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The first “Let’s Talk Screenwriting!” round-table explores how algorithms and data analytics are making inroads into European screen production

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The event, organised by the Media Industries, Infrastructures and Institutions (MI3) research group from Utrecht University, was held online on 15 March

The first “Let’s Talk Screenwriting!” round-table explores how algorithms and data analytics are making inroads into European screen production
A screen grab from the presentation of the ScriptBook service

The first round-table of the second edition of “Let’s Talk Screenwriting!” took place online on 15 March. The event, entitled “Algorithms and AI: Shaking up Screenwriting in Europe”, was organised by the Media Industries, Infrastructures and Institutions (MI3) research group from Utrecht University and was chaired by Judith Keilbach, associate professor of Television Studies at the same university.

The round-table attempted to analyse how algorithms and data analytics are making deeper inroads into European screen production. As film and TV viewers migrate to the web, real-time data from streaming content provide an increasingly granular picture of taste and viewing patterns. Screen workers leverage these data to drive creative decisions, whether it’s with insights from an internal analytics department, AI tools or a streaming service.

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After the opening remarks made by Keilbach, the floor was handed over to Nina Vindum Rasmussen from King’s College, UK, who talked through her pioneering research project. Rasmussen's study examines how film and television workers (in particular producers, directors and screenwriters) use audience data and AI tools when they develop screen content. After touching upon the ongoing streaming wars, which see Netflix, as the major player, being challenged by emerging platforms such as Disney+, Rasmussen explained how great the impact of algorithms and other data is on developing new content by quoting Netflix's co-CEO Ted Sarandos, who said: “Our data and algorithms help us perfect personalisation [...] Algorithms drive our entire website – there isn't an inch of uncalculated editorial space.”

Next, Rasmussen spoke about ScriptBook, a service that provides artificially intelligent script analysis, AI-driven content validation and automated story generation. “On platforms like ScriptBook, you can upload a PDF file of your script and get a thorough analysis of its plot and characters as well as an examination of your project's box-office potential in a matter of minutes,” she added. She also mentioned Largo.ai's increasing influence in the industry, which was received with both “excitement and scepticism”.

In the second part of her presentation, Rasmussen revealed that she had interviewed 33 professionals and was surprised to find out that the main topic of their conversations was their struggle to find a good work/life balance. Many creative professionals working for big streaming services spoke about “stress, warning signs sent by their bodies” and the need to “reorganise their own family life” as well as to reshape their daily routine.

Keilbach later asked Rasmussen why the stress caused by working with streaming platforms differed from that experienced while collaborating with broadcasters or other commissioning editors. The main difference is related to the streamers' timeline, which is usually much shorter – often, after an initial pitch to the platform, screenwriters need to deliver the final drafts in the space of about a year. Besides, one of the producers interviewed by Rasmussen speculated that this quick turnaround may be related to algorithms, so that the content can match the audience's taste as swiftly as possible. In addition, Netflix and other platforms offer a vast catalogue and focus on quantity, so more and more content needs to be constantly in the pipeline to enrich the offering.

Karin van Es from Utrecht University asked how the impact of such data insights is being received by screenwriters and producers. Rasmussen answered that producers are generally more interested in and open to their use, whilst screenwriters showed strong scepticism, as “when they're in the creative bubble, they do not write for the audience”, but rather create “shows that they would watch themselves”.

Interestingly, Georg Ramme, from Berlin-based Load Studios, stated that, in his opinion, “Netflix tends to do more talking about data, rather than using them for real”, and added: “The risk is that the more data you have, the more the show may get boring, as it would become too ‘formalised’ and wouldn't be able to eschew existing standards […] After all, people need to watch things that they've never seen before,” he concluded. Speaking about this “formalisation” process, Rasmussen disclosed that in many of her interviews, speakers highlighted the fact that many streamers, and Netflix in particular, ask writers to “tick certain boxes”, as they are afraid of “angering someone”. Ramme agreed with said vision and explained that it's an obvious consequence of Netflix attempting to intercept “more and more mainstream audiences”.

A short Q&A session rounded off the discussion. You can find out more about Rasmussen's project by clicking here.

Two more “Let’s Talk Screenwriting!” round-tables will follow on 13 April and 3 May. The first will focus on writers’ rooms and the second on gender stereotypes.

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