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May 12, 2013

How to Predict Creative Success

by Howard Suber

I’ve received many emails from former students on the New York Times front page article dealing with the claims of The Worldwide Motion Picture Group that they can use statistics to predict the success of a film while it’s still in the development process.The online version of the article produced over 300 comments, mostly negative. Many of them categorically deny that statistics can possibly be of any use in in the process of creation, many commenters taking this as further evidence that all the creativity has been forced out of Hollywood.

Having for years read a lot on the creative process, I am not offended by or fearful of people who use statistics in analyzing creativity. People have been trying to figure out the creative process for many centuries, and one way they do it is by looking for patterns in creative works.

However, it’s important to distinguish between a statements about has been done in the past and statements that attempt to predict what will work in the future.

Most researchers and historians who have studied creativity agree that it consists of the production of something new that other people find valuable.

On their web page, The Worldwide Motion Picture Group flashes their motto: “Maintain art, minimize risk, maximize returns.” That sounds good, but I think the history of art and any creative enterprise proves that true creativity consists, not of maintaining something, but of trying to change it. So, the first requirement of creativity is to create something new, which means it’s untried and unproven – and therefore inherently risky.

Vincent Bruzzese and his Worldwide Motion Picture Group are not the first people to attempt use statistics to explain the commercial success of films. Jehoshua Eliashberg and John Zhang, professors at the Wharton School, developed over many years algorithms for analyzing scripts to determine what would be successful.

In the world of painting, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Russian émigré artists who came to the U.S. in 1978, commissioned a poll that asked 1,001 respondents to specify what they wanted to see in a painting. Eighty-eight percent said they preferred a landscape with trees and water in it, and they wanted the dominant color to be blue (#1) or green (#2). They also wanted a realistic treatment of the scene, preferably with people in the picture (but they had to be fully clothed).

Henry Ford said that, if he’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said “faster horses.” Steve Jobs famously said he did not do market research because customers don’t know what they want. The Komar and Melamid study (which received much publicity and became a book called Painting by the Numbers) demonstrated with statistics what Ford and Jobs were content to express as an opinion — that people want what they already are familiar with. (In the painting research, people strongly preferred the clichés of 19th Century representational painting.)

As somebody who taught film comedy for many years, I’d often ask people to get up in front of a class and make us laugh. Most often, they’d be some old familiar “Knock-Knock” joke, or one about a farmer’s daughter and a salesman, or about three guys who go into a bar – so crushingly familiar that many in the audience would groan as soon as it began. Hardly anybody did anything more than rely on ancient comedic clichés.

Most people can’t imagine what they haven’t yet heard or seen. So, you can compile all the statistics you want about what’s worked and what hasn’t worked, but what you get from all that data is an analysis of the past.

If people are looking for something new, history is useful to build on, but you can’t simply repeat it. Creativity requires a leap into the unknown — and therefore unpredictable — future.

There have always been people who claim to be able to predict the future. Invariably, the person claiming foreknowledge base their predictions on some kind of data. Often, the data is incomprehensible to ordinary people, and the person who predicts the future has a vested interest in claiming to have knowledge understood only by himself and a few others, knowledge that is usual kept arcane and opaque.


The positions of the stars, the entrails of animals, the appearance of unusual natural phenomena such as eclipses or shooting stars, the ways in which cards, sticks, tea leaves, lines in your palm, or other apparently-chaotic elements – these have been, historically, the kinds of “data” that many predictors of the future have used in the past. What better arcane source for someone today who wants to appear “modern” than to use or misuse statistics, which most of us don’t even try to understand.


Consider this: if someone really could predict the future, they would quickly become one of the most powerful – not to mention richest – people on earth.


Among the many reasons predicting the future is so often fruitless is the psychological principle of habituation. When human beings become habituated, or used to, something they, like drug addicts, need higher or more frequent doses of the same thing to produce the same psychological effect. Or,  they need something different.


If they live in a society capable of constantly making something “new,” it will be the quickest and most profitable way to produce pleasure and therefore profit. That is why “New” has become the most ubiquitous word today in the selling of merchandise, art, technology, politics, and perhaps even religion.


If creativity, by definition, means creating something new, how can it predicted?


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