When it was recently announced Warner Bros. was turning to artificial intelligence in order better determine what audiences want, some film fans were quite upset. In addition, the general public used it as fuel to the fire when it comes to battle for originality in Hollywood. The Hollywood Reporter’s Tatiana Siegel reported on January 8 that the film studio made a deal with Cinelytic to help make decisions on green-lighting projects using analytics. Cinelytic also works with several other studios to develop data driven, predictive decision making.
In the report, Cinelytic founder Tobias Queisser commented on the program which he founded four years ago.
“The system can calculate in seconds what used to take days to assess by a human when it comes to general film package evaluation or a star’s worth,” he said.
But how did we get here? According to box office revenue tracker, The Numbers, WB’s 2019 slate accounted for roughly 13 percent of the box office market share. Across 20 new releases and several theatrical re-releases that included anniversary showings of The Matrix and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the studio grossed a total of $1.5 billion domestically. As successful as that sounds, across 11 new releases and a few carryovers from 2018, The Walt Disney Company amassed a stunning, record breaking $3.8 billion at the box office. It produced the largest market share for any movie studio in history; 33%.
The data proves it. Is it any wonder why a studio would go to AI to help determine what to green light? WB’s adult content failed at the box office last year. Adult targeted dramas like The Goldfinch and The Good Liar were flops. The Goldfinch, which made $9 million worldwide on a production budget of $40 million, was met with mostly negative reviews and quickly came and went from the cinema. I don’t think The Goldfinch is a good film per say, but it takes some narrative risks that just don’t work. Negative reviews, specifically Rotten Tomatoes scores kill movies more now than they ever have. If you see a movie with the green splat, we’ve been automatically trained to ignore the movie altogether. However, a number shouldn’t limit you from seeing something you’re interested in.
Why are audiences refusing to take the risk of seeing something like The Goldfinch? Movie ticket prices are high no doubt. Young people just aren’t going to theater. Streaming services certainly have something to do with it. However, with streamers like Netflix producing similar adult targeted dramas, we’ll never know how they do outside of what they tell us. Will movies like The Goldfinch end up on streamers only in the future? IP driven films like Joker, Shazam! and Aquaman have found tremendous success at the box office. People know what they’re getting with these films. It’s what Disney set records with in 2019. Sequels, remakes and continuation of billion dollar properties like The Avengers and Star Wars led the majority of what people saw in theaters this past year.
A battle I have fought for some time now is challenging the notion of no original films being made. It’s simply not true. Sure there are a lot of remakes, sequels and reboots on the 2020 calendar for release. There’s also a lot of original films. You don’t necessarily have to scour the earth for smaller original films from the likes of A24 and smaller distributors. Big studios are putting out original content, folks just aren’t seeing it. Is it a failure of marketing to make people aware of these films? I saw virtually no marketing for The Good Liar, a serviceable mystery with stars like Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren.
Perhaps it is the price of the tickets. The average price of a ticket in 2018 was $9.11. Maybe it’s even the peak TV world we live in. Binge watching has taken over and audiences overwhelmingly want something to watch in their own homes. The sheer amount of things available to watch in your home is staggering, and it continues to grow with more streaming services on the horizon in 2020. Why go to theater and deal with high prices, screaming children and people texting and talking instead of watching the movie.
I don’t think AI is the answer to solve Warner Bros. problems. Queisser admits the service won’t predict the next billion dollar hit. However, if WB can challenge the increasingly problematic monopoly Disney seems to be striving for, they should. Disney’s market share has nearly quadrupled since 1990. Total box office dominance by one company is a problem. Moreover, the types of films failing at WB, 20th Century Fox (which Disney now owns), Universal and others, need to be made. Disney certainly isn’t making The Goldfinch or Us. Sure, WB is making DC Comics movies, they may very well have a box office titan on their hands with Wonder Woman 1984 in June. The cineplex is littered with franchises, and that is fine by me. But it’s also full of wonderful original films studios continue to take risks with. The audience just isn’t coming along for the ride.
Analytics is a stigmatized word in the world these days. Baseball teams use analytics to determine what players make a winning formula. Isn’t WB doing the same here? We need to focus less on how movies are being made and green-lit. It’s a strange state we’re in as movie goers. My advice for 2020 is this: if you’re interested in a movie, go see it.