For the longest time the hottest stars in California were actors. These days they are software engineers. Such is the feeding frenzy for developer talent that top coders are now going all Hollywood themselves and engaging specialist agencies to guide their career development and negotiate with employers for better compensation.
This being Silicon Valley, of course, such matchmaking is not left entirely to human intervention and backroom haggling. Among the new tools of the agency trade used by these tech-talent wranglers are those that track payment rates for jobs and cross-references that data with the time taken to complete assignments. At the same time, several “social recruitment” startups have sprung up that use algorithmic wizardry to ‘score’ individuals based on their workplace credentials.
The endgame here is nothing less than a professional search engine that ranks human capital in the way that Google ranks information. Can the film business also benefit from a more scientific, methodical approach to talent hunting?
While there are now scoring systems for actors, writers and directors that provide a numerical reference point for any agency negotiations over creative talents, there are no comparable measurement systems for those most keenly responsible for a film’s bottom-line. Namely, business talent. You only have to look at the haphazard process by which film producers are found, entertainment lawyers retained, producers reps engaged, sales agents courted, international partners procured, publicists hired and online aggregators assessed, to realize quite how many business-critical decisions are often left to little more than serendipity and semi-educated hunches.
In a world where people have grown accustomed to searching online for their romantic soul-mates and marital partners through dedicated websites, why is it that we still leave our professional dating to a referral grapevine of chance encounters, second-hand recommendations, industry lore and whatever might show up on Google? You can find doctor recommendations online, but not the most appropriate producing or negotiating talent for your particular project.
Even when we do come across a potential name or two, and are presented with the opportunity to size up a candidate face-to-face, our intuitions may not always be the best judge of the necessary attributes. In his post last month on ‘Interviewing: a rational way to make a gut decision’ headhunter Lou Adler noted how strong candidates can be quickly dismissed using flawed or biased information.
“I remember the VP Finance of a major business unit at one of the largest entertainment companies in the world telling me my candidate for a Director of Accounting wasn’t aggressive enough. The candidate wasn’t hired, but went on to become the #2 financial executive of a major competitor in the entertainment industry. He’s still soft-spoken, but has a backbone of steel.”
Such problems are not unique to entertainment, of course. Even in business worlds that are seen as rather more predictable and quantifiable, “most companies have been flying completely blind” when it comes to seeking out professional hires. Take telephone call centers, for example. Gut instinct keeps telling employers to avoid those with a history of job-hopping or extended periods of unemployment. And yet the data coming out the emerging field of “work-force science” shows than an applicant’s work history is not a good predictor of future results.
Whether computational science can truly help scout out the next generation of film producers and their future business collaborators will be vigorously debated over the coming year or two. From the evidence of this week’s Tribeca Film Festival panel on Big Data, large-scale film data analytics has been focused so far on measuring movie audiences, rather than the movie creators themselves. But that will come soon enough.
“We are still really only scratching the surface of what is possible,” says Brendan Wallace, co-CEO of San Francisco’s Identified, part of the new breed of online job search systems that score candidates based on their social connections, experiences and perceived skills. Interviewed for a CNBC Business article I wrote last year, Wallace explains: “We quantify a professional's desirability along one dimension: recruiting. But the possibilities of how far one could take online personalization are endless. With enough data, could algorithms predict who's likely to start a company, who's likely to be the most creative, who may have the leadership qualities to be the company's next CEO? Obviously one has to be careful about how much we can rely on data to measure people professionally; being too dependent on data can limit the risk-taking, creativity and synergies that can lead to great organizations. On the other hand, predictive data can be very empowering: in a world of unlimited data, tools like Identified can help companies distill a signal from amidst all the noise that is created by products like LinkedIn, resume databases, and job boards."
Finding fault with such scoring systems is easy, especially for a media establishment that has an instinctive aversion to automation. But are their imperfections any worse than our tried-and-test methods for weighing up our peers? In all likelihood, no. “Historically every grading system has had its problems,” points out Azeem Azhar, CEO of another professional scoring system, London-based PeerIndex. “But I believe the creation of a reputation graph will end up making us all more authentic and the reason I say this has to do with signaling. In the past the only real managerial capabilities we could rely on were education. An Oxford degree or a Harvard MBA were the gold standards and yet that system is are not very granular. In fact, educational backgrounds are very lumpy and rather unrefined. It’s like the Dance of The Seven Veils where we only get to see a bit of leg. The signals that are produced might overwhelm others that are much more authentic.”
False signaling is certainly one of the occupational hazards of the film industry. Foreign pre-sales estimates remain one of the currencies by which independent film projects are cash-flowed, and yet overseas markets put inordinate stock on yesterday’s box office stars. Foreign distributors are said to be 12-18 months behind the domestic marketplace in terms of who they think is exciting audiences. Similarly, when it comes to selecting business collaborators and brokers, an immense premium is put on those few with long track records of success. This is their hard-won reward for years of accumulated business acumen. But what happens when those prized handful of producers, lawyers and reps are not in a position to bolster your project with their reputation and experience? You could certainly turn to the occasional lists of new industry players and hot new faces put out by the more curatorial trade publications. But what we really need is a reliable gauge for evaluating and tracking emergent business talents. Not only will this help bankroll more feature films it will fast-track promising new business careers.