Meet The Man Who's Mechanising Your Online Emotions And Selling It To Film Producers

Black Mirror comes out of screen.

In what feels like an episode that'd sit comfortably in the dystopian-thriller Black Mirror, a Canadian company has been quietly trawling your social media feed to delve deeper into your psyche and emotional state, as chronicled online. The gathered data is then fed into a software developed by them, which then predicts what an 'ideal screenplay' would look like.

On the sidelines of the Film Bazaar, organised by NFDC, HuffPost India spoke with Jack Zhang, founder of the said company, who said, "Although human emotions are irrational, human behaviour is not. In fact, it's very predictable. What we do is analyse your online behaviour and come up with patterns of what a certain demographic might like in a movie."

Zhang further added that the whole point of using Artificial Intelligence (AI) in filmmaking is to exploit big data in a way that can be used to make commercially successful films. "We have about 200 million profiles on our system. We analyse their likes, shares, comments, conversations and we co-relate them with core elements in a film."

Zhang said that after doing a comprehensive analysis, they are able to identify the nature of films that a particular demographic likes, their geographic location, their job titles, and even their social status. Producers, in turn, can use this data, which is admittedly very sensitive, to market their films in territories where they'd get maximum profits from.

While e-commerce websites routinely track your online behaviour to organise targeted advertising, one thought movies were more about the heart, less about, well, algorithms, as was pointed out by veteran actor-filmmaker, Satish Kaushik, who was also present at the session Zhang spoke at.

Zhang believes it's upto the filmmaker to use the tools in their benefit. And while tech can empower them with information, what they do with it, is entirely their call.

But wait. Wasn't movie making all about a concept coming to a writer-director organically, who then nurtures a story in a manner that s/he hopes people will like? Wouldn't handing a writer a digitally-sourced blueprint of an emotional chart at odds with the very idea of filmmaking in the sense that you are technically working your way backwards?

Zhang ponders over this thought but firmly believes it's something that'd complement filmmaking, even saving millions for producers, who may not want to invest in a movie if the software throws results that doesn't agree with a filmmaker's original vision.

"We are not mechanising your emotions. What we are doing is telling you if your emotions are for yourself or for a larger audience. You are not making films for yourself, right? You make it for people. We are telling you what the people want so your investor gets the returns," Zhang said.

Zhang declined to name the projects they have worked on so far but mentioned an Indian company who reached out to him to plan their release in an international territory.

Talking specifically about the kind of information he's sitting on, Zhang said, "We learn that if you want to make a romantic comedy, it'll work great if you throw in a father-daughter track and a wedding sequence in between." And how did they arrive at this? "Data that was sourced online. We can even tell you that this works best with 25-year-old urban women."

And can the AI also tell them what doesn't work? "Well, yeah. So, for instance, young Asian women, under the age of 25, don't like physical, gory violence in horror movies. They'd like to see the bad guy play psychological tricks instead."


Zhang's next phase is an ambitious programme which will analyse tons and tons of existing screenplays and will tell a writer the exact points where s/he needs to insert 'scenes.' "It'll give you a graph and tell you the emotional highs and lows of your draft. It will also tell you what particular moments to amplify, what to tone down."

He added, "People think they are in control of themselves. But people are predictable. We can predict what a person is going to do next."

Zhang points out to an interesting trend seen in monster movies. "So Spain and Mexico like ghosts. Japan and Korea like zombies, whereas vampires are very popular in Russia. When I told our Russian friends about this, they said it adds up as vampires used to trade extensively in Eastern Europe."

Does any of this feel dystopian to Zhang? Not exactly. "It's a tool. It can empower your film. But as for the soul, that the filmmaker will have to add," he smiled.

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