The Alternate Ending: The Ethics of Statistical Filmmaking

A film can be a lot of things. It can be the culmination of years of work for a dedicated filmmaker or a multi-million dollar investment for a hollywood executive.  There seems to be a fundamental problem with the studio system in this regard; the creation of art for profit. Since the heavy commercialization of film from a circus gimmick to blockbuster status, the balance of filmmaking for profit vs. filmmaking for art’s sake. As we saw was the case with the Weinstein brothers, some are more destined for one side of this line over the other. Important cinema has to balance communicability with artistic innovation, allowing filmmakers to explore their own vision but still retain enough capital from financiers to achieve that vision. A problem arises late in the production game with the implementation of focus groups to analyze a films marketability. Jeremy Scott, of the CinemaSins youtube channel, raises some interesting and comical concerns (and solutions) about this questionably useful practice in the studio system.

In the video, Scott points out the fact that while filmmaking is an artistic endeavor, it is very controlled by the studios at an executive level. The battle for what is known as “Final Cut” (the ability for the artist to control the editing of the film) has become a tenuous struggle between many auteurs and film studios. One specific instance he harps on is the 2007 Will Smith vehicle, I Am Legend.

While the film exemplifies much of the new media marketing strategies laid out by Marich, such as a tie-in comic in collaboration with DC (which seems to have vanished from the collective memory of the internet) and even a promotional game within Second Life, it remains most well known amongst film nerds for its superior alternate ending that didn’t make it to theaters. While the film was still commercially viable, it detracted from the artistic vision of the filmmaker in favor of the safe playing of the studio.

Hollywood is a fundamentally post-modern entertainment community, where each film and advertising experience is heavily informed by the failures and successes of the past. While new innovation occurs, it is becoming increasingly rare (evidenced by this list where the last non-remake/sequel/adaption was over ten years ago). Hollywood uses our knowledge of the past to change the future. But is this inherently a bad thing? Most agree that in the case of I Am Legend it was, but a positive side of this debate comes in the form of one of the most popular television shows right now, House of Cards.

House of Cards was a product of a Netflix experiment that used data analysis to create a TV show. You can read more about this process and it’s effects here, but the basic gist is take a good show (the original British House of Cards), add an actor people love (Kevin Spacey), and find a director that makes profitable products (David Fincher), and you have yourself a statistically guaranteed successful television show. There are positives and negatives to using statistics to alter artistic endeavors, but we will have to see how far the reliance on this system goes.

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