insane what I mean is that they have to have absolutely no motive what-so-ever,” said Bruzzese.

“If they are trying to steal your organs for money, the audience actually believes in their minds that they can reason there way out of that terrifying situation,” said Bruzzese. “But if the killers are completely insane- think of the Strangers as an archetype- where they are just going to kill you because you are there, that’s where the fear comes from.”

Such knowledge is already informing movie creation and showing promise, yet many of those on the creative end are reluctant to give up artistic authority.

“The fear in Big Data and quality content is that it can become cookie cutter,” said Bruzzese.

But, that has yet to become a problem because, so far, those savvy enough to use Big Data also appear savvy enough to understand what Big Data does best. Rather than stamping out copies, data is helping creators own certain niches, areas of expertise.

Netflix for example, observed the viewing habits of its 33 million viewers and found “our older viewers are most likely to watch TV shows, are most likely to marathon it, they like political thrillers, well let’s remake House of Cards,” said Bruzzese.

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The result was anything but cookie-cutter.

Other channels have also honed their content around archetypes. AMC “they have a very clear concise mission statement,” said Bruzzese. “AMC is the home of the anti-hero. Everything from Breaking Bad to Mad Men to Walking Dead, they owned that type of character, and that’s where you go because they’ve branded themselves that way.”

“There are other platforms that have other opportunities to own other categories and again that’s where data comes in. Where are the gaps? What genres and areas are not being addressed? What platforms can address it? And do I have the content to address it?” said Bruzzese.

So even if you’re not a massive Hollywood studio, with lots of resources to poll viewers, there are still plenty of opportunities to use data to your creative advantage.

Matthew Patrick, senior YouTube channel manager at Defy Media, said the site’s analytics provide a wealth of information to creators.

“A lot of things we do when we are working with creators is talking to them about ‘these are the things that are working for your channel, these aren’t,'” said Patrick.

Using YouTube’s analytics Defy Media is able to dissect and analyze the effectiveness of their entertainment. YouTube analytics include: views, demographics, playback locations, traffic sources and a breakdown of devices the content was watched on.

Using that data Defy Media is able to tell its creators “this is where you are loosing them. Tighten up these moments. Focus on these flash in the pan quick jokes, quick memes,” said Patrick.

“By paying attention to the data you are able to highly target the material you are making for the people who are watching,” said Patrick.

“The next week your show is a little bit better. The week after that your show is a little bit better than that,” said Patrick. “And you’re able to really hone the content to the people that are watching it.”