Can Computer Help Hollywood Pick Hits?

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By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Everyone in this town knows the Big One is coming. Ears to the ground, they can hear the rumbling, the tremors, the shaking. When will it hit?

Chris Lanier says he has mastered the technology to tell us. No, not about earthquakes, but rather the other major obsession of southern California: movie blockbusters.

"Being able to predict how much money a film will make - before it's released - is the Holy Grail of the motion picture industry," says Mr. Lanier, a veteran of Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Project. His computer-based company, Motion Picture Intelligencer, claims to identify cinematic duds before moguls spend millions making and marketing them. In theory, movie studios would spend less, Lanier would become rich, and Americans would have a lot less garbage coming to theaters near them.

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Here's the catch: Lanier has yet to make a sale.

In Tinseltown, the idea of using computers to determine "what is art?" leaves many studio executives and producers cold.

Because of this chorus of "Bah, humbug," Lanier three years ago decided it was time to put his assertions on the line. In a public demonstration overseen by the University of Southern California in 1993, he predicted the earnings probabilities of 81 films before they were released in the US.

After reviewing rough-cut copies and attending reviewer screenings for such films as "Demolition Man," "Beverly Hillbillies," "Pelican Brief," and "In The Line of Fire," he faxed his projections to film-industry executives, Wall Street analysts, and the press.

His accuracy rate: 100 percent, 81 out of 81.

Lanier's "category predictions are a substantial improvement over the notion that box-office success cannot be predicted rationally," says Jan de Leeuw, professor of mathematics at UCLA, whose statistical consulting program analyzed the results of the demonstration. "The MPI categories exhibit predictive validity ... sorting potential hits from likely duds."

Six jokes, one pratfall

How does Lanier do it? Because of amount of time, energy, and money he has invested for more than a decade, he is reluctant to give too many clues. Suffice it to say he screens the scripts or rough cuts himself, making extensive notes in personalized shorthand.

If he is evaluating a comedy, he might categorize the movie as one of the following: action comedy, youth comedy, romantic comedy. Jokes? (What kind? Verbal, physical, combination?) Pratfalls? (How many? What kind? Big or little? Where in the film?)

He also attempts to determine whether story-line setups in early acts reach a payoff in the final act or, instead, fizzle out.

Unlike other industry attempts to determine box-office success, Lanier does not look at advertising expenditures, the number of theaters used in a release, time of year of the release, or competition from other movies. He uses the analogy of an auto race.

"There are lots of factors that influence who will win," he says, "including the driver, the track, the weather, the competition. We only tell you what kind of car you have." Lanier crunches the numbers, comparing entertainment factors to the ticket-buying behaviors of past movies.

Studios are then left to their own strategies for deciding whether to make (or fix) a given movie, when to release it, and how much to promote it.

To continue the car analogy, a Volkswagen with a great driver (a big star like Tom Cruise) might do better than without one, but it will still be a Volkswagen. Conversely, a Ferrari is always a Ferrari. No matter what actors star in a film like "Star Wars," "Home Alone," "Twister," or "Independence Day," the horsepower of script and special effects will still carry the day.

Lanier argues that unlike other systems, his works consistently because it removes subjectivity and taste from the mix of factors that producers and directors are trying to combine. Though each individual's taste is different, a population the size of the US and Canada (considered "domestic release" - about 300 million) is fairly predictable.

"If entertainment value were entirely subjective," he says, "then with a population of 300 million, everyone's subjective opinion would cancel out everyone else's and all films would make roughly the same amount of money. That does not happen. We know that. Something else is going on."

But Lanier's attempt to define that "something else" in numerical terms has its critics.

"If he could do what he says he can do, he could sit back and write his own price tag every weekend of the year," says John Krier, director of Exhibitor Relations, one of Hollywood's key box-office tracking firms. "Guys like this have popped up since the beginning of computers but always disappear. No one has been able to sustain any credibility over time."

Douglas Gomery, a professor of the economics of cinema at University of Maryland, has examined Lanier's 1993 public demonstration results and says: "He does a nice job with the wrong question."

Lanier's accuracy in predictions, he says, is merely the result of sorting movies into broad categories.

"To tell me a film has a 74 percent chance of making over $20 million doesn't tell me much if I want to know if it's going to make $100 million," says Professor Gomery. "His method might be useful for a Wall Street analyst over the long term, but not for Hollywood in the short term."

Since the release of his public demonstration results, Lanier has taken his idea to several studios, where he has met with a resistance that ranges from mild wariness to rigid disbelief.

Of those contacted by the Monitor, three aren't commenting, and some admit his mathematical model is too confusing for them to feel comfortable investing money in it. Others in the production/distribution end of films are quick with an easy barb.

"Get me his name and telephone, and I will get him a job for $90 million a year," says Jerry Pursell, former distributor of motion pictures for Crest films.

The money pit

While many industry insiders dismiss Lanier's claim to pick the winners and losers, some say privately that his methodology is accurate in one respect. It reveals an increasing audience dissatisfaction with the quality of movies, even as the cost of those films has reached historic heights.

The number of wide-release films continues to rise, he says, up this year from 143 to 160, and the costs of producing and marketing them have risen 15 to 20 percent. But the quality of these films hasn't kept pace, Lanier says.

"We have seen a steady deterioration in the entertainment content of film over the past 50 years," Lanier says. "If nothing changes in the way studios make and market their films, we will shortly see many of them drowning in red ink."

Lanier says his method could at least help change that. "For years, Hollywood has had to operate on the premise that 'nobody knows anything' about what a movie will do. That is no longer true and simply not good enough anymore."

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