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Marginal Analysis: The Math of the Movies

by Elaine Schwartz    •    May 8, 2013    •    2177 Views

During an interview at the Nantucket Film Festival last summer, film writer/director Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated and Something’s Gotta Give) said she was having a tougher time getting scripts approved. It was apparent that she preferred the intuition of one eccentric movie mogul who ran the company. Instead, now she deals with committees that have practical concerns. They focus on possible male (not female) stars more than her story line.

For her newest Sony Pictures movie, Meyers might also be coping with a “script analyst.”

Vinny Bruzzese is a “script analyst” whom the NY Times recently described. A former statistics professor, Bruzzese decomposes successful scripts and movie goer preferences. The stats give him the answers for the 20 or so page reports he gives to film makers. His suggestions include deleting bowling scenes because they won’t grab an audience and adding “guardian” rather than “cursed” superheroes.

Script analysis has become only a part of the quantitative picture. One movie investor said, “You have to think of it as math.” For him, the “math” is a risk assessment algorithm. What is the best weekend for the release? The rating? The star? The genre? He uses more than 10,000 variables. Asked if a movie should include an extra fight scene that will cost $1 million to shoot, he said he replies, “yes” only if box office receipts will go up by more than $1 million. The results? No home run and no big risks. No Matrix and no Waterworld.

As economists, we could say that the math of the movies is all about marginal analysis…all about what we add or subtract. Which actor will make the difference? Do we include a certain scene or delete it? Many of the questions are timeless. The answers though might no longer be intuitive. Instead, they can be reduced to a list of statistics that form a move making algorithm.

Sources and Resources: For some fascinating insight on the math behind the movies, I recommend the NY Times article on script analysis, this indiewire blog that takes it a step further, and Esquire’s piece, “Mathematics of Movie-making.”

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