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A bowling ball gets a strike. (iStockphoto.com)

So Much For Bowling Scenes: What Is And Isn't Wrong With Number-Crunching Scripts

May 7, 2013

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Linda Holmes

The words "grossed out" evoke enough of a watery 1980s vibe that they need to be saved for the times when they really apply: movie scenes where somebody sticks something in somebody else's eye, sewage spills, and so forth.

Having said that, it was hard not to be grossed out by a story in Sunday's New York Times about Vinny Bruzzese, an entrepreneur who offers "script evaluation" services, meaning that for $20,000, he'll compare a draft movie script to existing movie scripts to tell you whether your movie will make money. It's supposed to be some kind of Moneyball for movies, taking out the squishy stuff (art!) and focusing on the important stuff (money!), which, if you're a studio head, might make a certain amount of sense.

Bruzzese hands down proclamations based on his statistical analysis of what's gone before. "Targeting demon" movies, he says, make more money than "summoned demon" movies. Some superheroes are more successful than others.

And, in perhaps the most perplexing moment in the article, Bruzzese says that you shouldn't have a bowling scene in your movie, because bowling scenes tend to show up in flops.

It's easy to be highly suspicious of Bruzzese's methods in terms of their ability to do what he says they will do. Statistics are tricky things, and his conclusions don't really seem to make all that much sense. Bowling scenes tend to show up in flops, so take out the bowling scene? Assuming that there's a large enough sample size of movies with bowling scenes in them to draw any conclusions at all, isn't it likely that bowling scenes pop up in kinds of movies that don't do well, meaning you solve nothing by leaving out a bowling scene that you would be a natural fit? Taking out, or leaving out, the bowling scene only matters if you think the movies that have flopped with bowling sequences in them would have made more money without them, all other things being equal.

Furthermore, he would obviously miss the mark with anything genuinely new and different, some of which will make money. Would he have predicted Jaws? Star Wars? Bridesmaids? Tyler Perry?

In other words, there's the strong possibility that what he's doing isn't worth as much as he says it is, because it isn't fully predictive and it certainly isn't adequate to transform money pits into moneymakers. (If it were, one suspects he could charge a heck of a lot more than $20,000 for it.)

But I'm not sure what he's doing is any more hostile to art than what's already happening. We already know studios try to predict how much money a movie will make, and we already know that they often do that by trying to replicate existing successes. It's not as if his business model is to argue for financial concerns over artistic ones. His business model is making the financial calculations more precise. Where studios put those financial considerations relative to artistic considerations is on them, not on him.

And this is aside from the question of whether it's really wrong to want movies to make money in a business like the making of large studio films, in which everybody expects to get paid, including mortified screenwriters.

The Times quotes Ol Parker, who wrote The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, as saying that script evaluation like this is "the enemy of creativity" and will lead to "increasingly bland homogenization, a pell-mell rush for the middle of the road." But if you're looking for an enemy of creativity, even assuming a zero-sum game where looking for financial success can only harm the art, is the enemy script evaluation, which is a method of guessing at how much a movie will make, or is it the decision at the studio level to care only about how much the movie will make? Do we believe that Oz The Great And Powerful, reported to be one of the films made with the help of script evaluation, wasn't a financial calculation until Bruzzese came along? Or that otherwise, nobody would have tried to guess how much money it would make?

He's not a very appealing character: he's quoted sniping about how "all screenwriters think their babies are beautiful" before positioning himself as the truth-teller who knows that "some babies are ugly." This is giving himself substantially too much credit. When screenwriters think their babies are beautiful, they rarely mean, "A statistical analysis would show that my script is similar in many respects to other films that have made large amounts of money!" What they mean is: "My art, man. My art." Which may have its own air of insufferability at times, and Bruzzese has surely encountered some of that. But he's talking about a measurement on a fundamentally different axis than writers are talking about. It doesn't necessarily mean he knows more than they do. When I say a baby is beautiful, after all, I'm not guessing how much people would pay for it.

Everybody here is right, in a depressing sort of way. The studios are right that if Bruzzese can do what he says he will do, that's a valuable service from the standpoint of maximizing profits. Writers are right that "I have a great new way to tell writers they have to take out a scene for reasons having nothing to do with quality" is not a sentiment that advances art. Bruzzese is right that writers are protective of their work.

Everybody wins. Everybody loses. Some terrific movies and some awful movies become hits. Some terrific movies and some awful movies lose so much money that everybody immediately starts trying to pretend they never happened. And on and on, whether this particular guy is running these calculations or not.

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