New Forest’s Simon David Miller Rethinks the Production Process

Can artificial intelligence and tech industry project management techniques help the film and TV industry to create more hits?

Tech entrepreneur Simon David Miller thinks so, and is in the process of raising between £1 million-£3 million ($1.3 million-$3.91 million) for his production company New Forest Film Co. to recruit a team, and to develop technology to help it spearhead a new way of working in the industry, namely the Agile method.

Used by companies such as Facebook, Apple, Netflix and Google, Agile is a management process for creating a new project by breaking it up into several stages and testing and improving it at each stage.

Miller says that the Agile methodology as used by New Forest, which is backed by former EMI chief Elio Leoni Sceti, allows filmmakers to collaboratively test and improve their work at every level of production, reducing commercial risk as well as delivering increased diversity of stories and talent.

A former J.P. Morgan investment banker and global senior VP of innovation at EMI Music, Miller has helped to found and sell several media tech start-ups including online music site Peoplesound, second screen TV outfit Zeebox, and social and digital marketing firm Beamly. He also directed Gaelic film “Seachd – The Inaccessible Pinnacle,” which was nominated for a BAFTA Scotland award.

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New Forest is, he says, a production company rather than a consultancy, and one that is trying to improve the process of filmmaking. He says he can reduce risk and boost diversity by taking decision making out of “a very narrow set of people,” and instead gather opinions on projects from audiences ahead of the start of production.

Miller explains that New Forest has developed a prototype system to test out scripts and ideas that it originates inhouse, which demonstrates how a movie will look and sound, how characters will be portrayed, and how the film will be marketed. This involves producing video storyboards, which typically consists of 75% graphic novel quality static storyboards and 25% rotoscope/animation, with actors performing key moments of the story.

He says New Forest has also pioneered a new method using A.I.-based emotion recognition technology to test these video storyboards. It uses a webcam on test audiences’ computers when they screen a prototype, enabling filmmakers to track how audiences react to particular scenes or moments. If audiences don’t respond, says Miller, “filmmakers have got two choices. You either don’t make it. Or you get some clues from the audience and you iterate it.”

New Forest also tests out trailers, concept posters and social media campaigns with audiences.

He also says New Forest will hire an inhouse cinematographer, production designer and key heads of department to work on projects, and to test and improve them ahead of production.

“This has the potential to totally disrupt the established process, as it allows filmmakers to really understand how everything from cast to plots to marketing will be perceived all the way through the production process,” says Miller.

He insists that the Agile process doesn’t mean filmmaking by committee, or turning over decision making to audiences. Instead, says Miller, Agile allows filmmakers to test their work as the film is being made rather than simply on release, empowering creatives to try out bold ideas during production.

Spending money up front on this kind of research and development can, he says, improve the chances of a project’s success at the box office or on television.

The company has used its Agile method to develop and test two TV series, “Unbroken Isles,” set in ninth century Scotland, and British superhero thriller “Ghost Heart,” both of which are being pitched to streamers and broadcasters. It is also working on a large-budget TV series, which he says reimagines a famous literary work.

New Forest has also developed and tested features “Invisible,” about human trafficking, and horror film “Death Clock.” Of these two features, New Forest is likely to press ahead with “Invisible” first after it tested more strongly with nearly 2,300 people. Miller says New Forest will either make the film itself or produce it with partners.

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