The Formula

Via both GreenCine and Vince Keenan, a discussion of Malcolm Gladwell’s October 16 New Yorker article, “The Formula,” in which Gladwell describes a computer program designed to predict hit movies using a system called an “artificial neural network.” As Gladwell explains it

Neural networks are used for data mining — to look for patterns in very large amounts of data.

Essentially, Hollywod screenplays would be treated as mathematical formulas, using elements isolated by the programmers to predict with uncanny accuracy the box office for a given film. They can even predict the box office benefits of adding a youthful sidekick or a romance subplot.

The article’s case study, Sydney Pollack’s UN thriller, The Interpreter, is a relatively persuasive example, in part because of the number of rewrites involved. As we learn from the article, the final film diverges radiacally from the original screenply, written by retired philsophy professor, Charles Randolph. The computer program did conclude that the rewrites made The Interpreter a more profitable film, but as screenwriter Scott Frank points out, it’s not entirely clear whether the revisions made for a “better” film. And it’s also not clear whether Pollack could have made an even more profitable film. Some of the suggested improvements do make a great deal of sense: Pollack could have made better use of the locations in the United Nations building. The fictional African nation where the plot began may have confused and turned off certain audience members.

I don’t know that I can offer more than a quick reading of the Gladwell article right now, but it’s difficult not to read it as anything other than an advertisement for Epagogix, the company founded by the two men who designed the software. I’m also more than a little skeptical of their reduction of the Hollywood marketing machine to various, sometimes arbitrary, plot formulas. At one point, a member of the Epagogix team confesses that he had no interest in seeing V for Vendetta because of the main character’s mask, not really acknowledging the significance of the mask to the graphic novel on which the film is (loosely) based. That being said, I’m not entirely sure there’s anything terribly new here other than the specifics of the formula (which the article doesn’t entirely reveal, of course). I need to think about the article for a while before I come to any real conclusions about it, but the article is a provocative read, especially for those of us in media and film studies.

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