In the past, filmmaking was a process plagued by uncertainty and imagination, a movie’s chances of box-office success as shaky as the screenwriter who was locked in a studio bungalow and denied alcohol until delirium tremens kicked in and they hallucinated their next big picture. Fortunately, we live in an age when there is nothing that cannot be reduced to cold market analysis if you learn to ignore every impulse toward artistic integrity, in this interim before they finally make a pill for that. Relativity Media’s Ryan Kavanaugh has already earned notice for the risk-management simulations that have helped him release films like Movie 43 and not feel horrible about it. Now The New York Times profiles Worldwide Motion Picture Group, whose increasingly popular script evaluation services are giving today’s filmmakers the tools they need to manufacture the product the audience has seen some version of before, and therefore feels secure in purchasing again.
Led by Vinny Bruzzese—“a chain-smoking former statistics professor” who specializes in “tell it like it is” bluntness, and is somehow not one of Dan Aykroyd's SNL characters—Worldwide will take your screenplay and, for the incredibly low and inconsequential price of $20,000, run it through the wringer of statistical analysis, then offer suggestions on how to make it more profitable. Aside from the usual focus groups and survey data, most of this is done by comparing your script to films that have already been released, to identify common story and genre elements. Anything similar to something that’s appeared in an unpopular film, be it a character type or plot device, can then be safely removed, thus guaranteeing your film only repeats the most statistically successful of formulas.
Bruzzese, the article mentions, “bills himself as a distant relative of Einstein’s, a claim that is unverifiable but never fails to impress studio executives.” His own theories of movie relativity appear to be equally scientifically sound:
“Demons in horror movies can target people or be summoned,” Mr. Bruzzese said in a gravelly voice, by way of example. “If it’s a targeting demon, you are likely to have much higher opening-weekend sales than if it’s summoned. So get rid of that Ouija Board scene.”
Bowling scenes tend to pop up in films that fizzle, Mr. Bruzzese, 39, continued. Therefore it is statistically unwise to include one in your script. “A cursed superhero never sells as well as a guardian superhero,” one like Superman who acts as a protector, he added.
Unfortunately for audiences, some writers are still proving resistant to math, the illogical brain of the creative type unable to admit that “more people would relate to this character if she had a sympathetic sidekick, for instance.” Writers such as Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’s Ol Parker, who says, “This is my worst nightmare. It’s the enemy of creativity, nothing more than an attempt to mimic that which has worked before. It can only result in an increasingly bland homogenization, a pell-mell rush for the middle of the road.” (Still, Parker conveniently omits the part about how Best Exotic Marigold Hotel did not contain any Ouija board scenes, which surely contributed to its success.)
For his part, Bruzzese—both in the article itself and the comments on nearly every site where this has been reposted (maybe he'll turn up here!)—defends his process as being “the only one that brings the writer in and simply advises what will help the script sell, or potentially improve audience reaction,” stressing that he will also meet with writers pre-evaluation to “hear and understand the creative vision, so our analysis can be contextualized.” The NYT even quotes one Oscar-winning writer who called Bruzzese’s analysis “the best notes on a draft that I have ever received”—even though he would only do so “on the condition of anonymity, citing his reputation."
The one producer who would go on record is Scott Steindorff, who said, "The only people who are resistant are the writers: ‘I’m making art, I can’t possibly do this'," presumably with a straight face. Steindorff, by the way, is currently overseeing the Natalie Portman-starring Western Jane Got A Gun, where those who kept protesting that they are "making art" have already been removed from the equation, all but guaranteeing the movie's success.
Above all, Bruzzese insists that his advice is there to be taken or ignored—or, as his website suggests, used as a scapegoat for studios to cover their asses “when the inevitable argument of ‘I am not going to take the blame if this movie doesn’t work’ comes up.” But when would that ever happen, now that screenwriting is so close to having the risky unpredictability of humanity factored out of it?