Open the script bay doors, Hal.
Two bickering ghost cops are tasked with the capture of escaped souls running amuck amongst the living. Jeff Bridges is an out-of-date gunslinger showing rookie corpse Ryan Reynolds the ropes by adopting racist and sexist secret identities and weaponizing rank chicken tikka masala in the pursuit of demonic baddies. How the hell did R.I.P.D. get beyond the Universal Studios boardroom and into 2,852 movie theaters?
Hindsight is 20/20. Since 2008, studios have been scrambling to capture Marvel’s comic book dollars. Some suit found their mitts wrapped around Peter Lankov’s comic book and a light bulb exploded over their head. Bing. “It’s Ghost meets Men in Black! It’s gold, Jerry. Gold!” One-hundred million unrecouped dollars later (plus whatever marketing cash got flushed), that executive has their head on the chopping block.
Could we do any better? It certainly doesn’t take a genius to predict that the 2016 remake of Ben-Hur was a bad call. If art were logical or objective, every film would grab mainstream attention. The truth is failures are part of the system.
Until now. As reported by Variety, during a presentation at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Nadira Azermai introduced the artificial intelligence known as ScriptBook to the world. According to her, this program has the ability to predict the box office success of any pitched screenplay. While analyzing Sony Pictures’ production slate between 2015 and 2017, ScriptBook retroactively predicted the failures of 22 out of their 32 financial duds. Not perfect, but not bad either.
The way ScriptBook works is that users upload a PDF of the screenplay, and after about five minutes, an analysis spits out. I imagine something akin to the Siemens Systems 4004 Super Computer used to predict the precise location of the Golden Tickets in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Maybe more successful than that irritant.
Not only does ScriptBook reveal the financial probability of the screenplay in question, but it can also predict the MPAA rating, determine the emotions of each character, and separate the protagonists from the antagonists. Then ScriptBook selects the target audience, including gender and race. It can even inform you if your story passes the Bechdel test.
Fans of Frankensteinian science-fiction are already sweating as they read this. Is this the beginning of Skynet? Sorry folks, that ship has sailed. Hopefully, you’ve already dug your bunkers.
According to Michiel Ruelens, the data scientist for ScriptBook, their A.I. is not looking to replace the countless humans involved in pulling the trigger on any given script (i.e., the long line of script readers, producers, as well as the lovely marketers who concoct the seemingly endless tests of focus groups). ScriptBook is just another instrument at their disposal and one that can save in countless other areas of needless spending:
“They take on a lot of risks when they buy rights to multiple territories. They now rely on subjective decision-making, reading the script and going with what their gut says. But we want to mitigate the risk by adding objective parameters that will tell them far more. Expertise means a lot but it’s important to back it with metrics.”
Attempting to sell ScriptBook to fellow humans, Azermai reiterates ScriptBook as a helper and not a diabolical overlord:
“It’s also a validation tool. It can validate the decisions you make.”
The prospect of being spared cinematic atrocities like R.I.P.D. is appealing. With ticket prices ever-increasing and a night out at the movies quickly transforming into the equivalent of seeing Hamilton on Broadway, the theatrical experience is simply too damn expensive to waste on hot garbage. Stumbling out into the world after being assaulted by the Death Wish remake is more than a bit of a bummer. Who can afford such disappointment these days?
That being said, if we give up our right to make shitty movies, then we also deprive ourselves of the bizarre pleasures of weird-o cinema. No way would ScriptBook 9000 allow The Wachowskis to cook up Speed Racer, a live-action anime and a technicolor wonder that painfully flopped in 2008, but has gained cult status amongst the cool, oddball kids. How would filmmakers like David Lynch and Guillermo del Toro survive in this brave new world? Forget about cats like Yorgos Lanthismos and Guy Maddin.
I can see the appeal of ScriptBook to studios. Movies cost too damn much money. A few Lone Rangers could bankrupt a company. However, for champions of the artform, the last thing we need is the human element being removed from the process. I sound like the plot of Top Gun 2, “Only a real pilot should be given a choice to fire a missile, to take a human life in their hands. Get these drones outta here!”
There’s no stopping progress. A.I. is here and will radically alter our lives in any number of ways that we can’t even imagine at this point in time. I never want to become that old man on the porch yelling at the neighborhood kids to get their damn ball off my lawn. And yet… I don’t want damn dirty robots writing my movies. I want maniacs like John Waters, Lynne Ramsay, Gasper Noé, and Rian Johnson steering the bus.