Robots are reading Hollywood scripts – and writers aren’t happy

By Adam Westbrook 20 April 2017

An automation too far.

UPDATE: Since this article was first published, The Blacklist has removed the post in which it originally announced a ScriptBook partnership.

UPDATE 2: Shortly after the publication of this article, The Blacklist announced it was suspending its partnership with Scriptbook.

Being a screenwriter is a tough gig.

Check out these odds: at least 50,000 new screenplays are registered with the Writer’s Guild of America each year.

Hollywood studios, meanwhile, generally release about 150 films a year – an increasing number of which are sequels to existing franchises.

That gives the average screenplay a 0.003% chance of seeing the big screen.

Despite these odds, many thousands of people still want to be a screenwriter – and go online for help.

A mini industry of websites, books and conferences has sprung up, all promising aspiring writers that they have the magic touch to get a screenplay noticed.

One of the most popular screenwriting sites is The Blacklist, founded by Franklin Leonard in 2005. It rose to prominence by spotting great scripts including those for Argo, Juno, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire when they had been turned down by the big studios.

I, Robot

It’s a place wannabe writers go to learn and to connect. But now the site has angered screenwriters by announcing a service which will introduce artificial intelligence into the writing process.

It’s a partnership with a tool called ScriptBook. Hopeful screenwriters can pay to have their screenplay “read” by the AI which will then produce a data-driven report on the script’s chance of being made.

The stats include the “likeability” of the characters, the predicted target audience and a “creativity score.”

This will cost the aspiring screenwriter $100.

“[W]e believe adding computer intelligence to human intelligence is an exciting path to analysing scripts in a smarter way” wrote The Blacklist’s Director of Product and Data Terry Huang, announcing the product.

“…we can be smarter about determining what audiences will enjoy earlier in the development process.”

ScriptBook hope that their algorithms will be used by Hollywood producers, not necessarily to find the next big hit, but to avoid an expensive flop.

Judgement Day

But, among writers, the thought of letting software judge a creative endeavour has not gone down well.

Neither has the idea of charging aspiring, unpaid, writers money to get a “creativity score”.

“I am a fan of @theblacklst and Franklin is a friend” begins Brian Koppelman, creator of the hit TV show Billions. “But I hate everything about this scriptbook idea. In every way. It’s offensive & gross.”

British screenwriter CJ Walley added “Regardless of our views on the controversial ScriptBook service…this is a historical turning point in screenwriting.”

Blacklist founder Franklin Leonard has defended the service, saying it’s not a writing tool, just something to help writers figure out how their script compares to others.

Hal no

But it once again raises the spectre of software being used to create and judge art.

Art is basically the most human thing there is: its complexity, profundity and pure silliness are things only humans know how to do.

Furthermore, art is something – I believe – a computer cannot understand. Software is based on logic and art is neither logical nor efficient.

If you disagree, just watch the short film below, based on a script written entirely by a computer.

When robots are set to steal half of our jobs in the next 15 years, why the hell are we trying to let them have the one thing we can do better?