April 10, 2011

The Future of Film Analysis

Information is finding us faster than ever before. The sound of protest in the Middle East meets our ears within seconds. New music - be it The Black Keys or Rebecca Black - is presented at the virtual doorstop of our web portal every morning. Friends' locations are fed to our Facebook feed, our restaurant reviews are public domain, and Google translates the information of 100 languages in a matter of clicks. 2001, the date, has come and gone; but 2001, the film and book, are only now coming to life. How we learn to use this information will shape us all in years to come.

Within the universe of data science, the worlds of statistics and social media are colliding. Film represents a significant moment in that transformation.

The "quants," traders and researchers that work with numerical analysis, began to invade finance beginning in the 1970s. Mathematicians, statisticians, and even physicists changed the shape of stock exchange by studying the trading-room floor with the rigor we'd previously applied to an electron's orbit or the folds of proteins. Then in what seems the most unlikely conversion, they moved into sports. "Sabermetrics," the statistics of baseball, became a profession. The Oakland A's of the 90s famously powered through their low budget by leveraging these techniques. Soon after, one of the greats of sabermetrics, Nate Silver, began the migration into the next arena of quantification: politics. His site, FiveThirtyEight, came after the foundation of polls and pollsters was already set in place, but he was the first to intelligently combine the data. A clamor of Gallop, Rasumussen, Dailies, Weeklies, GOPs and Dem's was transformed into a single harmony. Silver finally organized it, distilled it, and gave us the simplicity of a single election prediction.

In all of these arenas – finance, sports, politics – qualification applied, but understanding grew primarily from the numbers themselves. In this respect, film will be last.

Future use of data, however, will be shaped by social media. Every lunch hour, your iPhone 6 will notify you of nearby restaurants your friends have Yelped, Tweeted, Facebooked, Four-Squared, or otherwise verbed on some online application. Your car will automatically set its destination to home after a short day at work, or to your favorite bar after a long one. Your opinions on hotels, restaurants, cars, travel destinations, bosses, teachers, friends, and brands of toothpaste will be posted, tracked, pinged, compiled and published. We're moving into a future where information about our social lives will be as accessible as the entries on Wikipedia. Though the fictions of Skynet, the Matrix, the Tyrell Corporation, and HAL are both the cause and effect of the eerie chill that may have run up your spine as you read this paragraph, I find it exciting.

That future has just begun, and in this respect, film will be first.

Film is a bridge between these two worlds because it’s accessible through both purely quantitative and qualitative means. As a business with highly transparent results, it is a quantifiable experience, one utilizing old-world statistics; yet as an art form, it retains a numinous quality not fully comprehensible through those arithmetics. In other words, we can now find the average box office return of every horror film ever made, or the effects of seasonal release date on the Harry Potter franchise. But we're only just learning how to measure the impact of the deus-ex-machina in Contact or the palette of O, Brother Where Art Thou?.

And as such a bridge, it's important to watch the study of film through the next few years. It's my belief that this new kind of information science must merge the engineering and mathematical approaches of the past with those human sensibilities we are beginning to study. A Twitter feed, semantically parsed, is valueless without a person at the helm of the program parsing it. Yelp is fundamentally a community of people – travelers, foodies, sightseers - whose reviews are only as strong as the community contributing. There may come a day where IBM builds a successor to Watson, one that composes poetry in addition to winning at Jeopardy, but that day is still a distant horizon. Until then, artificial intelligence isn’t comprised of self-aware machines, but instead machines aware of our collective guidance. And movies are where we’re headed next.

This article was guest written by Edmund Helmer, an independent consultant and founder of BoxOfficeQuant. More on Edmund can be found at boxofficequant.com.

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