The Data-Driven Tech Engine at the Heart of Hollywood’s Content Factories
Coronavirus and the era of stay-at-home binge-watching is accelerating the entertainment industry’s reliance on analytics and data to target its productions to the increasingly fractured tastes of a nation
By Christopher Mims
July 11, 2020 12:01 am ET
America’s studios, creators and marketers are relying, more than ever, on digital platforms that allow them to gauge what audiences like—and would like to see more of. They’re not just looking for test screenings, either. They’re looking to check in with potential audiences at every stage of production, from before a script is written until the moment their new TV show, film or music video debuts.
Ever since George Lucas ushered in the era of endless sequels (and prequels), Hollywood executives have tried to capitalize on the success of the Last Big Thing by churning out more of it. But content budgets are increasing far faster than established franchises can keep up. Netflix is projected to spend more on new and acquired content in 2020—$17 billion—than Apple Inc. spent on research and development in 2019.
With stakes that high, minimizing risk when creating new content “at scale” means treating it like any other mass-market product. Executives, producers, writers, directors and marketers need to be able to consistently craft programs that are more likely than not to find their target audiences. Critical approval and industry awards—even box-office blowouts—while nice, aren’t the endgame for most.
“There’s only so many ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Wire,’ and the rest of the tens of thousands of pieces of content are not at that level,” says James Norman, co-founder and chief executive of audience-research software developer Pilotly. But there’s still plenty of room for a show to be a success among its target audience without becoming a global phenomenon, he said. “To make sure shows can hit the mark you need to understand that audience.”
Pilotly is part of a new breed of film-industry tech companies aimed at creative development. It’s a Silicon Valley startup that offers a streaming, analytics and audience-survey platform used by creatives, producers and executives to shape content for giants including NBCUniversal, ViacomCBS and even the Valley’s homegrown content king, Netflix.
Focus Group 2020
For decades, TV shows were screened to focus groups made up of supposedly representative Americans, plucked from shopping malls and casinos. Movies were test-screened in theaters while evaluators took note of the crowd’s laughs and gasps. The shift to home entertainment, then internet-based streaming, reduced the opportunity to catch John Q. Public out on the street, and Covid-19 has all but finished the job.
Until recently, fears of piracy held back some in the industry from using at-home panels, where people stream content online and provide real-time feedback, says Sumithra Barry, NBC Entertainment’s senior vice president of consumer and market intelligence. But those concerns have been resolved by new technology that blocks screen recording and allows studios to watermark and trace content when it does get out. She says NBC has worked with Pilotly, as well as other startups in this field including Monet Analytics and a viewership tracking app called TV Time.
The shift from in-person to online market testing has revealed some fundamental flaws with the earlier methods. The first was small sample sizes, due to the expense and trouble of gathering people together. The second, more problematic, flaw was the assumption that shows that tested well would reach enormous and relatively homogenous audiences.
America’s increasingly diverse population, the international nature of many streaming services and most movie releases, plus recommendation algorithms and rapidly growing libraries of increasingly niche content, made these assumptions and methods much less useful.
In a world of seemingly endless quantities of streaming content from a mushrooming number of services, success is less about scoring megahits and more about earning the loyalty of particular audiences. This trend began with cable, but has become even more important now that audiences are more accustomed to wending their way down rabbit holes on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram.
It’s easy and relatively inexpensive for audience-research firms like Pilotly to stream to more people in their own homes. This increases the size of the available test audience, as well as the granularity of questions that creatives and marketers can ask, says Bryon Schafer, senior vice president of research at Vevo, a music-video distributor and joint venture of Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment.
Other systems can gather data passively, as audience members watch. MarketCast, which analyzes viewer response to movies, concepts, shows, pilots, trailers and the like, uses one tool that measures subjects’ facial expressions in real time throughout a stream via the front-facing cameras on their laptops. (Only volunteers are watched by this tech.) These biometric measurements show how people reacted moment by moment.
Music, especially, can be important, says Ben Carlson, MarketCast’s senior vice president in charge of streaming and platforms. By watching viewers’ faces, the system can help creatives identify which soundtrack works best in a movie trailer, for instance.
Whether you’re a Black female professional in New York who loves dramas, a white male superhero fan in suburban Wisconsin, or someone else entirely, there’s a whirring feedback loop of recommendation algorithms, viewing-habit trackers and studio production teams busy trying to feed you an endless flood of content to keep you watching.
The loop is a combination of data to keep things reliable and human creativity to keep things fresh. The trick is replicating those loops across a diverse array of audiences, says Mr. Norman. This is one area where his company, Pilotly, has an advantage, he says. Mr. Norman, who is Black, says he deliberately built a team with as wide an array of backgrounds, nationalities and language fluencies as possible.
Mr. Norman likens today’s video content to the ads appearing in our very different Instagram feeds. “Stories used to be told so broadly to such a large audience,” says Mr. Norman. “But once you changed that paradigm of how content was made, in ads and TV, things have become more targeted.”
These systems also help studios and streaming platforms become more sensitive to the tastes of their audiences, avoiding cultural faux pas that can sink a TV show or movie on social media.
Tastes are changing quickly, says Kevin Goetz, founder and chief executive of Screen Engine/ASI, which conducts surveys and focus groups for major U.S. film studios, streaming services and broadcast and cable networks. Things that might have gotten a pass even a few months or years ago—jokes that could be insensitive, stereotypes that offend, and the like—are now flagged by audiences and removed by creators.
The process often starts before anyone writes a script. For example, says Mr. Carlson, one Hollywood studio asked MarketCast to look into an old and dormant piece of intellectual property he thought no one would be interested in. (He can’t say which.) By analyzing social-media trends and scouring the web, his team discovered a substantial fan base—complete with fan art. The studio is now developing a feature film from something that otherwise might have remained at the internet’s fringe.
During the writing stage, data gathering can continue. Screen Engine/ASI, for example, records actors reading aloud in-progress scripts, then streams the production to panels. This method of pre-screening a script often leads to changes. And it’s only become more popular in the age of Covid-19, since so many pilots weren’t shot as a result of the pandemic, but actors can read scripts from their homes, says Mr. Goetz.
Once a pilot has been shot, a service like Pilotly can simulate a video-on-demand service or social-media platform, to allow paid panelists to experience the show in a familiar way.
For example, producers of the show “Don’t Look Deeper”—which features Don Cheadle and recently made its debut on the short-form streaming service Quibi—used Pilotly to test rough cuts of its first two episodes. First, Pilotly gathered an online panel of subjects at Quibi’s core: people already primarily consuming content on mobile devices. After screening each episode, the firm gave them a survey to determine how they felt about key creative aspects of the episode. Data from the study informed subsequent edits, all in the name of helping the episodes hit metrics like pacing, character likability and the likelihood viewers would come back for more.
One obvious pitfall of reducing art to surveys and data is that it gives producers and executives too much leverage over the creatives they rely on to generate hits. And the biggest hits often gain popularity because they head off in a new and unexpected direction, representing the vision of a single person or small creative team. They might not benefit from these modern-day focus groups.
Plus, many of the most-watched shows on streaming services aren’t even originals. Just think of the enduring power of “Friends” and “The Office.” Much of the most impactful programming appearing on our devices today was created in the focus-group Dark Ages all this technology was meant to replace.
And even makers of niche content must be careful. “I think the creative vision still takes precedence,” says NBC’s Ms. Barry. “An authentic vision comes across much more favorably than something that feels manufactured.”
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