PREDICTABLEon December 16, 2005 at 12:00 am
Reflecting on King Kong's box office "failure" on Wednesday got me thinking about this noise I've been hearing about a software program that can predict a movie's success. Have you guys heard of this?
Apparently, some egghead at Oklahoma State University wrote a software program that can predict whether or not the next Hollywood turd-burger is going to be hit by applying seven criteria to each movie and averaging them out - rating by censors, competition from other films at the time of release, strength of the cast (or Star Pow-ah!), genre, special effects, whether it is a sequel and the number of theaters it opens in.
Using a "neural network" (shades of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, here) to process the results, films are placed in nine categories. A "flop" meaning less than $1 million at the box office. A "blockbuster" meaning more than $200.
The study proved that 37% of the time, the network accurately predicted which category a film fell into. 75% of the time it was within one category of the correct answer. Spider-Man and Shrek were correctly identified as blockbusters. Waking Up In Reno and Running Free were pegged as flops. I guess it must be right, because I've never heard of either of those last two movies.
Professor Ramesh Sharda has been working on the program for over seven years and has analyzed more than 800 films before publishing a paper appearing in the journal Expert Systems With Applications, set to be published in February 2006.
Naturally Sharda is already in discussions with a "major Hollywood studio" (he wouldn't say which one) to further refine the system to improve its accuracy.
I think any movie fan with a heart and a mind knows that this specific leap in technology can only mean bad things for audiences. Clearly Sharda is someone who actually HATES movies and doesn't want you to have a good time spending your entertainment dollar. Apparently he believes your discretionary income should go to more college scholarships. Or perhaps the athletic program. GO OSU, COWBOYS!
A program like this could turn movie marketing on its ear. Think about all the little brain trusts studios currently hire to handicap the success of a film. It's understandable to a degree. Studios and producers make increasingly larger investments. They want to protect those investments. But by using the criteria outlined in Sharda's program, Hollywood money-handlers could potentially deep six a movie before even one roll of film is shot. If our good friend H.A.L. doesn't think your movie has enough star power, you're done. Too much potential competition at the time of your film's release? We'll bury it in September.
Film's are already being treated more like disposable product and less like art. I'm not taking the shallow view on this. I know that as long as there has been entertainment, there are pictures out there that will be treated as such - nothing more than a mild diversion.
But at the same time, would a movie like Apocalypse, Now or even Citzen Kane be made today with all the market research and bottom-line thinking that seems to have poisioned the industry? Films for adults are dumbed down to PG-13 so studios can reach further into the pockets of teens with disposable income. Potentially great films are rushed into theaters prematurely without much care because, "Hey, we can always make it up on the back-end with DVD sales!"
A program like this will continue to shift the balance away from thoughful expression and more toward commerce. The two can exist side-by-side if given room to flourish, but that doesn't seem to be the industry focus anymore. Movies will end up looking more and more alike. Celebrity status rather than good stories will play a larger factor into what films get made. There will be less films for adults who are seeking serious and intelligent options and the overall artistry of cinema gets dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. Culture evaporates and America continues to earn its stripes as the home of dum-dum entertainment and overweight popcorn jockeys.
People wonder how films like Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo can continue to be made. It's seeds like Sharda's program that force us to reap the harvest of mediocrity.