Hollywood turning to big data to write the next blockbuster

Hollywood turning to big data to write the next blockbuster

Your Facebook posts and tweets may contain hidden creativity. In fact, they could be helping to write the next Hollywood blockbuster.

As once-monolithic television audiences splinter and migrate to the internet, viewers have unwittingly turned the creative process upside down. Their social media posts, blogs and file downloads are telling streaming companies and producers what actors, writers and themes to weave together on-screen for the best chance of bottom-line success.

The prize is clear for entertainment companies ranging from Netflix, which has more than 81 million subscribers in 190 countries, to Stan Entertainment, a startup battling the $42 billion Nasdaq-listed rival in Australia. Giving customers what they want -- before they've even asked for it -- increases the odds of a show's success while forging loyalty for the content-provider, industry executives maintain.

"We're trying to get a sense of what people are talking about, what's trending, and what's relevant out there," said Chris Oliver-Taylor, managing director of Matchbox Pictures, the Australian producer of Glitch and The Real Housewives of Melbourne that's owned by NBC Universal Media.

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"If the entire Twittersphere is talking about this particular thing, or if there's a trend in this area and we create a piece of content that talks directly to it, then logic suggests that those people will engage with it," Oliver-Taylor said.

The New York-based parent company's leadership conference last year focused almost entirely on how to use big data, he said.

The evolution of home entertainment from free-to-air television to content streamed over the internet to multiple devices has facilitated greater insight into what, when and for how long customers are watching. It's that knowledge that informed the writing and casting of "Wolf Creek," a new six-part series based on the Australian 2005 horror classic of the same name, according to Stan Entertainment.

"When we sit down with the creators and producers of original productions, we effectively give them a high-level brief of what we're looking for," said Mike Sneesby, Stan's chief executive officer, in an interview. "Part of what's informed that brief is the data that comes from our platform."

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For example, Australian actress Lucy Fry, who played the wife of Lee Harvey Oswald in the miniseries "11.22.63", was cast as Wolf Creek's female lead to broaden the show's appeal beyond its slasher origins, Sneesby said. To test if the choice would resonate with women, Stan highlighted Fry's role in 20-second Wolf Creek trailers on social media before the series' release. The results vindicated the decision and indicated the show would work.

Whoever has the most data comes out on top, and the value of metadata will shift from content distribution to actual production, James Sullivan, a managing director of Asian equity research at JPMorgan Chase, said in a report in March.

Still, there's no consensus on the extent to which metadata should influence the entertainment business, he said. Sullivan, who is based in Singapore, recently traveled to North America, Europe and Asia to canvass the opinions of writers, entertainment lawyers, and executives from Google and Netflix on big data.

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