From Spam to Sundance
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Film critics, take note.
It turns out that predicting a movie's success or failure at the Sundance Film Festival isn't so complicated that a computer can't do it.
Unspam Technologies, an anti-spam consulting firm based in Park City, Utah, programmed a computer to sort through 32 contenders in the drama and documentary categories at this year's festival in search of those most likely to succeed and fail.
Two of the films they selected, a documentary called "God Grew Tired of Us" and a drama called "Quinceañera" won the festival's coveted jury prize awards Saturday night.
"We were pretty giddy when we found out the results," said Matthew Prince, the company's CEO.
Unspam engineers used a modified version of POPFile, an open-source program that employs a Bayesian classification system, to identify junk mail.
Instead of picking out spam, they trained the filter to look for the signs of a successful film based on data from 10 years of Sundance film guides, which include descriptions of each movie, along with information found in the Internet Movie Database and box office figures.
Unspam came up with a list of those films most likely to fly or flop based on more than 200 variables, including the time of day that the movie premiered, the location of the theater and the author of the description in the film guide.
Some data points turned out to be meaningless, like the number of adjectives found in a particular film description. Others, like the number of producers working on a film, proved significant.
"If you only have one or two producers on a film, you're statistically likely to have a stinker," said Prince. "That's the opposite of the idea that too many cooks spoil the brew."
Five or more producers is best, he added. Unspam's picks for best documentary included "God Grew Tired of Us," "The Grand Truth: After the Killing Ends," "So Much So Fast," "'Tis Autumn The Search for Jackie Paris," "TV Junkie" and "Wide Awake."
Its top drama picks were "Come Early Morning," "Flannel Pajamas," "The Hawk Is Dying," "Quinceañera," "Somebodies" and "Stay Stephanie Daley."
In addition to winning grand jury prizes, "Quinceañera," and "God Grew Tired of Us" took home audience awards in the drama and documentary categories.
Not all of Unspam's picks proved prescient, however. One film it missed was "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," starring Robert Downey, Jr., Rosario Dawson and Dianne Wiest, which won the festival's dramatic directing award and a special jury prize in the dramatic category for best ensemble performance.
It also overlooked "American Blackout," a special jury prize winner among documentaries.
"We're going to do this again this year," Prince said. "We feel at least an early sense of being on to something."
Eugene Hernandez, editor and chief of IndieWire, chuckled at the notion of a computer picking winners at Sundance. "I've been on many Sundance juries and I can never predict who will win because things happen in deliberation," said Hernandez.
"If there's a way to take the stress out of the process, I'd love to give it a try."