Hollywood looking at big data to find the next big hit

August 12, 2016
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There may be hidden creativity within your Facebook posts and tweets. Moreover, it might even be used to create the next blockbuster in Hollywood.

There may be hidden creativity within your Facebook posts and tweets. Moreover, it might even be used to create the next blockbuster in Hollywood.

Audiences that were once hooked on television alone have started migrating to the Internet, a move that has affected the viewers’ creativity without them even realizing it. Through their blogs, social media posts, and file downloads, streaming companies and producers learn what themes, writers, and actors they need to combine in order to maximize their chances of success.  

There is a clear prize for every business in the entertainment industry, starting from Netflix with its 81 million subscribers in almost every country in the world, to Stan Entertainment, a startup from Australia trying to make its stand against the $42 billion giant. By providing customers with what they want in advance, the chances of success for a show are increased, while, at the same time, it builds loyalty for the content provider, at least according to several industry executives.

“We are trying to find out what’s trending, what people talk about, and what’s hot in the world right now,” said Matchbox Pictures managing director Chris Oliver-Taylor, who’s also Glitch’s and The Real Housewives of Melbourne’s Australian producer.

“If one thing is in the center of attention throughout Twitter, or if a certain trend exists in that area, and we provide content that is directly associated with it, then the rational conclusion is that people will be interested in it,” says Oliver-Taylor.

The leadership conference of the New York-based parent company last year concentrated almost solely on how to use big data securely, he added.

Home entertainment’s evolution from free-to-air TV to content delivered to multiple devices via streaming over the internet has provided greater knowledge regarding the type, the time and the duration of consumers’ viewing. The same knowledge was used to inspire the production of “Wolf Creek,” a novel 6-part series derived from the 2005 homonym horror classic from Australia, according to Stan Entertainment.

“When we discuss with the producers and creators of original productions, we essentially brief them on a high-level about what we’re looking for,” says Mike Sneesby, chief executive officer at Stan’ Entertainment, in an interview. “Part of the information contained in that brief is data derived from our platform.”

For instance, Lucy Fry, the Australian actress who played Lee Harvey Oswald’s wife in the television series “11.22.63”, was selected as the female lead of Wolf Creek to widen the appeal of the show past its splatter origins, said Sneesby. To see how the female members of the audience would react to this choice, Stan promoted Fry’s part in the show by disseminating 20-sec video trailers of Wolf Creek on social media in advance of the series’ launch. The results justified the decision and showed the program would do fine.

James Sullivan, Asian equity research managing director at JPMorgan Chase, wrote that the holder of the largest amount of data has the advantage, and the value of metadata is going to leave content distribution and shift to actual production.

However, he added that no agreement exists regarding which type of metadata will have the biggest effect on the entertainment industry. Singapore-based Sullivan recently visited Europe, Asia, and North America, to gather the thoughts on big data of entertainment lawyers, writers, and executives from Netflix and Google.

“The ultimate question is, can you build a plot around it?” Sullivan stated in an interview. “In the end, I believe there will be a positive answer, but this subject is far from settled. I’ve heard a lot of creative concerns, especially from the side of screenwriters.”

Oliver-Tayler from Matchbox pointed out that the entertainment business is still looking for ways to reap maximum benefits from customer intelligence of such high level. After achieving this, shows that are based on big data will become the norm, he added. “It isn’t always feasible to coincide project availability with data results,” Sneesby says. Sneesby was in L.A. the previous month, to attend annual screenings of pilots and first episodes of new shows, by Hollywood studios.  

Amazon.com Inc. said it launches pilots at Amazon Studios from time to time for its customers to watch and evaluate. Customer feedback is then considered when people in charge decide on the pilots that will proceed to full series.

One example of this process is “Transparent,” a comedy series based on a Los Angeles family with a transgender person at its head. When it debuted in 2014, it coincided with increased social awareness about transgender issues and the following years it earned the best TV series Golden Globe award. The award for best actor also went to star Jeffrey Tambor.  

Amazon and Netflix representatives said they had no one available to talk about big data. An HBO spokesperson, Time Warner Inc.’s pay-television, said that the company makes no use of data whatsoever to schedule its programming.

Netflix, the distributor of shows like “Orange Is the New Black” and “House of Cards,” was a pioneer in the employment of statistical equations in the promotion of titles with the greatest chance of being enjoyable to subscribers. Data factored in include the location of the subscriber, the previously downloaded content, and the general popularity of the show.

In a research paper published in an academic journal last year, two Netflix employees wrote that the average subscriber of their service might lose interest if 60 seconds pass without something interesting coming up. The system utilized by Netflix to provide individualized viewing recommendations results in over one billion USD every year, by minimizing the number of subscriptions canceled, they added.

SBS, a public TV network in Australia, tags each show with dozens of identifiers to track data like writers, cast, themes, director, location, tone, and plot. This information is essential in order to match viewers with the most appropriate content, according to Marshall Heald, director of television and online content at SBS.

According to Heald, this has been evolved into a black art by Netflix. “We can’t match their sophistication level, but in the long-term, we aspire to catch up.”

However, even with this kind of intelligence to navigate audiences to shows that are likely to make an impact, it is still important that viewers feel like they made the discovery themselves, he added.

“Quite often these discoveries look like real accidents,” says Heald. “The art and science is to maintain that feeling of magic while really understanding the tastes of the audience.”