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Should You Be Using Algorithms to Find Your Next Producer?

Should You Be Using Algorithms to Find Your Next Producer?

The following post is reprinted with permission from Slated.com’s Filmonomics blog.  It is written by Slated’s Editorial Director Colin Brown.

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

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

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