Forecasting the Hit Series

animation-studio-new-york-nyIn New Yorker Magazine, Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point,” and “Blink,” spoke to innovators looking to make a profit by using neural networks and analytic software to predict the success of pop songs and feature films. By assigning specific story elements in film scripts to box office dollars, one group of developers believe that they can formulate a way to make a movie more profitable by tinkering with the setting, plot points, and characters using computer technology. The idea, of course, is to let executive producers know if they have a flop on their hands. As one of the developers is quoted as saying, “we shoot turkeys.”

There are no hard and fast rules for creating a hit television show or series. Or is there? An audience is comprised of thousands upon thousands of subjective viewpoints, all filtering and making quick decisions about whether your product matches their idea of truth, beauty, art and that elusive thing called taste. Aesthetics, the branch of philosophy that reflects upon art, culture and nature, and in part, our sensory reactions to them, is not a hard science. Is there a science that can be used to predict what will capture the imagination of American audiences?

Audience reactions are impossible to predict. Or, are they?

Any softer system designed to rate box office appeal must deal only with objective data. Aesthetic factors such as beautiful cinematography, incredible acting, or well written dialogue plays no part in cold, dollar driven analysis. While some may find taking the “art” out of the art of filmmaking problematic, it’s hardly anything new. Executives have always had to balance art and profit. After all, making money is their obligation to shareholders, investors and employees. And, it helps producers keep their jobs, or move up.

A system known as Epagogix looks to establish a direct relationship between story elements and box office dollars for Hollywood. Art and profitability are now inextricably linked, at least in the minds of these developers. Epagogix attaches dollar amounts to story components in scripts and then runs it through an artificial intelligence system to arrive at a prediction about whether the script has hit potential. Producers of factual television face unique challenges in that their characters are delivered as is, real people. They have quirks and flaws, and sometimes they are not terribly dramatic or interesting. And, in general, the storyline is already laid out. That said, the same elements that float to the top of the Epagogix system as “winning” story elements, can also be coaxed out of a non-fiction story. In fact, it’s necessary if you want to hold the viewer’s interest.

Put Fantastic Into Factual

animation studio new york ny 03A villain might be a disastrous storm, rather then an fictional evil character. A life changing event has transformed the main character, is also often true of news and factual television stories. Rather than “write” they story, your job is to uncover it and reveal it in a way that keeps the viewer watching, in the same way a fictional writer spins a tale. Identifying the successful elements of story creation, and using it within the parameters of non-fiction is part of the producer’s job. One proven winner that ranks high on the list of successful story elements is a hero who is trying hard, despite the odds. Do the real people in the news story you are covering have that? Tease it out in the interview segments so it can be interspersed throughout the show. What kind of stakes were the real life characters up against? Did those stakes get higher and higher, or the obstacles more difficult? This is another highly popular story component that often occurs in real life stories. Did the main character believe in something so strongly that he or she was willing to adjust their moral compass and risk everything? Non fictional characters are created with this type of story, but it’s common in real life stories also.

One other critical aspect of storytelling is an “author” or in the case of non-fiction the producer and director, must have a deep understanding and empathy for the characters and their experiences. They must work to identify what an audience will have in common with them. Even if they are real life villains, we need to understand their humanity so we can make sense of it. In turn, that understanding of the characters in the story can become the “heart” of the piece, which will engage the viewer and keep them watching. Hit predictor software may find its place with creatives looking to cash in, but there’s no substitute for the human heart as a tool for measuring what works.

Virtual Worlds Made Visually Exciting

No matter how much a producer would wish for a magic formula there really isn’t one. It takes experience, an ability to create a vision for the project, and communicate it successfully to the team. Short term ideas to cut corners early won’t make the job easier, or better in the long run. Early planning is the best way to save money in post. Producers that incorporate 3d work into their shows understand that. They use experienced 3d artists to help their visuals stand out. Creating story within a story is what true 3d animation artists do. A technically proficient user of 3d software can create and build elements. A 3d artist, however considers the overall visual tone of a piece. They carefully assess how it will be used to tell the story the producer needs to tell.

Film directors know instinctively how to frame each shot and can plan how those shots will string together. A 3d artist with experience will approach a 3d animation project in much the same way. They can visualize how the elements and the scene will look, planning in advance how the virtual camera will move through it. They formulate the camera moves, determining where the complicated facts are that need to be highlighted. Virtual cameras in 3d scenes can be used in a way that real cameras cannot. A fly-through in outer space, a microscopic zoom in, an x-ray view–these are the visual storytelling tricks that 3d offers. Television graphics have come a long way, and the technology has made it easier than ever to use great CGI for television. Rather than use “B” roll to get by, 3d animations can make every visual moment count. Finding a studio with the right kind of experience is key. It takes the right kind of artist to bring the story you envision to life.