How AI could change Hollywood for the better (or worse)

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Jul 5, 2018, 6:59 PM EDT (Updated)

Do we let HAL decide? Or not? That is the question. While Hollywood has been droning on for years about how robots are either out to destroy humankind (see the Terminator franchise), merge with us (Transcendence), or make our lives easier (Her), the rapidly advancing technology of AI now promises to drastically reshape how films are greenlit in the movie business.

That's because such a future envisions studios coming to rely on the vastly superior, data-driven objectivity of artificial intelligence in vetting screenplays for financing and distribution rather than the subjective intuition or "gut" of studio heads and their own cinematic tastes.


But whether the much-ballyhooed benefits machine learning will supposedly bring will actually be good for the industry, let alone filmmakers, is another question entirely.

The topic gained renewed attention this week, as Variety reports, thanks to a presentation at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival given by ScriptBook founder Nadira Azermai,  who said her company's algorithms could have saved Sony Pictures millions of dollars.

How, one might ask?

Well, according to Azermai, Scriptbook analyzed the screenplays of 32 Sony movies from 2015 to 2017 – everything from each film's theme, plot, and characters to its target audience and how they compared to similar films in the computer's extensive dataset of 6,500 scripts it's already analyzed. And the Belgium-based company claims its AI retroactively identified 22 box-office flops from the 32 out of 62 flicks the studio released that lost money during that two-year time period.

In other words, had Sony suits simply handed their decisions over to our machine overlords, they could have saved the studio a lot of time and money and sloughed off the baggage of a few of those box-office duds, such as 2016's female-driven Ghostbusters remake or Tom Hanks' Inferno.


Credit: Sony Pictures

"If Sony had used our system they could have eliminated 22 movies that failed financially," said Azermai.

Of course, art by automation has its consequences. For one, just because a movie loses money doesn't mean it's not extraordinary (see Blade Runner and last year's sequel) or not beloved (It's a Wonderful Life), or one of the greatest films of all time, for that matter (Citizen Kane).

Then there are the thousand of jobs that could potentially be lost – i.e. script readers, development execs, test screeners, market researchers, etc. – if studios left it up to HAL or Alexa to decide what scripts were deemed worthy of financial success and a green light. And of course, we haven't even mentioned filmmakers' bruised egos.

But the ScriptBook head believes the future of AI-assisted decision making is now.

"Our mission is to revolutionize the business of storytelling by using AI to help producers, distributors, sales agents, and financiers assess their risk," Azermai added.

And ScriptBook does this for a hefty price. For $5,000, customers can upload a PDF of their screenplay into their system, and within minutes the company's computer spits out a detailed report.

The outputs include everything from an MPAA rating and box-office predictions to sizing up the character's emotions and a breakdown of male versus female roles and whether the script passes the Bechdel test for the portrayal of women -- i.e., whether two female characters talk about something other than a man.

Azermai suggests such computer-assisted analyses could help the push for gender parity and diversity in the #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite era. Not to mention, the company says any script its AI greenlights has an 84 percent success rate, an accuracy much better than humans.

"ScriptBook's AI will just kick out movies that follow certain formulas," she argued. "It's very good at picking out artistic movies that do well financially."

No doubt it'll put a whole new spin on the auteur theory too.

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