But USC panel says number-crunching won't dictate storytelling

Data analysis is fast becoming a “core competency” in all facets of the entertainment biz, but don’t expect the nerd revolution to sweep over the creative process at Lionsgate — not as long as Rob Friedman is running things, at least.

“You will never see us make a movie based on a series of questions posed in a research environment — never, ever, ever,” the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group co-chair said at USC Annenberg and IBM’s panel, “The Power of Crowds: Social Sentiment and the Future of Film.”

But social-media listening and analytics tools, some of which sprang into public consciousness during the presidential campaign, are quickly infiltrating Hollywood marketing. And though these new tools have proven invaluable for shaping campaign messages in real time, some showbiz execs have been slow to embrace them, relying on outdated tools or leaving social campaigns to the young guns in digital departments.

Not Friedman. The longtime marketing exec, who with Patrick Wachsberger runs what’s thought of as Hollywood’s most digitally savvy studio, more than held his own in the company of data-analysis experts from IBM and the Annenberg Innovation Lab, speaking in detail Wednesday night about the value of reaching and activating fans through social media channels.

One recurring complaint digital marketing mavens have about studios is that they don’t engage early enough, an area where Lionsgate is an outlier; Friedman said the studio is already interacting with fans of upcoming Summit YA book adaptations “Ender’s Game” and “Divergent,” for example, even though those movies don’t come out until 2013 and 2014, respectively.

“We’re constantly reaching out to the book readers, because we don’t have any movie fans yet,” said Friedman, who acknowledged that though marketing dollars are draining away from print and radio to fund new-media ad buys, studios are still “insecure” about lessening their TV spends.

That level of engagement puts Friedman in good company; even at the chief marketing officer level, only two-thirds of today’s execs are engaged in their departments’ social campaigns, said Steve Canepa, general manager of media and entertainment at IBM, citing a study his group published earlier this year. And there’s really no excuse for that: The panel agreed that with today’s analytics and listening tools, it doesn’t require specialized knowledge to achieve “data literacy.”

“If you need a scientist to look at your data for you, your tools suck,” said David Barnes, director of emerging technologies at IBM software group. Barnes added that the analytics explosion will soon see marketing execs spending more on information technology than most chief information officers.

The panel touched on the predictive potential of analytics, but mostly as it pertained to box office performance. In a reel shown before the discussion began (available with this story on Variety.com), moderator Jonathan Taplin, director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, noted recent of examples: “We knew ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ wasn’t going to work” weeks before it opened, Taplin said as one example.

Still on the fringes of data analytics are story-development tools, such as algorithms that read scripts in search of positives and negatives for both marketability and box office potential.

But the panel was unanimous — with Friedman leading the charge — that no matter how sophisticated the data gets, filmmakers needn’t worry that their projects will be subject to groupthink.

“We’ve taken great pains in not doing that,” Friedman said. “The moviemaking process is a unique animal.”

Or as Taplin put it: “I don’t think any filmmaker should worry that they’re going to be replaced by a computer.”

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