Why There Are So Few Good Movies. The Futility Of Trying To Jam A Digital Peg Into An Analog Hole

By David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on the futility of trying to wrench digital answers from analog situations.

Part 2 will deal with the fundamental inability of digital customer surveys to provide the information needed to materially improve a company’s products and services.

Rating Subjective Products — Movies, Books, Music, etc.

Because people can make a lot of money if they can identify the “best” products, businesses want digital, simple, and easy answers to the following subjective, analog questions:

Out of all the candidates submitted to us:

An Example From The Restaurant Business

Suppose that research has convinced a large company that there are great profit opportunities in the restaurant business, and consequently, it has decided that it’s going to open a new restaurant chain.

What kind of food should they sell? How will they pick their menu?

Being logical, hard-headed business people they design an objective process that will tell them what kind of food their new restaurants should offer.

First, they identify the most successful existing restaurant chains by finding out which ones have the highest gross sales/unit/week. Then they break down the menus of each of these top restaurant chains into their component parts.

Finally, they look for food items, ingredients and characteristics that are common to the top sellers.

What do they learn?

Most of the top chains have menus whose big sellers contain tomato products. Burger places, pizza, Italian food and Hispanic food, all have items that contain tomato products.

“OK,” they decide, “our menu should be heavy with items that contain tomato products.”

What else is in the food on all those other successful menus? Cheese. “We have to have lots of cheese,” the number-crunchers conclude.

Healthy food seems to be very popular.

“OK,” they say, “the cheese should be low-fat or no-fat. The bread should be gluten free, and there should be little or no red meat.”

This process is the equivalent of trying to have a robot that doesn’t eat, can’t taste and has no aesthetic abilities design a product that succeeds or fails on subjective, aesthetic characteristics — taste, texture, and aroma— all of which which the robot is unable to even detect, leastwise evaluate.

Now imagine the menu they will come up with using this process. How good-tasting do you think that food is likely to be?

The “Deconstruct Then Assign Scores” Process Is Fatally Flawed

The digital approach to picking new products is to deconstruct existing successful products into what the bean counters think are their component parts, then separately rate each component, then total the individual rating numbers to get a score, which the executives then foolishly believe will tell them which potential new product is “the best.”

This is a recipe for failure.

It’s a system that does something easy that has almost no chance of success in preference to doing something very difficult that actually does have a chance of working.

The Movie Business’ Current Script-Evaluation System

Here is the movie studios’s version of the “Deconstruct Then Assign Scores” process.

Producers evaluate scrips by having armies of “readers” assign values to a range of characteristics that are believed to be major components of a successful script:

Idea, story line, dialog, characterization, structure, story arc, character growth, technical competence, target audience, marketability, and production cost are only a few of the categories that are rated.

Simple ratings systems may begin with assigning a value, Bad — 0; Mediocre — 1; Good — 2; Excellent — 3, in each of six categories. But they don’t stop there.

Screenwriter Terry Rossio created a script-reader’s checklist (Death To Readers) for a fictional company he called “Spectacle Pictures” that contained 20 categories under “Concept & Plot”; 20 more under “Technical Execution” and 20 more under “Characters” for a total of sixty script components, each of which would presumably be given a score.

He reports that a production company liked his sixty-category checklist so much that they began using it as the guide for their readers.

For Several Reasons This Process Is Doomed To Failure From The Very Beginning

The Script Components Being Rated Aren’t Necessarily Predictors Of A Successful Film

A high reader score in every one of these categories doesn’t mean that the movie will be a success. You could have five scripts that all garnered high scores in every one of the rated categories and yet movies made from a majority of the five scripts could still all fail at the box office.

If high scores on several or all of the components are not a reliable predictor of which scripts will become successful movies then the word that most applies to many if not most of these scores is “irrelevant.”

You Can’t Know What Any Particular Score For Any Particular Category Really Means

What does an “excellent” score in the story-line category mean? That the story will be popular? That the story is different? That the story is surprising? That the story is heartwarming?

The categories are largely unquantifiable in that you don’t really know what that score is measuring. Since we don’t know what quality that “excellent story line” score is really referring to, we have no way that we can ever assign any meaningful value to that score.

The Scores Are Subjective To Each Reader

I may think that a particular story idea is a 10. The reader sitting three feet away from me might think it’s a 3. The age, gender, life experiences, personality, cultural background, etc. of the reader will greatly affect the number that he or she assigns to “characterization”, “story line”, “idea”, etc.

Different Readers Like Or Dislike Different Types Of Stories

On top of that, the genre preferences of the reader strongly affect his or her scores.

If I love romantic comedies and I hate horror movies, any score I give to a horror-movie script is likely to be next to worthless. And the score that the horror-movie-devotee/romantic-comedy-hater reader gives to a romantic comedy script will probably also be worthless.

Why? Because the romantic-comedy person doesn’t deeply understand what story elements horror movie audiences emotionally like and the horror-movie-loving reader who gets a romantic-comedy script may hate the sorts of stories and scenes that the romantic-comedy audiences love.

The combination of readers’ different life experiences, culture and story preferences yields scores that are so variable and subjective that a rating assigned to any one random script is entirely, totally worthless.

The Total Score Tells You Nothing

If one script gets a 3 in characterization, a 3 in structure, a 0 in story arc and a 0 in character growth and another script gets a 0 in characterization, a 0 in structure, a 3 in story arc and a 3 in character growth, both scripts have the same total score. Is structure more or less important than story arc? Is characterization more or less important than character growth?

“Well, we’ll just weight the categories,” the bean counters respond. “Hmmm, let’s see. Let’s give the idea category twenty points and story line, oh, I don’t know, maybe 30 points, and character growth 8 points . . . .”

That makes the process even worse, even more unreliable, because it adds yet another arbitrary, subjective component to the system.

The core flaw in the entire system is that it tries to disguise subjective, wildly variable, untrustworthy analog results in a fake, superficially meaningful digital format.

Bad Processes Give You Bad Results

The entire process of evaluating a subjective product — a script, a menu, a song, a painting, etc. — by deconstructing it into what someone thinks are its major components, and having random people give each component a subjective digital score to determine which submission is “the best” candidate is, from the very beginning, a failed system.

It doesn’t work because it cannot work.

What Method Would Work Better For Evaluating Scripts?

At the very beginning, you need to recognize that there can be all kinds of financially successful movies.

Talky films can be successful. Films with irrational plots can be successful. Films with a horrible person as the protagonist can be successful.

But there is one quality that every single successful film has.

This is the entertainment industry. Every successful film tells a story in a way that a material number of people find entertaining. To be a success, the film must entertain the people who like films in that genre.

Lots of people think a film should be different. There is nothing wrong with being different, but by itself “different” is worthless. If it’s different but not entertaining, it’s NG. If it’s entertaining but not different, that’s fine. If it’s entertaining and also different, that’s great.

Some people think a film should teach the audience something new, something people didn’t know before. There is nothing wrong with new information, but by itself “new information” is worthless. If your movie gives the audience new information but it’s not entertaining, it’s NG. If it’s entertaining and doesn’t teach the audience anything new, that’s fine. If it’s entertaining and also teaches the audience something new, great.

We could go down the list of all the other characteristics people tout for a film but they all end up in the same place.

To have a shot at financial success, first and foremost its intended audience must find the movie entertaining . Everything else is just gravy.

What Does “Entertaining” Mean?

Here’s my definition:

A film is entertaining when it:

Generates a high level of enjoyable emotions in the brains of most of the people who like films in that genre.

Here are the seven words to always remember:

Enjoyable emotions are drugs. Drugs are money.

What are some enjoyable emotions?

What are some unenjoyable emotions?

Yes, Hamlet died at the end but his death was not a betrayal of the audience’s expectations.

Having the Plant kill Seymour at the end of The Little Shop Of Horrors was a betrayal of the audience’s expectations and desires.

Killing both Seymour and Audrey was originally how The Little Shop Of Horrors ended, but the test audiences hated it so much that it was re-shot with Seymour killing the Plant and living happily ever after with Audrey in a little house Somewhere That’s Green.

I read someplace that the producers were surprised that the audiences hated the original ending. How that negative reaction could possibly be a surprise to anyone in the entertainment business is a mystery to me.

The Emotions The Audience Will Enjoy Vary With The Genre Of The Film

The people who buy tickets for a romantic comedy are looking forward to Laughter, Happiness, Satisfaction, Joy, Affection, Optimism, Love, and the like.

The people who buy tickets to a war movie are looking for Excitement, Fear, Awe, Suspense, Revenge, etc.

The emotions that will make a person happy, that will cause that person to identify a film as a really good movie, are the emotions that people who love that type of movie want and expect to get from a “good [horror, romantic comedy, spy, crime, etc.] movie.”

They expect and want a horror movie to load them up with different enjoyable emotions than the audience for a romantic comedy expects and wants to feel at the end of a what they would rate as a good romantic comedy.

The primary question you have to answer is: Does the script deliver that enjoyable emotional payoff in a big way?

The second question is: Does the script generate so much negative emotion that it overbalances the enjoyable, positive emotions?

If the answer to the first question is “yes” and the answer to the second questions is “no” then it doesn’t matter how anyone rates the script’s character development, story arc, etc. etc. Once it delivers the net emotional payoff none of that other stuff matters very much.

And, if it doesn’t deliver the emotional payoff, none of that other stuff matters very much.

Basic Emotional Situations

There are basic, well-known, story elements that generate positive emotions:

Do you remember the scene in Witness where the tough, homicide detective, Harrison Ford, is masquerading as an Amish farmer? Some punk kids start hassling him, thinking that he won’t fight back, but the audience knows that Harrison can knock them flat.

The audience anticipates that Harrison Ford will clean their clocks, and when he does they feel a flood of Joy and Satisfaction.

The platoon is hunkered down in their base camp. They’re almost out of bullets. The enemy is preparing for a final charge. The weary but brave heroes are ready to make their last stand. Then they hear WUMP, WUMP, WUMP. They look up. Helicopters are racing in. Suddenly they’re overhead, machine guns blazing. The enemy soldiers look up in terror as they’re blown to pieces.

The audience feels a flood of enjoyable emotions.

Eliza has left. Professor Higgins is sitting alone in his study. This is what he wanted, isn’t it? But the audience knows that he loves her. The audience is heartbroken that he was such a fool that he’s let his true love slip away.

Higgins begins to sing, “I’ve grown accustomed to her face” and the audience knows that he knows that he’s made a terrible mistake, that he does love her, that he wishes she would come back. The audience is heartbroken.

Then in the doorway behind Higgins, Eliza appears and the audience feels an overwhelming flood of joy knowing that, yes, they will be together after all.

In the right circumstances sorrow, loss, and melancholy can be enjoyable emotions.

Think of the last scene in The Wrestler when Randy leaps off the ropes into the ring and the audience knows that it’s his last move, that he will die there on that canvas. It’s bittersweet and sad but emotionally enjoyable — Satisfaction that Randy lived the way he wanted to live and died the way he wanted to die, that he went out doing the one thing that he loved the most.

These are the sorts of movie scenes that people remember all their lives because they are tied to such strong, enjoyable emotions.

Bad Emotions

On the other side of the coin are the unpleasant emotions that unsuccessful movies generate:

My opinion is that generating bad emotions does more to harm to a movie than generating good emotions does to help it. Specifically, that one bad-emotion element wipes out the benefit gained from two good-emotion scenes.

Put differently, multiply the bad emotion scenes by two and subtract them from the number of good-emotion scenes and if you don’t have a positive number bigger than 1 your movie is in trouble.

The Timing Of Positive-Emotion Scenes

When you generate enjoyable emotions is also critical. If the first half of your movie is just OK, the third quarter is pretty good and the last quarter overwhelms the audience with scene after scene of enjoyable emotions, you’ve got a hit.

On the other hand, if the first quarter is full of enjoyable emotions, the second quarter has one enjoyable-emotions scene, the third quarter has no enjoyable-emotion scenes and the last quarter has an unenjoyable emotions scene or attribute, the movie will be a dud.

We’re all familiar with movies that started out great, but that by the last quarter were so ridiculous, over the top, boring, unbelievable, and emotionally unsatisfying that we wanted to throw our sodas at the screen while we screamed, “I hate this movie!”

What Would Be A More Effective Way To Evaluate A Script?

First, figure out the script’s genre then make sure that the person assigned to read that script is a fan of movies in that genre.

After reading the script the reader needs to write a few pages outlining what he/she sees as the positive-emotion scenes and negative-emotions aspects of the story.

Did the story affect him/her emotionally? How? Why? Could it have done a better job? How? Was the story becoming more or less emotionally satisfying as the story progressed. Did the reader like or dislike the ending from an emotional point of view? Why? Are there any glaring aspects that will generate unenjoyable emotions? What are they? Can they be fixed? How?

Ban any numerical scoring. This isn’t a multiple choice test. It’s 100% essay.

And BTW, I’ve written at least five very high-emotion scripts if anyone in Hollywood is listening. Give me a call. Let’s take a meeting. Just saying.

–David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)

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David Grace

Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 16 novels and over 400 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.