Behind the Scenes: The Science of Moviemaking

by Diana Drake

When you think of the business of movies, what comes to mind? The millions of dollars that big-name actors earn from blockbuster releases? Or, if you’re up on your media and entertainment industry trends, you might be curious about the lineup of NFT-sponsored events, parties and panels that are adding a whole new creative crypto vibe to Hollywood.

In reality, the business of movies is much broader in scope. Professors at the Wharton School have long been researching and measuring parts of the movie-making process to improve how Hollywood operates. For example: how can movie executives predict whether a film will be a hit or a flop? Or what is involved in marketing movies effectively?

Jehoshua Eliashberg, Wharton’s Sebastian S. Kresge Professor Emeritus of Marketing and Professor Emeritus of Operations, Information and Decisions, as well as Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger, are among those business school researchers who have used analysis to understand the business of media and entertainment.

In a recent Knowledge@Wharton podcast, Professor Berger described his research-driven approach to the business of movies like this: “Often, we watch movies and think it’s just some magic, creative process where things gel together and there’s no way to understand whether it will succeed or fail. That’s not exactly right. It feels like magic…But there’s a science. [For example], we can understand the science of stories, of content more generally, by understanding the progression of ideas. By using tools that have recently become available…we can shed a light on some questions that might otherwise seem impossible to uncover.”

Here are 3 ways that Professor Berger and Professor Eliashberg have brought science to the movie industry through their academic research:

🎥 In a study titled “How Quantifying the Shape of Stories Predicts Their Success,” Professors Berger and Eliashberg (along with co-author from Columbia University, Olivier Toubia) figured out a way to measure language in movies, TV shows and academic papers to determine what makes some narratives more successful than others. They measure three things: speed (how quickly do you deliver the ideas in your story?), volume (how much total ground do you cover in your story?), and circuitousness (How direct are your ideas?), applying them to thousands of texts and examining if and how they are linked to success. Says Berger: “As marketers, as leaders, as others, these findings really help us think about how to better lay out the content — whether that content is a presentation, an argument, a speech — in a way that will impact the audience. Should we try to cover a lot of ground or relate the ideas more closely to one another? If we’re covering the same ground, should we use a very direct path or more of a spiral, where we go back to the same ideas again and again to deepen the understanding around those things?”

🎥 Professor Eliashberg has spent his academic career developing models and methodologies to solve business problems, with particular interest in media and entertainment. His most recent research, conducted with the help of Wharton marketing doctoral student Yi Liu, looks at the role of trailers (pre-launch campaigns that get you excited about watching a movie or some other media) and the economic value of the comments that they generate. Eliashberg studies a dataset of 363 movies released between 2014 and 2018. The authors write: “Trailers are commonly employed in the pre-launch campaigns of new products as an advertising tool to generate awareness and interest among the potential audience. In this paper, we argue that such trailers, whose costs range and are rising, should also be considered as a…tool having additional economic value. The incremental value is driven by the audience comments data that the trailer of a new product generates.” What is the value of that commenting buzz? Potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars. Stay tuned for more details as the paper hits publication.

🎥 Are you starting to see how business research can inform all dimensions of the Hollywood dazzle and help studios make smarter decisions? In the past 30 years, Professor Eliashberg has published numerous papers in such academic journals as Management Science, Marketing Science and the International Journal of Research in Marketing. Titles include: “From Story Line to Box Office: A New Approach for Green-Lighting Movie Scripts,” and “Of Video Games, Music, Movies, and Celebrities.” A few years back, Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM invited him and a research colleague to talk about the economics of arguably the most important ceremony in the movie industry, the Oscars. The question posed to them: Can you measure the financial benefits of winning an Oscar at the Academy Awards? Eliashberg’s assessment? “In terms of the profitability of the movie, I think we have to distinguish here between two time periods: The time that the movie is nominated to the Oscar, all the way to the Oscar event, and the time that the winners are announced. From the data that I’ve seen, it is the nomination that gives rise to the box office, more than the actual winning of the movie.”

Conversation Starters

What are a few ways that academic research can inform all dimensions of the Hollywood dazzle and help studios make smarter decisions?

If you could explore aspects of the movie-making business, what would you want to learn? What would be the thesis for your academic research?

Have you experienced a media and entertainment internship like Lauren M.? Tell your story in the comments section of this article.


One comment on “Behind the Scenes: The Science of Moviemaking

  1. Trailers are gaining increasing importance in the marketing campaign of films. I can attest to that.

    As an amateur filmmaker, I witnessed firsthand how the fast-growing trailer industry became highly commercialized. During my internship at the marketing department of CMC Pictures, a company that distributes China-produced films in overseas markets, I saw detailed divisions of labor and multiple commercial analytical tools used to achieve the greatest possible business outcome — that is, a successful trailer.

    Previously, I saw trailer-making as a simple job — an uncreative editor merely taking clips from a film to tell a fragmented story and wow the audience.

    I was wrong.

    Here’s what I quickly learned: While entirely different from moviemaking, the trailer industry also requires absolute creativity and close collaboration.

    I was on the trailer creation and market monitoring teams simultaneously. We started by trying to get inside the director’s head and examining how the film made us feel. By absorbing the music, studying the film’s pace and understanding the tone, we tried our best to replicate those elements in the trailer.

    This is where creativity and collaboration kicked in and made all the difference.

    To create an entire film, the creative directors and producers oversee the process; editors must figure out how to make each shot work; assistant editors will catalog and organize everything for editors to use; music supervisors will select the perfect piece of music or sound design.

    Ideally, a film would appeal to various age and gender groups. But certain genres appeal to certain demographics more easily, and which group/groups to target is a tough marketing decision that involves grueling discussions among the whole crew.

    But just like each film is unique, each trailer must be unique as well.

    Whereas making a movie is like telling an epic, creating a trailer is like writing a composition on a given topic whose score is measured by box office figures.

    Since the trailer is the audience’s first look at the film, filmmakers need to tell a compelling story in less than 2.5 minutes, a demanding job involving endless rounds of editing until one gets to the heart of the story.

    This is where different types of trailers will do the trick.

    Among the different types are “star trailers” and “story trailers.”

    Star trailers feature the cast, director and producers, telling the audience to expect some big names in the film. Big names often imply bigger budgets that can move the film up the box office charts.

    Meanwhile, story trailers are more fun to make but can be the most brain-racking as they demand getting to the film’s core and showcasing some of its best assets. What to reveal — and what to hold back — is more complicated than it looks.

    In a story trailer, we wanted to unveil the film’s central narrative elements to the audience without spoiling the plot. Easier said than done! Selecting the best elements to illustrate the main narrative can sometimes be tricky in stories with lots of suspense.

    Completing a trailer finally brings us to the core of the trailer business — promoting it and monitoring audience feedback.

    Like Professor Jehoshua Eliashberg and Yi Liu concluded in their research paper “On the Role of the Trailer as a Marketing Research Tool: The Economic Value of the Comments It Generates,” trailers should be viewed as a tool to create additional economic value. The film industry, through the years, has reached a consensus that positive audience feedback and growing behavioral data generated from trailers often lead to incremental box office sales.

    The first few trailers, or focus trailers, are pushed to the market as experiments in different stages of the marketing campaign. As the name suggests, we try to test how audiences react to different elements. Are they more interested in the superstars or intrigued by the story? Are they blown away by the sound and visual effects?

    Then it’s time for a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the collected feedback. A list of elements will be generated according to their popularity rankings. These become the most critical criteria in selecting elements and materials for the most crucial trailer, namely the one that gets aired shortly before the film’s official release and has proven to be the most effective in stimulating ticket sales.

    While I used to be solely focused on captivating audiences during filmmaking, there is more to this complex industry than meets the eye. I quickly learned that moviemaking is in constant flux, and trailers are pivotal in moving the business forward.

    This is indeed something to keep in mind if you are interested in the film industry.

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