Film by Numbers


Early in the film Barton Fink, the screenwriter of the same name is introduced to his Hollywood employer - a manic studio head called Jack Lipnick.  Jack tells Barton the secret of his success: 

I run this dump, and I don't know the technical mumbo-jumbo. Why do I run it? ‘Cause I got horse sense, goddamit, showmanship! And also – I hope Lou told you this –  I am bigger and meaner and louder than any other kike in this town.

That ‘horse sense’ of Jack’s is a preternatural feel for what excites people and fills theatres.  It’s a marvellous idea, but it might also seem a suspiciously abstract ability for a movie exec to rely on – nearly artistic in its application.  You’d imagine most modern studio heads need something more tangible than Jack’s magic touch.  As it happens, economics might be about to deliver it.

Early this year, according to the Journal of Political Economy, economists mathematised the phenomena of suspense and surprise, and were able to graph audience excitement levels for games of tennis and soccer.  More audaciously, it seems their work can also predict how much suspense or surprise a given entertainment is likely to create, which offers helpful hints for those in the excitement business. For instance, writers of mystery pulp should stick to an average of three plot twists per novel to maximise reader suspense.  

So if film is your game, but you lack a bit of horse sense, can ‘entertainment economics’ help you back a sure-fire blockbuster?  The answer to that question lies in the application.  When it comes to scripted entertainment, suspense and surprise offer mixed blessings. 

Consider suspense: the drip-feeding of details, the delayed reveal.  Suspense can be clever and fun, but it can also be lowbrow and painful.  For every Hitchcock master piece, there’s a reality TV show  stalling with ad breaks before the verdict on this week’s renos is finally given.  Indeed, by delaying a promised outcome it’s pretty easy to whip up viewers into a ‘formal’ state of suspense. Whether or not that suspense is rewarding, though, is determined by other factors.

You might think that surprise (the sudden upending of our expectations) would be harder to manufacture. Consider, though, the talking meerkats and bunny-suited hipsters currently decking out bus shelters for faceless online financial corporations, charming in their unusualness.  This is the face of commoditised surprise – a state marked by randomness or weirdness, lacking the joy of other surprises – and, like a formal state of suspense, it’s summonable nearly at will.  

My point is that suspense and surprise aren’t sufficient conditions for a blockbuster.  Sure, suspense can help make a movie great, but if the other elements of the work aren’t up to scratch then formulaically cranking up the suspense alone won’t save you. As reality TV demonstrates, simply delaying an outcome won’t automatically result in rewarding viewing.  The same goes for surprise – it’s easy enough to do something unexpected, but it’s hard to make that unexpected thing interesting or fun.  Plenty of bad films are suspenseful or surprising – at least, in the formal sense that can be modelled mathematically.  

So, the equations of suspense and surprise aren’t a substitute for quality.  The best-case scenario for studio heads is one where skilful movie folk use economic modelling to make a good film better.  But even here, I’d be sceptical about the outcome.  People have been using suspense and surprise to gussy up entertainment long before arriviste economists were on the scene.  To me, it seems the unique promise of the equation over the artist is not innovation, but reliability – that the equation won’t lose its muse, or drink, or strike.  Unfortunately, though, equations charting audience excitement do share one vice with the humans they measure: they grow old.  Inevitably, what is calculated as surprising for one crowd will be cliché for their children.  How very Hollywood that even economics equations will need the occasional facelift to stay relevant in the movie business. 

Entertainment economics is a fascinating field, but it’s not yet the mathematical stand-in for good taste some might be hoping for.  The Jack Lipnicks of the world had better keep their horse sense for a few years yet.