The Algorithm of Hollywood

Why would writers want to kill this man?

There was recent article in The New York Times about using data “to solve the equation of the hit film script.” While I’m in favor of any great idea that might improve the quality of a screenplay – or movies as a whole – I am conflicted about what this means for the future of Hollywood… and humankind.

Stats might reflect what formulas will work, but they have NOTHING to do with creativity, imagination, gut-instinct or love of film, which is the primary reason most of us were drawn to Hollywood in the first place.

We’re entering an era of data mining, algorithms, digital genomics. Computers are pre-selecting everything for us. Susan Blackmore, a memologist and scholar, has said that the pithy notions and bite-sized content we so eagerly share with each other on Facebook and Twitter are a form of computers using human beings as instruments for those ideas’ propagation. We have, in essence, become the devices by which memes pre-selected and influenced by machines are spread.

A popular meme

In similar fashion, the data-crunching, computer-optimized statistical system of script analysis outlined in the article is yet another blow to the “creative community” that was Hollywood. It demonstrates an effort to remove creativity—humanity!–from the equation. And it begs the question: What’s the point of fostering “ideas” at all when you can have a statistician tell you what formulas will work?

A formula is an equation that produces an expected result. 1 + 1 = 2. It guarantees combining specific quantities will yield a certain outcome. But isn’t Hollywood where “creative” accounting originated? Wasn’t this the land of 1 + 1 = 3? For anyone involved in the creative process of making movies, our collective aspiration is that the outcome is greater than the sum of the parts. The sky is the limit on any given project. That’s how the magic happens. That’s the alchemy.

Hollywood "Creative Accounting" exemplified

But all of that has been subjugated to one mighty aim: making money. Just like Wall Street. So that means removing the human element, instituting a system of statistical script analysis that’s the Hollywood equivalent of electronic trading.

Makes sense. If a computer can make the most informed choice, the most efficient bet, then why have a human element at all? Computers can pick the movies, fashion the scripts, control the production pipeline––everything is digital from beginning to end in terms of shooting, editing, visual effects, finishing and post now anyway. Then computers can distribute the movies to us, measure our viewership and report back to other computers the algorithms of our consumption. Ergo, humanity is out of the equation entirely. Success!

This posits a future in which machines will be occupied with computing each other while what’s left of humanity will go back to the campfire to tell each other cautionary tales about it.

Moviegoing in the good 'ole days

Presaging Hollywood’s trajectory, Griffin Mill muses aloud in The Player during a big wheel meeting where studio execs dispense with writers in favor of movies constructed from newspaper headlines: “I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.”

Griffin Mill: smooth, smug & well-tailored

Then again, The Player wouldn’t have passed muster in the algorithmic green-lighting process. It wouldn’t have been made. In the e-trading, optimized and formulaic future of Hollywood, the town won’t have any more Griffin Mills. It won’t have any more “Players.” The statisticians will have eliminated their necessity. And the “Players” will have been the instruments of their own extinction.

Wait --the algorithm said what?!

*This article was first published in The Hollywood Journal and in The Huffington Post.





  1. Karen Sunde says:

    right on, right on, write on, Seth!! did I say 10 things? – you tilt the machine!

Leave a Comment





Latest Tweets