Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Hollywood's Search for Formula Doomed to Failure

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Hollywood's Search for Formula Doomed to Failure

Article excerpt

As Hollywood gathers on Sunday to heap Oscar praise on such surprise hits as American Beauty and The Sixth Sense, producers and studio marketing heads are revamping their idea of what makes for box-office success. Action heroes, happy endings, special effects and high-concept synopses are out. Flawed protagonists, shock value, downbeat twists and hard-to-explain plots are in.

The formula movie is dead. Long live the formula movie.

Hollywood's eternal quest for formulas exasperates Arthur De Vany, professor of economics at the University of California at Irvine, and author of numerous papers on the economics of the movie business. "Here we go again," he says. "Hollywood is generalizing from a couple of data points. Trying to read into a handful of movies some deep property of audiences is bad science and bad movie making.

"The evidence is plain," he adds. "There is no formula."

Movies are, in De Vany's words, "a business of the extraordinary." Their statistical patterns do not fit the good old normal bell curve, with a predictable average and symmetrical chances of hits and losses. Like more and more products in a wealthy society, movies depend on subtle combinations of hard-to-articulate characteristics. Formulas, new or old, cannot capture what will make a movie appeal to an audience.

Studies by De Vany and W. David Walls of the University of Hong Kong (available at devany.html), examine the movies' strange statistics and the strategies studios use -- mostly unsuccessfully -- to try to reduce "the terror of the box office." Movie revenues (or profits) are not like people's heights, falling smoothly around an average with no one too far out on either end. They are like earthquakes, incomes or quasar pulses. The great majority are small, but a few are many, many times greater than the others.

The average revenue or profit of the business is determined almost entirely by those very few runaway hits. The rest of the movies are box-office duds whose negative returns are statistically swamped by the rare successes. The "average" movie does not really exist.

This pattern, which is called a Pareto law, is true not just for movies in general but within every subcategory: small budgets and big ones, action pictures and comedies, movies with stars and movies without stars, even Bruce Willis movies. So deciding to make only star vehicles or only small-budget movies will not protect a studio from box-office flops.

What makes the movies so unpredictable? For starters, each is a unique product, and audiences have to try it to see whether they will like it. And this unique product is playing in a tournament against an ever-changing group of competitors.

To make matters worse, how an audience experiences a movie depends on what they have already seen and how they react to those movies: Did the films whet their appetite for more, or create a desire for something different? …

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