Waterloo's Jack Zhang uses computer program to help co-write horror film script

Jack Zhang used a computer to determine the plot elements audiences really seem to like. That information has gone into the script of a new horror film, Impossible Things.

Computer analyzes plot elements audiences respond to, developer says

Impossible Things is a movie that was co-written with a computer. A program developed by Jack Zhang of Waterloo analyzes elements of movies audiences respond positively to and gives that information to screenwriters to help them write scripts for financially successful movies. (Facebook)

The next movie you go to see on the big screen may have a computer in the credits as a writer, thanks to Waterloo's Jack Zhang.

The University of Waterloo graduate and computer programmer has created the first ever feature-length film that has been co-written with a computer.

"Before a single word was written, we used a computer program to analyze a massive amount of data to see what kind of plot elements in the film were driving audiences. So we correlated that with audience taste and behaviour data and see what type of plot would draw in what type of audience, and then feed that information to screenwriters who would closely work with our computer program to create that screenplay," Zhang told The Morning Edition's Craig Norris Monday.

Films and statistics

Zhang said the most popular films have particular elements audiences respond to and through his company, Greenlight Essentials, he's able to tell whether a film will be successful based on that data.
Jack Zhang is a Waterloo program developer who has used a computer to co-write a script for the horror film Impossible Things. (Facebook)

For example, in an article on Zhang's LinkedIn page, he analyzes the success of the film Gone Girl. He notes the cast of Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike were "statistically, a suitable fit" but being adapted from a successful novel provided very little to no benefit. However, the data from past movies shows audiences enjoy watching a psychological mystery thriller with a missing person.

"It turns out that combining 'husband-wife relationship' with 'missing person' in a 'psych-mystery thriller' produces 100 per cent performance over the benchmark," Zhang wrote.

Computer co-writes horror flick

Zhang attended the Toronto International Film Festival last week and said in previous years, those in the industry didn't want to hear much about his company. Critics said it could take away the creative process.

But the reaction was different this year, said Zhang, and production companies are starting to see the benefit.

"People are creating the patterns, we're just funneling the information through to screenwriters," he said. "If you give 50 screenwriters the same elements, they'll come up with 50 different screenplays."

Two companies – Productivity Media and Concourse Media – are onboard for his latest project, a horror movie called Impossible Things. The movie is about a young family and the mother is a workaholic whose life changes dramatically after the death of one of her twin daughters.

"She's been seeing impossible things around the house that [aren't] supposed to be there, so she starts to wonder if it's actually happening or is it just in her head," Zhang said.

His company created a trailer for just $30, posted it online and it's already had more than 665,000 views.

He said they hope to shoot the film next spring.

He said he hopes more people in the industry embrace the technology.

"It's the way of the future. The old ways of writing films, writing content, without using any data that's available today is not maximizing our opportunities," Zhang said. "What we are doing is really adding to the creative process."


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