Sundance ’15: Metrics under the microscope

An obsession over metrics is changing the entertainment industry like never before, according to panelists - including execs from Netflix and YouTube - talking at Sundance's 'The Beauty of Big Data' session. (Pictured: Netflix's Ted Sarandos)
January 25, 2015

The collection of – and obsession over – metrics is changing the entertainment industry like never before, but there are traditional aspects (humans, mainly) that still play a huge part in the success of a company or project.

That was one of the key takeaways from ‘The Beauty of Big Data,’ one of the well attended Main St. panels on Friday (January 23) at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Data is great and important,” said Mitch Hurwitz, the creator of sitcom Arrested Development, “but it has to be filtered through [real] emotions in order to exploit it.”

Hurwitz’ partner in reviving the comedy, Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos (pictured above), agreed. “It’s all irrelevant unless you have a plan and make that plan well executed.”

Arrested Development was a textbook example of how the human element helped justify the data, and Sarandos recounted the moment he knew the left-for-dead Fox sitcom would be a hit for the streaming company.

“Usually, fan bases get smaller each year a show is off the air,” he said. “But we saw data that made us realize that wasn’t true with this one. That was all we needed to know.”

Sarandos reiterated that there always needs to be smart reasoning behind the data they collect… or else it doesn’t mean anything. And that it’s universally true for everything from giant star-driven projects to small documentaries.

“We received plenty of comments from people in the industry that U.S. film comedies don’t do well overseas,” he said. “But that didn’t stop us from doing a deal with Adam Sandler. While it may be true that on paper the market for comedies is not great, we made a very confident decision based on what we know about his fans.”

Hurwitz and Sarandos’ thoughts were especially noteworthy considering how hard it is for small filmmakers – especially independent and non-fiction storytellers – to get their projects seen.

Veteran digital marketing executive John Hegeman addressed that when explaining how the shift in marketing and ad budgets have moved from traditional media to digital — a move based on research, data and the realities of the film business.

“Digital is now a higher percentage for the small guys out of default,” Hegeman said. “There’s less money to spend, so it’s the most targeted, cost-efficient way to reach an audience. Independent producers don’t have access to talent that others have.”

Big data is also leading to tangible decision-making, and Hegeman brought up the example of recent feature online comedy Expelled.

He explained that data and research led to casting decisions; by placing social media stars that its core audience knew quite well – and whose parents may never have heard of – in major roles, the film went from number 52 to the top spot on iTunes in just one day.

And this social media influence plays a huge role for every business entity, not just irrelevant, made-for-digital movies.

“Through data culled from social media we saw a conversation building around Pitch Perfect that we had never seen before,” said Doug Neil, exec VP of marketing for Universal Pictures. “So we decided to open it a week earlier because there were many fans ready for it.”

Neil said that because of that still ongoing buzz from fans who are giant YouTube followers, Universal decided to cast several of the site’s most popular stars in key roles in the upcoming sequel.

So with all of this data collection playing a big part in the boardroom, are the studios feeling threatened due to their reliance upon more legacy-driven attitudes?

Neil did not say that exactly during the 90-minute chat, but it was clear that Netflix had something desirable – but more than that, the streaming giant uses it in a way that has built brand loyalty.

“When you see an ad for Marco Polo, we are not trying to get you to watch Marco Polo,” said Sarandos. “We are trying to get you to go to Netflix.”

While everyone had opinions about various aspects of the film industry’s changing dynamics, everyone agreed that engineers play a role that is integral – and one that never existed 10 years ago.

“There is no question,” said Danielle Tiedt, CMO of YouTube. “They are our product. Everything we do is about giving filmmakers the optimal experience, and engineers are how we do that.”

Maybe the most self-serving – but accurate – thought came from Sarandos, regarding the status quo: “If you can build a machine that predicts what people want to watch, then you can change things.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.