Algorithms of Inequality: A Talk With Cathy O’Neil

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The advantages of diversity in the tech industry have been carefully studied and reported on. Companies that hire women and minorities outperform their competitors and see higher financial returns. New studies, reported on by FastCompany, show that industry leaders are well-aware of the value of diversity. Yet, we aren’t seeing the rush for inclusion that we would expect. Advice for how to increase diversity focuses on things like improving the language of recruitment and creating a more friendly working environment. However, there is a key component of the modern hiring landscape that gets overlooked.

Take a moment to think about what makes a good employee. What qualities do they have? What type of impact do they have on their company?

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What Your Brain Is Telling You

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When a person watches a video, their brain has an immediate, unconscious response that informs how they will understand what they’ve seen and how they will act on the information later. While we know that this connection exists, how and to what extent this instant experience of A/V media manifests behaviorally to create what we know as “social impact” is difficult to trace. The boundaries of current understanding of the human nervous system and technological roadblocks on accurate, real-time measurement make this a tough puzzle to unravel, but we have built a system that can take us in that direction. Specifically, we have developed a measurement system that records the electrical brain response at each frame of video media witnessed by a viewer. The project, which we refer to as “trailer brain,” seeks to find the connection between certain movie trailer video media and their behavioral outcomes via the conduit of nervous system measurement.

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Social Issue Documentaries at the Box Office

IFC Center in NYC, Photo by Steve McFarland

Can you predict how a documentary is going to do at the box office?

Recently, Harmony Institute decided to give it a try. In this blog post, Matt Olivo tells us a little about what we found and how we found it:

Making a film is a huge endeavor, but the potential for creative, professional, and financial rewards is equally large. Business analysts and risk assessors quantify the risks and predict financial rewards every day, but rarely make those processes public; a number of academic papers have published models in the last few years, but they have generally sampled Hollywood films, not documentaries geared towards social impact.

Although box office returns aren’t the only measure of success for social issue documentaries, they speak to the sustainability of documentary production and the reach of specific projects. While we don’t expect the size of box office numbers to be similar to Hollywood films, we wondered: Can the same variables be used to predict the box office returns of social issue documentaries as are used to predict returns on Hollywood films?

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Theory and the unseen forces of impact

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For documentaries that tackle social issues, financial bottom lines may not be the best indicators of impact. Social issue documentaries have other benchmarks of success: filmmakers want to know if their film reached its audience, changed the way people think about an issue, or inspired change in the real world. Our experience working with filmmakers has illuminated the unique challenges of measuring the impact of social issue documentaries. We see the need to clarify what “impact” might look like—without boxing in filmmakers by using overly-specific methods or definitions that don’t apply to a wide range of projects and goals.

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Film Forecast: Skyfall

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There is only one wide release in North American theaters this weekend, but it’s a monster. Skyfall, the much-anticipated James Bond film will debut after a scorching opening week in Europe.

It’s been four years since Bond fans last had the chance to see their hero on the big screen, and with good critical reviews Skyfall could be the most successful installment of the Daniel Craig era. There is a consensus among journalists and industry insiders that this film will post big numbers at the box office. The only question is: how big will it be?

This time, our model’s prediction is in line with, or slightly below other forecasts. The 95% confidence interval ranges from $63.6M to $75.7M. Look for Skyfall‘s actual revenue to be closer to the upper end of this range.

Film

HI Prediction

L.A. Times

Box Office Guru

Gross

Skyfall

$69.7M

$75M

$76M

$88.4

Update: 11/13

Skyfall set a new franchise record with a domestic opening close to $90 million. The latest Bond film has grossed upwards of $1.7 billion worldwide and is helping keep Hollywood on track for a record-breaking 2012.

Image: Still from Skyfall | Columbia Pictures

Film Forecast: Competition at the box office

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Four new films will enter the box office fray this weekend. In this crowded marketplace, the competition for viewers will be fierce.

Both reviewers and experts expect revenue to cool off from a surprisingly successful fall season. With a smaller pie to fight over, these films may disappoint financially.

Film

HI Prediction

L.A. Times

Box Office Guru

Silent Hill Revelation

$23.0M

$15M

$14M

Cloud Atlas

$30.2M

$13M

$13M

 Fun Size

$11.8M

$7

$9M

Chasing Giants

$1M

$5M

$5M

Because our model doesn’t take competition (and the limited attention and resources of audiences) into account, look for the HI predictions to be slightly high. This is most obviously the case with the high-budget and equally high-concept Cloud Atlas, adapted from David Mitchell’s novel. The ambitious, star-studded film may struggle to find an audience.

Both sets of experts expect the latest Silent Hill movie (adapted from the popular video game franchise) to edge Cloud Atlas as the top-grossing new release, although our model suggests otherwise.

Update: Monday, October 29

A combination of weak films and an impending storm on the East Coast made it a lackluster weekend at the box offices. None of the four opening films topped the earnings list—holdovers Argo and Hotel Transylvania captured the top two spots.

Of the new films, Cloud Atlas led the way with a disappointing $9.4M launch, slightly below lukewarm studio expectations and well below our model’s prediction. Silent Hill: Revelation was hurt by a crowded horror market place and took in $8M, also below forecasts. Fun Size ($4M) and Chasing Mavericks ($2.2M) failed to register at all. Overall, the revenue of the top 12 films was down 12% from the same weekend last year as Hollywood’s business cooled off following an impressive slate of fall releases.

 

Image: Still from Cloud Atlas | Warner Bros. Pictures

Film forecast: Horror franchises

After a break from predictions, the film forecast returns with two movies hitting theaters this week. The consensus pick to top this weekend’s box office is the horror sequel Paranormal Activity 4.

In our model’s limited history, we haven’t done well with horror, a genre that seems capable of generating surprise hits. Last week, the low-budget horror movie Sinister beat our expectations with a gross of around $18M. Even though our prediction interval was relatively wide (it ranged from $1-$13M), Sinister easily topped our upper limit.

Paranormal Activity 4 is part of a franchise with a proven box-office track record, making it more of a known quantity (although the original film was one of the biggest surprises in Hollywood history). Because our model doesn’t take past performance of Paranormal Activity films into account, we feel that our estimate is almost certainly too low. The film should make well above the $28.8M upper limit of our prediction interval. Some insiders are predicting a $50M opening for the found-footage horror movie.

Film

HI Prediction

L.A. Times

Box Office Guru

 Gross

Paranormal Activity 4

$22.5M

$50M

$41M

 $30.2M

Alex Cross

$4.6M

$14M

$14M

$11.8M

Alex Cross is a detective thriller starring Tyler Perry, adapted from James Patterson’s novel. Like Paranormal Activity 4, the film has received largely negative reviews, hence our weak box office prediction. However, with both of these films we suspect that we may be giving too much credit to critics’ ratings as a factor in predicting box office success, so look for them to surpass our prediction this week.

Update: Monday, October 22

Our model’s prediction for Paranormal Activity 4, while bearish, was an antidote to inflated expert forecasts. The horror film’s $30.2M gross fell far below industry projections and just outside the $28.8M upper bound of our confidence interval.

Detective thriller Alex Cross fell more in line with expectations, taking in $11.8M over the weekend. The Tyler Perry film was disappointing, although our model probably overcompensated for its extremely negative reviews. As we revise some of the weights and inputs in the coming weeks, we’ll be sure to incorporate lessons learned during this fall season that, overall, was quite successful for Hollywood.

 

Predicting with words: Introducing text-driven forecasting

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In some of our recent blog posts, HI has been experimenting with basic forecasting models which help us think critically about the influence of entertainment.  We’ve also begun work on more complicated methods of prediction, and were interested in how some of the same techniques have been used in other fields. On September 25th, political scientist Nick Beauchamp met with the HI team to discuss some of his current and upcoming work on using automated or quantitative text analysis to model political speech and predict voter actions.

Beauchamp’s research focuses on analytic methods for understanding how language and belief interact, such as how language persuades and shapes belief. His current project asks, “What are the ways in which speech, belief, and action work to inform each other?”

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Film forecast: Sequels at the box office

This weekend’s box office will see three films competing for audiences. Our model projects a clear winner, the action-packed Taken 2. Sequels get a significant bump in our model, and the Liam Neeson thriller will take advantage of the surprise success of the original movie. The film’s dismal critical ratings are unlikely to detract too much from it’s financial performance.

Film

HI Prediction

L.A. Times

Box Office Guru

Gross

Taken 2

$35.1M

$47M

$37M

 $49.5M

Frankenweenie

$15.5M

$20M

$15M

 $11.4M

Pitch Perfect

$17.1M

$16

$16M

 $14.8M

When compared to experts quoted in the L.A. Times, our $35.1M prediction for Taken 2 looks conservative—some experts predict a $50M opening, well above the $40M upper limit of our 95 percent confidence interval. However, the expectations of executives at distributors Twentieth Century Fox are right in line with our $35M prediction.

There is more consensus between the experts and our model regarding the other films scheduled for release this weekend. Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie may suffer from competition with the similar Hotel Transylvania, which topped last weekend’s record-breaking box office.

Quirky musical comedy Pitch Perfect has followed a different strategy for distribution. Last weekend it played in a limited release of 355 theaters, and will expand to a wide release of 2,781 theaters this weekend. Executives hope that positive word of mouth and buzz will help the film. The film’s excellent $15,000 per-screen average in limited release is a good sign.

Will Taken 2 beat our prediction at the top of this weekend’s box office? Let us know what you think, and check back as we update our model next week.

Update: 10/8/2012

Taken 2 had a spectacular opening weekend, racking up almost $50M in ticket sales despite receiving negative reviews. Worryingly for our model, the film’s actual gross fell well outside the upper $40.1M limit  of our 95 percent confidence interval.

Box Office Guru notes that the film’s performance falls outside October norms, behaving more like a summer blockbuster. We will continue to track whether the top films outperform our predictions and will revise our model in the coming weeks.

Both Frankenweenie and Pitch Perfect slightly underperformed our predictions, although their actual gross was well within the bounds of our intervals.