Box-Office Algorithm Predicts Revenue From Movie Screenplay

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It seems like every summer, I go to see at least one horrible movie, which forces me to question the sanity of Hollywood. "How could they have thought that was going to do well?" Well, some business scholars want to take the guesswork out of the movie business. They're working on an algorithm that can (prest-o, change-o!) distill a screenplay's text into a box office tally.

Imagine a world where Hollywood producers could predict, with scientific precision, the box office revenue a movie will generate just by reading the screenplay. A new forecasting model devised by a trio of marketing professors from Wharton and NYU promises to deliver something like that. Among their findings: action movies with multidimensional conflicts are the most surefire investments, and horror films the riskiest.

Read the full story at Freakonomics at The New York Times.

The full paper is fascinating [pdf], mostly for the factoids. For example, they use a common natural language processing method called "bag-of-words." Here were the 30 most common words (all forms included) in their dataset of movie scripts. The f-word, man, dad, mom: those I can understand. But how about "corridor"? Then start thinking of all the movies in which someone walks/runs/fights down a corridor. (So many!) Note "chamber" and "tunnel" as well. It's like this study discovered a hidden truth about the way Hollywood architecture has to work.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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