It’s no secret that when creativity and business collide in the film industry, the results can be grisly.
Hoping to improve the relationship between these two elements, Wharton professors Jehoshua Eliashberg and Z. John Zhang, along with current New York University professor Sam Hui, have devised a method in which they can, by analyzing a film’s script, predict its box office potential.
Their method, described in the paper Green-lighting Movie Scripts: Revenue Forecasting and Risk Management, recruits three people to read a script, then answer a detailed survey on the content of the film. Sample questions include whether or not the film’s ending was surprising or the conflict was resolved in a reasonable manner.
The script is also analyzed according to its “bag of words” variables, meaning the frequency at which certain words — such as “love, die, sex [and] blood” — appear in a script.
The semantic components of a script are quantified by a computer, which counts variables such as how many words it takes a screenwriter to describe a scene and how many internal or external scenes are present in the script.
The scripts are also compared to an existing database of 200 films that have already been released — along with their box office results.
Kathleen Van Cleve, an experienced screenwriter and Cinema Studies professor at Penn is wary of the professors’ method.
“The idea of basing creative decisions on any kind of a mathematic formula (no matter how extensive) makes me shudder,” she wrote in an e-mail.
She cites The Godfather, a film she teaches in her class, as a script that would never have been green-lit if this method had been applied to the screenplay.
Timothy Corrigan, professor of English and Cinema Studies, echoes this sentiment, citing Bonnie and Clyde as a film that would not have survived such scrutiny.
“Personally, I’m interested in those movies that do challenge the system, or create unpredictable ways of seeing,” Corrigan said, adding that the unpredictability of the industry is one of his favorite aspects.
Eliashberg stresses that the method should not be looked at as a formula to predict box office success.
“Our focus is an estimated potential that may or may not be materialized depending on what actions the producers take when the film is green-lit,” he said, adding that variables such as the cast and the time of year the film is released also play into the film’s box office gross.
Zhang believes the method can help both the film industry and struggling screenwriters by reducing risk for potential investors and helping producers to find “diamonds in the rough,” or scripts previously thought to have no potential.
Both professors insist that their method is not intended to limit the creative freedom of the writer.
“You may think that we are just boring business professors trying to kill the fun,” Eliashberg said. “But if you don’t get the money right, you’re not going to have any fun.”
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