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Why Big Data Is Defining The Film Industry: 5 Things We Learned From Tribeca Talk’s ‘Big Data and the Movies’ Panel

Why Big Data Is Defining The Film Industry: 5 Things We Learned From Tribeca Talk's 'Big Data and the Movies' Panel

Ranging from screens as small as your phone to the largest theaters in the nation, the analysis of Big Data, extremely large data sets detailing — in this case — how media is consumed, has quickly become a key to decide what media is presented to us.  Whether through long planned advertising campaigns, social media, or on-the-spot last minute marketing pushes, Big Data is shaping what you watch. For better or worse, Big Data has becoming the defining factor in strategically developed content, defining the way films are considered by both creators and consumers.

In a Tribeca Talks Industry panel discussion yesterday afternoon entitled “Big Data and the Movies” at New York’s SVA Theatre, five panelists sat down with SAP Labs Senior Vice President and General Manager of Media Industry Solutions Richard Whittington to discuss the increasingly varied and diverse uses of Big Data within both mainstream and independent film and the future effects it may have on the filmmaking world. Panelists included Director of Digital Strategy at Film Society of Lincoln Center (and Indiewire co-founder) Eugene Hernandez, Rentrak CEO Bill Livek, FilmTrack Co-founder and CEO Jason Kassin, MoviePass Co-Founder and CEO Stacy Spikes, and Mashable Senior Tech Analyst Christina Warren. Here’s what we learned

“Big Data is The New Oil”

In his opening remarks, Richard Whittington began with the above quote as a basis for the discussion, comparing the drive for big data to that of the oil business and jokingly likening the relationship between content creator and distributor to the internal conflict portrayed in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” Content has become the ultimate consumer product and the use of collected, aggregated data is becoming the de facto way studios select what to market, how to market it, and why they should have an interest in the first place. With the proliferation of various new modes of consumption, namely the rise of the “second screen,” with our use of phones and tablets while watching television or other forms of media, there are countless new ways that studios look at their relationship with the consumer, giving consistently new definitions to the ways films reach audiences, whether theatrically or digitally.

Big Data Can Help A Film Find Its Audience

The globalization of box office and public reaction has empowered the traditional studios, making it possible for early reactions on the other side of the world to determine the strategies that will be implemented only hours later, with releases, ads, and word of mouth controlled in different countriesright down to the last second. Across this country, the economic implications of public feedback have allowed studios to market films to specific audiences in a way never before possible, allowing potential gross receipts larger than traditional release windows would ever allow. Jason Kassin specifically cited the remarkable box office success of last year’s controversial “2016: Obama’s America.” By determining markets based on political trends, a steady release in similarly inclined markets allowed the film a much larger success than could have ever been possible in an average nationwide or limited release. 

Constraints on cultural creation are diminishing

Bill Levik took a different approach in discussing the role of Big Data, by instead talking about its specific effect on our consumption of film and television, and the way previously defined, and largely artificial, modes of production are slowly going away. 13 or 22-episode weekly episode arcs and 90-120 minutes films, which were previously created due to production limitations and programming needs, are now giving way to more radical forms of distribution, allowing the artificiality of our media structure to give way to more free and open strategies.  Whether we’re talking about YouTube’s 30-second clips or Netflix’s all-at-one-time episode drops (like with “House of Cards” and “Hemlock Grove,” data is being collected on how people are consuming content, and it informs how it’s being created and released.

“Now with the new technology we have driving the content creation… I think that the change of technology is going to break down the artificiality of the storytelling to make it more pure. I think there is an opportunity here.” Levik stated. “What I’m hopeful about, is that it’s not just the data. It’s the technology that comes along with the data. It’s the technology that the data brings with it and that feedback process gets faster and faster.”

With evolving analysis models, Big Data has become socialized

One thing that was extremely clear throughout the panel was that marketing is more and more using Big Data to tap into social media, analyzing responses, feedback, and buzz and shaping their marketing pushes around immediate responses. Campaigns are tailor-made to tap into the responses and excitement in many geographic regions, using easy-to-access feedback from Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other social media outlets to define the best next steps. Speaking on the social media outreach of the Film Society at Lincoln Center, Hernandez explained that the amount of likes on Facebook can predict a screening’s chance of selling out, allowing their focus to be shifted on getting word out about those with the least receptive reactions, although he was also quick to point out that with this form of data analysis, it is easy to see production companies priming their films much more towards more proven stories, finishing by admitting that “it could potentially damage the film ecosystem.”

Meanwhile, Christina Warren cited Google’s knowledge aggregation through  their search engines and other social tools as an example of the way we unwillingly give up our social interests. “They know everything about me,” she explained, “and in exchange I get email, a kind of crappy word processor, and some cloud stuff.”

Above all else, the vision remains key. Something is always unknown.

While one of the biggest questions rising out of the increasing use of this kind of data is that artistic vision and creativity will be slowly replaced with market optimization, the panelists were quick to point out that there’s no use in putting all your faith in data.  “You ever notice how with Big Data we can think we know what will happen?” said MoviePass CEO Stacy Spikes. “We all say this movie’s gonna be big, and then no one goes. Being in the filmmaking community, it’s all about that passion. You can see it whether in a certain actor or actress or a director’s vision… Data at the end of the day can never grasp that.”

Kassin later elaborated that the ideal method of data analysis on the studio end should always be in determining the best strategy for finding an audience and not in developing properties entirely around gaining an audience.

“Passion wins all the time,” Spikes continued, ending the panel by reiterating that Big Data exists as a strategizing tool “You absorb that and synthesize that and use it as you would,” Livek added. “Don’t be confined by anything, in fact be less confined.”

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