FEATURE15 June 2010

NPD in the Dream Factory

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We speak to Ipsos OTX’s Vincent Bruzzese about his work in Hollywood testing movies before they reach the big screen, and why consumer research doesn’t necessarily mean more ‘cookie-cutter fare’ in the multiplex.

Enter Vincent Bruzzese, head of the worldwide motion picture group of Ipsos OTX. The company has built a solid business over the years testing how audiences react to movies, resulting in a checklist of plot and character elements which the company uses to help studios get an idea of how successful a film will be when it hits the big screen.

Bruzzese’s work is the point at which art meets science. He explains: “There are very similar elements in the scripts that we have seen that resonate well or don’t do well with moviegoers. We’ve run thousands of screenings over the last seven or eight years across all genres and there are trends.”

Take suspense/horror movies (one of many sub-genres within the horror genre). The most successful ones need a moment or two that will make viewers jump out of their skin, says Bruzzese, while hit romantic comedies must have a leading man “women want to date” and a female lead that ladies “feel they can hang out with”.

Traditionally movie testing is done towards the tail-end of the film development process, leaving limited time to tweak the final project either through reshoots or reediting. Recently, though, OTX launched a Script Evaluation Unit to assess the worth of a film at the earliest possible stage.

At a reported $5,000 a pop, OTX says it will compare a script to other pictures in the genre and identify its target demographic and box office potential.

For studios it may seem a no-brainer as it’s a relatively small outlay to determine whether a script is worth investing in. But trade bible Variety warns: “OTX’s process of relying on past releases as a guide could result in still more cookie-cutter fare at the megaplex.”

Bruzzese disagrees. He argues that while the markers of what makes a successful film may not change, times certainly do. “In terms of being ‘cookie-cutter’, no,” he said. “What is cookie-cutter about saying ‘Teens always have and always will like authentic movies’? But what’s authentic today compared to what was authentic 10 or 20 years ago is completely different.

“A movie that comes out today about high school is going to need to have a completely different look, feel and tone to one that came out in 1990 or 1980. These are different movies, there’s nothing cookie-cutter about that. It just needs to be authentic.”

Rather than strangling creativity, Bruzzese contends that script evaluation is actually “friendly to the creative community”.

“Let’s face it – once that script leaves the writers’ hands, once that script goes into the system a lot of times the movie that ends up coming out is so distant from what the writer originally intended and a lot of those decisions are out of their hands. I mean, hell, a lot of the time the writer isn’t even allowed on the studio lot let alone having a say in what goes into the movie.

“This is less for the studios than it is for the production companies and the independents and even the writers,” he said. “Someone who spends all their time and energy and has sacrificed a lot or poured everything they have into this script can’t afford to have a miss simply because there could have been a very easy change or fix. As for a large studio? I’m not going to say they can afford to have a miss but if they have a movie that doesn’t open up big it’s not like that studio is going to close.”

Bruzzese’s argument against the ‘cookie-cutter’ charge isn’t entirely convincing – in effect he’s saying OTX will give writers the chance to make their scripts more studio-friendly, and thus more commercially appealing, before they lose control of them. But in Bruzzese’s defence, there’s much to be said for helping new writers get past the industry gatekeepers and improve their chances of seeing their ideas made real.

It’s also futile to argue that an industry that invests millions upfront in a project shouldn’t take steps to ensure a return. There will always be unexpected hits – slow-builders that come out of nowhere to rocket up the Billboard charts – but 99% of what hits the screens will adhere to a simple formula, as expressed by Bruzzese.

“If you have a marketable and playable movie it’s almost always going to succeed,” he says. “If you have a movie that’s marketable but not playable, it’s going to succeed more often than a movie that’s playable but not marketable. A movie that has neither is going to lose money.”