By now most any reasonably well-read person has seen articles talking about Nate Silver's statistical analysis of the election, or Billy Beane's "moneyball" approach to outfitting the Oakland A's with competitive players via number-crunching. The Quants, we are being told, are winning. A good rundown of all this, including how it relates to medicine as well, can be found at Respectful Insolence.
So what's wrong with taking the same approach to determine the commercial viability of creative work? If I'm willing to admit the future belongs to The Quants, what's so distasteful about, say, focus groups? For lack of any better way to put it, it's the idea that creativity comes from a formula or a checklist — that if you build something which theoretically appeals to this crowd, then that many people from that crowd will like it.
It's not even that I disagree with the premise. It is entirely possible to get commercially successful work by following a formula contrived in the light of focus-group feedback. What's questionable is whether or not you're going to get anything that isn't Masscult. The broader you cast your net and the more formula-driven your appeal is, the more formulaic and closed-ended the results will be.
Moneyballed entertainment is why there is so much of it, and why so much of it is so dreary. This is entertainment that has been created to fill a pipeline or a space on a shelf, not occupy a spot in our hearts. (I never imagined something named Cowboys and Aliens could be thoroughly boring, but it was.) Yes, entertainment is a business and money-making has to be a priority, but the sheer soullessness of so much of what is produced is deadening, so much so that it seems to be outright deliberate — a moneyball strategy gone horribly wrong.
With such work, I never get the feeling that another human being is at the other end of what has been produced. I feel like it has all been spit out of some machine that has only a vague, algorithmic sense of human nature — in much the same way Amazon product recommendations are superficially spot-on but quickly reveal themselves to be incapable of making truly fine-grained distinctions or genuinely inspired suggestions.
Again, this is not to say that every director has to be an Alejandro Jodorowsky, a mad genius (or just plain mad), but that the sheer success of the middle-of-the-road pipeline — the moneyball formula machine — has systematically crowded out any other way to connect with people on any scale. Even smaller films are now being constructed more and more according to the moneyball map (Safety Not Guaranteed, Little Miss Sunshine), presumably as an insurance plan.
My friend Steven and I often talk about low- or no-budget films, not all of them very good, but some of which had the ring of sincerity about them. It's easier to be sincere on a smaller scale, because the intentions don't get diluted as thoroughly in the process. I liked Darren Aronofsky's π and Requiem for a Dream, both shot on minimal budgets, but which felt a lot larger; I wasn't as fond of his more up-budget work, and I fear what will happen with his current Noah project. But even when I dislike the results, at least his work doesn't have the feeling of being moneyballed to within an inch of its life. Even his bad movies are more interesting to me than a "good" Hollywood product picture, and at least as entertaining. (I was irritated with The Fountain, and even infuriated, but never bored.)
A formula is not how a story is built. A story can be checked against a formula of one kind or another, but that's where we get nonsense like the idea that there are only X number of stories that can be told, be it three, thirty-three or 108. There are indeed common elements to all successful stories, but they all come down to things that by themselves are not formulas: Do we care about what's going on? Do we want to follow these people to the bitter end? Do we think about what happened when it's all over and come back to it?
In the end, a real story springs free from any formula it could be compared to. And any story built directly from a formula, with no regard for its inner life or any respect for the harnessing of same, remains a formula.