AI read my film script (and hated it)
PLUS: The best iPhone 14 memes.
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Today, I’m cross-posting a Bloomberg Opinion article I wrote: “AI Panned My Screenplay. Can It Crack Hollywood?”
Also this week: Some smart links (OnlyFans vs. Substack) and some dumb memes (iPhone 14 stuff).
Since March, I’ve been writing an Opinion column for Bloomberg.
In a recent piece, I wrote about my failed career as a comedy screenwriter through the lens of an AI startup that analyzes film and TV scripts.
Check out a lightly adapted version:
AI Panned My Screenplay. Can It Crack Hollywood?
Ten years ago, I co-wrote and sold a comedy film script to 20th Century Fox.
Called “The Lose,” the elevator pitch was “The Fugitive meets Harold & Kumar set in Southeast Asia.”
Fox ended up shelving the project, but I always cherished the experience.
Fast forward to May 2022. I wrote about “The Lose” in my newsletter and received a response from Yves Bergquist, the CEO of an artificial intelligence (AI) startup called Corto AI.
Bergquist’s company developed a tool that analyzes scripts and provides feedback on how the content will resonate with different audiences.
It was far too late to salvage my really funny script, but I needed to know why it was a dud (other than the fact that most optioned scripts never get made).
I sent Bergquist my really, really funny script and Corto put it through a multi-step process:
Ingest and analyze: Corto analyzes and tags script variables including narrative types, emotional tones, character arcs, topics and more. Once the “narrative DNA” of my script is defined, Corto compares it to a database of what Bergquist says is more than 700,000 TV and film titles.
Generate list of comps: Corto identifies the best matches based on “narrative DNA.” (I was happy to find the classic Southeast Asia comedy “The Hangover II” among the comps.)
Social media analyses: Corto picks the top 10 closest comps that have grossed at least $50 million and pulls the social media engagement (via Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, TikTok) around these titles.
Extract audience segments: Corto examines the commercial potential of my project based on the appeal of the comps to different demographics (age, gender) and which communities to target to help the project go viral. Marvel fans, for instance, are good at getting different communities in their projects; could “The Lose” have somehow been marketed to these crowds?
The analysis showed that my film ranked poorly on two scoring systems: uniqueness (how similar was the “narrative DNA” to comps?) and interestingness (did the script have a large character set with a wide range of archetypes?).
The conclusion: Only a star — Corto recommended Chris Pratt — could make my formulaic film successful.
Here is a clipping from Corto’s report that show The Lose’s comp set ("The Beach", "Hangover Pt. II", "Narcos") and also the glorious Chris Pratt recommendation (bottom right).
According to Bergquist, several major film studios are already using the process I just described via Corto’s web-based platform. The Hollywood connection comes from Bergquist’s role as Director of AI at the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California (ETC@USC).
Founded in 1993 with an assist from USC alum George Lucas, the ETC@USC receives funding from some very recognizable names: Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, the Walt Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. Entertainment and others.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, before he joined ETC@USC in 2016, Bergquist had his own somewhat checkered experience in story-telling. In the early 2000s, he went by the name Alexis Debat and frequently appeared on ABC News as a War on Terror expert. In 2007, he was “exposed for falsifying his résumé” and “accused of faking a series of interviews with famous figures.” It took years for Bergquist to rebuild his professional career, including stops at Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity University and polling analytics firm Ranker. As ETC@USC’s CEO Ken Williams told The Hollywood Reporter, “I think people deserve a second chance if they’ve earned it, and I thought [Bergquist] earned it.”
Bergquist is using his second chance to bring an AI solution to an industry long based on gut instinct.
The legendary screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote of the industry that “nobody knows anything...not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.”
Some guesses have worked very well. Decades before delivering his infamous slap at the Oscars, Will Smith found a pattern in box office hits: “Nine out of the top 10 biggest movies of all times have special effects; eight out of 10 have creatures in them; seven out of 10 have a love story. So if you want a hit, you might want to throw those in the mix. I just study patterns and try to stand where lightning strikes."
That’s how we got “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.”
Another safe educated guess: Since 2000, the top box office draw for 19 of the 21 years has either been a sequel or a franchise film.
The most systematic approach to finding good new Hollywood content is the Black List, an annual survey of film development executives who vote on which unproduced screenplays they most like. Launched by Franklin Leonard in 2005, the Black List has included more than 1,000 screenplays. Of these, 440 have been produced, including four of the last 10 Best Picture winners.
The use of tech to find great Hollywood content has a much spottier history. Ryan Kavanaugh launched Relativity Media in 2004 touting an algorithm that could predict box office hits. The company went bankrupt in 2016.
Recent efforts using AI have been low stakes. Lexus made a 60-second ad based on a script by IBM’s Watson (unlike my really, really, really funny film script, the ad is very uninspiring), while Fox tapped Google Cloud to create a film trailer.
Meanwhile, OpenAI’s language model GPT-3 is pumping out scripts that are most noteworthy for nonsensical dialogue. Although, the model should get better with time.
Kim Benabib, who co-created HBO’s “The Brink”, is skeptical of AI in Hollywood. “This has been talked about for years but it will never work,” he tells me. “Silicon Valley has long dreamed of removing the creative human element of the entertainment business because it is expensive and organized. What makes a hit is intangible. It's a combination of voice, serendipity and magic that cannot be broken down into math.”
I largely agree with Benabib’s take (disclosure: I am very biased because I write creatively for a living)
According to Bergquist, Corto is taking a new approach because it combines a deep understanding of a film’s content and potential audience engagement.
“We tell development executives how different, unique, and fresh their new script is. Then we give them deep insights on what audiences will likely be activated by that story and those characters,” Bergquist said to me via email. “And we tell them which attributes of their project (cast, VFX, music, etc.) will be important to these audiences.”
There are AI competitors in the space, but with different focuses. Cinelytic leverages a deep talent database to help with casting calls. Movio informs production decisions based on transaction data for 10m moviegoers. Elsewhere, companies that primarily measure social media sentiment — like Talkwalker and Meltwater — don’t have a “DNA narrative” database for 700,000+ film and movie titles.
The recent breakout success on TikTok of “Minions: The Rise of Gru” shows that social can be a deciding factor in box-office gold. And that’s an area Corto believes it has an edge.
As for “The Lose,” I hope Chris Pratt is reading this article (and if you are, feel free to email me).
ALSO CHECK OUT: I joined Kai Ryssdal on the Marketplace radio show to talk about this article. And it was a blast (starts at the 19:55 mark).
If you’re not a subscriber, toss your email here for more glorious business and tech takes every Saturday:
Links and Memes
The creator economy: In a viral tweet, Benedict Evans posted a stat comparing the gross revenue in 2021 — before payouts — for two of the most well-known creator economy platforms:
The thread has some wild replies:
“You mean to tell me that pornography sells more than long-form blog posts?”
“One of them encourages desperate, unstable people to expose themselves in public and the other contains nudes.”
As documented by The Atlantic, pornography has been a trailblazer for technology:
The VCR first took off among people who wanted to watch X-rated content from their homes
Cable TV roped in subscribers with “premium” content (also from their homes)
Bulletin boards and forums in the early days of the internet were not about politics or sports or sneakers (you can guess what they were about and where it was happening)
Further, people trying to buy porn in the early days of the internet laid the groundwork for e-commerce with features like fee-based subscriptions, email marketing, online credit cards, fraud detection, affiliate programs, site membership, the double opt-in process and email marketing.
iPhone 14: The Apple iPhone announcement is an annual meme tradition. There’s been a hiccup in recent years, though. The iPhone is 15 years old now and the most noteworthy improvement nowadays is usually just the camera tech.
Here's an amazing table from @lee94josh showing what % of an iPhone announcement is dedicated to talking about the camera (which is definitely more powerful...again). Of every iPhone launch ever, the last 4 presentations spent the most time on the camera (>30% of time each year).
Basically, the best iPhone memes are now some version of “the iPhone is the exact same as last year with a slightly better camera but I’m still going to pay through the nose for it”:
To be fair, the iPhone 14 Pro has its own chip and a pretty cool update on the front-facing camera notch: it’s been rebranded as a dynamic island and the pill-shaped box changes appearance depending on what app or feature the phone is using (if you’re a Christopher Nolan fan/hater, you’ll like this Tenet meme someone did using the dynamic island).
Either way, the wildest piece of content to come out of the iPhone 14 release was Steve Jobs’ daughter (Eve) posting this meme on Instagram Stories:
Some more gold tweets and memes:
As a person that launched a podcast that started as a 3-way WhatsApp group, this next tweet hits a bit too close to home:
Re: this next tweet, I still screenshot every online purchase because I don’t trust the confirmation code will hit my inbox (especially airline bookings). Better be safe than sorry y’all.
I would add on Chris’ tweet that the cancellation of any obligation results in this level of dopamine drip:
As every single person in the world knows, Queen Elizabeth II passed away on Thursday at the age of 96. If you don’t spend much time on Twitter or Reddit or Tumblr and see most big news coverage from mainstream media…let’s just there’s was other coverage.
On that note, the past 48 hours have been absolutely wild on Twitter. Maybe the most wild since the first week of the pandemic. You can get a flavour of it by searching “Charles 73” or reading the replies in the following tweets: