Thursday, November 02, 2006

Do We Stand A Chance?

In theater, you can be much more abstract and simple and be suggestive. When we do the savannah in The Lion King, people walk with platters of grass on their heads, and the audience gets it. They get that that's a field that's moving grass.

-Julie Taymor

I think everybody should have a least one super anti-corporate, live-life-off-the- grid, almost paranoid friend. I have a couple and, thankfully, they combine their vision with an almost defeatist realism.

Talking to one of these friends a few years ago, I mentioned how Wal-Mart had been successfully defeated by a community. Smirking, he said, "Man, we don't stand a chance."

He talked about how much big money can buy. "But I don't mean just the advertising," he said. "It's the research. The focus groups. The test marketing." Wal-Mart, he pointed out, was like the Catholic Church. "They're in it for the long haul," he said, " and that loss to that community will be a pimple on the enormous, profitable and comfortable ass of Wal-Mart in hundred years."

Malcolm Gladwell's article in the New Yorker regarding the idea of technology being able to pinpoint box office receipts to within a couple of million dollars is incredibly interesting, but as equally frightening.

A group of people with a company called Epagogix, have developed a way of analyzing the potential of screenplays. Gladwell starts his article with the well known proclamation of screenwriter William Goldman: "Nobody knows anything."

Goldman was talking of the inability of anybody in Hollywood to truly predict what was going to be a success. Well, it would appear the folks at Epagogix are able to actually succeed at doing just that with help of a nueral network. And their accuracy is pretty impressive.

The whole project reminds of the stats crunching theories that drove the Oakland A's in Michael Lewis's Moneyball. Lewis wrote about the decades old practice of baseball scouts rating potential recruits by things like, speed, physical type, etc.

Suddenly, there was a new way to look at things. A stat that had not really been looked at as heavily, On Base Percentage, was suddenly deemed to be one of the most important factors in picking up talent. In other words, the statisticians figured something out: The more you get on base, the more likely you are to score. So the A's drafted players that had higher on base percentages.

Though some things the scouts had previously looked at were the same things the statisticians were looking at, the new guard were emphazing things the scouts might have overlooked.

The team at Epagogix seems to be turning the Hollywood coverage game on its head the same way:

The way the neural network thinks is not that different from the way a Hollywood executive thinks: if you pitch a movie to a studio, the executive uses an ad-hoc algorithm—perfected through years of trial and error—to put a value on all the components in the story. Neural networks, though, can handle problems that have a great many variables, and they never play favorites—which means (at least in theory) that as long as you can give the neural network the same range of information that a human decision-maker has, it ought to come out ahead.

Copaken and Meaney figured that Hollywood’s experts also had biases and skipped over things that really mattered. If a neural network won at the track, why not Hollywood? “One of the most powerful aspects of what we do is the ruthless objectivity of our system,” Copaken said. “It doesn’t care about maintaining relationships with stars or agents or getting invited to someone’s party. It doesn’t care about climbing the corporate ladder. It has one master and one master only: how do you get to bigger box-office? Nobody else in Hollywood is like that.”

Here is an example of the types of feedback the system can give executives (and the success they are having in predictions):

The neural network put the potential value of better characterization at an extra $2.46 million in U.S. box-office revenue; the value of locale adjustment at $4.92 million; the value of a sidekick at $12.3 million—and the value of all three together (given the resulting synergies) at $24.6 million. That’s another $25 million for a few weeks of rewrites and maybe a day or two of extra filming. Mr. Bootstraps, incidentally, ran the numbers and concluded that the script would make $47 million if the suggested changes were not made. The changes were
not made. The movie made $50 million.

It is important to remember that this does not mean the result is a more artistic, or even better film. While it is more subtle than a cookiecutter, it is, in some ways, as blunt. This is all about making money, all about marketplace success, and about winning.

What are the benchmarks for something sublime. How would we calculate that? Can they feed Hamlet through the machine?

Though the the team at Epagogix claims they would have predicted the huge box office success of The Passion of the Christ, would they have predicted some of the smaller hits that have defied box office odds? Blair Witch comes to mind.

In the end, the Epagogix team and Gladwell are all too aware that the neural networks don't replace the artists. First, the neural network has to have something to feed into it. Second, the neural network can't even tell you how to improve the areas they suggest.

That was the thing about the formula: it didn’t make the task of filmmaking easier. It made it harder. So long as nobody knows anything, you’ve got license to do whatever you want. You can start a movie in Africa. You can have male and female leads not go off together—all in the name of making something new. Once
you came to think that you knew something, though, you had to decide just how much money you were willing to risk for your vision. Did the Epagogix team know what the answer to that question was? Of course not. That question required imagination, and they weren’t in the imagination business

But who says our environment doesn't shape our cultural imagination. And if the major manufacturers of culture are getting this good at proliferation, then the risk is that our cultural environment will start to more and more reflect what we want, and what we consider a good value, not what we consider good quality. "I have met the enemy and it is us."

There are breakthroughs. The i-pod is an effective weapon against the onslaught of the commercial machine. For example, I don't own an i-pod and so when I go the gym I have to listen the latest top 40 hits over the sound system. (I do bring a CD player sometimes.) But are people at the gym using the i-pod to listen to an indie band and, say, Mozart, or are they simply using it to listen to the Top 40 on a different shuffle than the Muzak at the mall?

The subtitle of Moneyball is The Art of Winning at an Unfair Game which refers to how the team with the second lowest payroll in baseball, the Oakland A's, by using statistics, became competitive.

What is competitive though? What is winning when we talk of theatre? Proliferation? Would more people attending mean better quality? Of course not.

Do we stand a chance? Against the machinations of the commercial cultural machine, are we ridiculously unarmed?

I have always agreed with one advantage theatre has. Theatre can be done anywhere. Absolutely anywhere. All you need is imagination, some text, and people.

In the preface to his collection of plays entitled Autobahn, Neil Labute suggests that his plays are not only set in cars, but can be performed in a car. That is the advantage we have. That is how we can win at an unfair game. Theatre cannot reach as many people, but it will survive and can maintain its integrity because you don't need battteries or a wi-fi connection to get it.

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