The saying goes, “There’s no business like Show Business.” That’s especially true for Hollywood and the movie industry, where the one product they’re responsible for is a work of art, something that lacks a tangible mark of quality, a guarantee for a return on investment and a distribution model that is inherently a loss leader.
Only in Hollywood can a company take a gigantic loss on a major project and continue to make the same product time and time again while expecting a different result. In any other industry that’s called insanity, and a bad business model. But in Hollywood, it’s a flop, and with a bit more of the same scrutinizing of the market, the next one will be better.
As Colin Brown, a Professor in the Kanbar Graduate Institute of Film & Television at the Tish School of Arts at NYU, said on our show “Big Data on the Big Screen,” it’s the angst, and perhaps the oddity, that makes the film business so good. And it’s also the foundation for how the rest of the world should think about Big Data.
The state of the movies right now is a peculiar one. While film critics are bemoaning the crop of studio movies flooding multiplexes each year and while large scale summer blockbusters tank at the box office, simple numbers indicate that things are as well with the movies as ever. Individual movies continue to break opening weekend records, and those that struggle domestically earn their money back in the foreign market.
Just underneath the surface however is the realization that theater attendance is dropping as the audience for new movies is being hemorrhaged by TV and online streaming. It’s not a pretty picture, and unlike in another industry where the business side might be held accountable for such disparity in their market, the burden rests on the filmmakers to make up the difference. So what does Hollywood have to do with the rest of the business world?
Well, the outside speculator, and of course the basis for our show, might suggest Big Data as an option. After all, the rest of the world is utilizing it as a way to glean better insights about a target market and improve efficiency. In theory, movie studios should be able to utilize analytics to ultimately make better movies that are more targeted at the right people.
But when Big Data is on the table as an additive to the creative aspect of the movies, it’s where Brown and others begin to get hesitant, and for good reason. Using Big Data to dictate which movie star to cast and what scenes to cut and add is not a way to improve “the magic of the movies,” as Brown says, but a sure-fire way to make them more formulaic and less likeable to an audience.
Despite all the nuances and qualitative complications that make the movie industry so obtuse and unique compared to the rest of the world, their hesitance to use Big Data offers one of the most fundamental ideas all industries should keep in mind when thinking about Big Data:
Big Data is just another tool. It shouldn’t and doesn’t take humans out of the process, and it is supposed to make people even smarter. “It’s about empowering the decision making process and giving the human element as much intelligence as it possibly can,” Brown said.
Gathering data without context and without a proper way to turn it into actionable information is a recipe for disaster in any organization. The movies are built on a certain level of magic, and to remove that element through tools designed to make things more predictive, as is becoming apparent from the increasingly less accurate approaches in test screenings and focus groups in Hollywood, will only make things worse.
Big Data can however put studios’ ears to the ground. It can apply the scientific method on the local level to determine that a small indie should be released in targeted areas (not just New York and LA) to help it go viral, or that a major blockbuster should be released on a specific number of screens nationwide (not everywhere all at once) to help it maximize profits.
If we’re talking about Big Data in any other space, the same rules apply. Analytics will not save lives, but it can help doctors make better decisions at the point of care. Data will not sell more widgets, but it will give marketers a more detailed look at spotty social media information so that they can work their magic.
Big Data is a science, and the movies are not, but as Brown pointed out in a paraphrased Arthur C. Clarke quote, “The best science is indistinguishable from magic.”
Find out more about the movie industry and listen to the rest of “Big Data on the Big Screen.”