The Formulaic

Malcolm Gladwell has an article in the New Yorker about a consulting firm using neural networks to predict box office grosses. It’s unbelievably depressing. For one, these algorithms—which, by and large, attempt to pick out the distinguishing features of the most successful past offerings—are intrinsically blind to the possibility of new creative forms. They might help you, for example, distinguish good Westerns from mediocre Westerns, but they would never have invented the Western in the first place.

More painfully, as Gladwell observes, the algorithms can tell you what needs fixing but not how to do it:

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. They were technicians with tools: computer programs and analytical systems and proprietary software that calculated mathematical relationships among a laundry list of structural variables. At Platinum Blue, Mike McCready could tell you that the bass line was pushing your song out of the center of hit cluster 31. But he couldn’t tell you exactly how to fix the bass line, and he couldn’t guarantee that the redone version would still sound like a hit, and you didn’t see him releasing his own album of computer-validated pop music. A Kamesian had only to read Lord Kames to appreciate the distinction. The most arrogant man in the world was a terrible writer: clunky, dense, prolix. He knew the rules of art. But that didn’t make him an artist.

But even this passage misses the point. Gladwell is correct to observe that even a perfect predictive algorithm may not be useful as a generative tool. You can test one verison against another, and you can tell when you’ve improved on the last one, but you can’t simply have the computer dial you up a hit. But I dont’ regard this objecetion as decisive. It’s a matter of degrees; with the algorithm you can probably do better at cranking out hits than without. Future algorithms may do even better. And someday, perhaps the machine will be able to generate as well as predict.

No, what’s truly sad in this passage—something Gladwell brings up and then ignores—is that there is more to the long-term progress of creativity than pure hitmaking. That nobody knows anything means that Hollywood can’t help but be innovative now and then. It has to be, because the attempt to serve only the bottom line is inevitably so muddled by a million complications that it will allow some genuinely creative projects to go forward. Those projects are the seed corn of the future; they teach audiences how to enjoy film in new ways; they provide a fresh stock of techniques and ideas upon which future films can build.

Thus, if you can predict box office grosses with great assurance, you have the perfect recipe for short-term gain and long-term peril. The spillover benefits of this accidental creativity will disappear, and with it, a lot of films worth making with the benfit of artistic (if not necesarily financial) hindsight. True, the Hollywood system may be an extraordinarily inefficient way of fostering such creativity, and we might be better off if only those who couldn’t afford Epagogix’s services were to try to be original—but I still think something would be lost. The workshopping that Epagogix does on a few drafts of The Interpreter is painful to read about; it’s hard for me to say which version they suggest is the least interesting as a film. I, for one, am content to “see” most movies on The Movie Spoiler, and I blame the formula system for making most movies not worth experiencing in any other way.

I don’t really view Gladwell’s piece as depressing. The takeaway point that I, um, took away was not that the computer would make movies that are more formulaic than today’s movies, but rather that movie execs are currently looking for formulaic movies, and that computers could beat them at their own game. I read his article as something more like Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, only applied to movies rather than baseball. In Moneyball, it turned out that sports agents had been historically using something that they called “intuition,” and using it as a sword to fend off anyone who questioned their old-boy network and its reliability.

I’m not concerned, either, that a system like Epagogix would reduce the number of innovative films. I’m pretty sure that people already know the attributes that go into making a film sell well; they may not know the balance of attributes, but they do know that, say, a pretty girl will make a movie sell better, or that black and white costars will give the movie crossover appeal, or that a tearful scene between mother and daughter will bring women to the theatre. The number of formulaic movies already on the market seems to prove the point. What Epagogix brings is a little bit of tweaking — an added tearful scene here, the movie taking place in Paris rather than Africa, etc.

Finally, and maybe most relevantly, I suspect that the film directors who would use Epagogix are the ones who wouldn’t be innovating very much to begin with. A director like Pedro Almodovar knows that his movies only appeal to a certain set of people, and those people to whom it appeals aren’t the same ones who want to see formulaic movies. If most innovation already comes from movies that don’t sell well (debatable, of course, but maybe true to first order), then I don’t think Epagogix is much of a threat.