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The Data-Driven Artist

When viewers decide what’s on TV, who wins?
March 25, 2013

In a salvo against Netflix, which has gained attention for its original series “House of Cards,” Amazon announced today that it would be producing a pilot for a TV series derived from “Zombieland,” the hit 2009 horror-comedy. What’s most interesting about Amazon’s announcement, though, is the revelation that it will only be ordering a full season of the series depending on customer feedback.

In related (and somewhat inverted) news, a feature film version of “Veronica Mars” was recently greenlit when fans supported the project on Kickstarter. Indeed, in our data-driven world (see the big game Netflix talked about how data led to some of the choices for “House of Cards”), we are increasingly seeing a kind of Kickstart-ification of entertainment.

What happens when viewers become the gatekeepers for entertainment? What happens when pandering to an audience and its dollars governs creative decision-making?

The most apocalyptic vision has been articulated by Andrew Leonard, writing for Salon:

“For years Netflix has been analyzing what we watched last night to suggest movies or TV shows that we might like to watch tomorrow. Now it is using the same formula to prefabricate its own programming to fit what it thinks we will like. Isn’t the inevitable result of this that the creative impulse gets channeled into a pre-built canal?”

I wouldn’t disagree with Leonard so much as contest that this is a new phenomenon in entertainment, art, or any creative business. The longstanding idea of exploitation cinema is founded upon the idea of exploiting popular trends for financial gain; the current vampire pestilence in entertainment and publishing can trace its lineage back to any number of subgenres-cum-cottage-industries before it (“Cannibal Holocaust,” any one?).

Furthermore, even the most accomplished artists working in entertainment have famously had to make compromises to commerce in order to get their passion projects off the ground as well. “One for them, one for me,” Martin Scorcese calls this.

“Can any craft possibly be immune from a relationship with money?” Tim Parks recently inquired in a blog post for the New York Review of Books. He refers to a “Renaissance artist whose uneven work was a puzzle, until art historians discovered some of his accounts and compared incomes with images: paid less he worked carelessly; well-remunerated he excelled.”

Curiously, in entertainment, the opposite is often true: it’s the well-paid projects that are phoned in, and the beautiful labors of love that hardly make a dime. I recently spoke with a manager of DJs who urged his clients to strike a balance of creatively fulfilling gigs and the ones that merely earned money. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘I’m never doing that event again,’” he told me. “And I’ll just say, ‘You made $25,000 playing for one hour. This is going to pay for your sushi fix for the whole year.’”

The creative impulse of which Leonard speaks is always, always under pressure to be channeled into a pre-built canal; the data-driven era simply adds new tools for the producers’ and money-makers’ PowerPoint pitches. But we should trust the most principled guardians of that creative impulse–in other words, the best artists; those whose work is not only popular but enduring–to only stray into that canal as often as is necessary to pay the bills.

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