Hollywood’s mantra: “Nobody knows anything”

Your movie turned out the be a flop? “Nobody knows anything”. You mistakenly believed consumers wanted to see a movie set in the 1920s? “Nobody knows anything”. You thought your casting decisions were going to be loved by all? “Nobody knows anything”.

“Nobody knows anything”–this was the opening line of Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman’s book on his experiences with screenwriting in Hollywood. A moviegoer with little interest in behind-the-scenes experiences would be confused about why this phrase resonates with so many working in Hollywood. By contrast, one who surveys writing on the business of Hollywood will be told the reason again and again: Goldman’s three-word summary succinctly describes risk in the film business.

“Nobody knows anything” is one of Hollywood’s mantras because we all keep believing that nobody can predict what will or will not be a success at the box office. Take, for example, Variety’s opinion on the phrase in 2018, when Goldman died at the age of 87:

William Goldman, the Oscar-winning writer of screenplays for All the President’s Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid … coined the best line in the history of Hollywood, and it wasn’t even for one of his movies.

If you work in this business–and Goldman was clear-eyed about the fact that the film industry is an industry first, where art and ideas must serve the bottom line, or perish–it’s worth getting those three words tattooed on your forearm. Or cross-stitched onto a throw pillow for your agent’s couch.

They serve as a reminder to every writer in town to stand by your ideas, because you can never predict what will be a hit ––and every time you compromise your vision because someone pretends to know better, you’re sacrificing the chance to prove them wrong.

Variety spun the words on a slightly different axis to make the issue about creative integrity. Nevertheless, the mantra about risk in Hollywood was uttered. Both the authentic screenwriter and the selfish executive will fail to know what will happen in the future.

There is a recurring problem with how Goldman’s phrase is used in writing on the business of Hollywood. To see the problem properly we have to acknowledge there is a kernel of truth that, because of its permanence, is irrelevant. Absolute certainty about the future is impossible everywhere–especially about a historical event like a successful film release. Thus, risk of failure in the future can never be zero and the phrase “Nobody knows anything” can always be true in some form.

The problem is that the constant usage of Goldman’s phrase hides the ability for Hollywood to, in the terms of the mantra, increase certainty and know “something”. Are people in Hollywood really this clueless about what will sell? And even if some film projects flop, is there nothing a film studio can do to change their luck? Often with cherry-picked examples, risk in Hollywood is presented as an unalterable environmental condition–some sort of fog that keeps preventing executives, producers and managers from estimating what will happen tomorrow.

Confusions about the ability of Hollywood to reduce risk often stem from an author’s use of neo-classical economics. Neo-classical theories of risk in the Hollywood film business tend to put individual, autonomous consumer sovereignty at the centre of their analysis. When placed at the centre, consumer sovereignty is the ultimate extraneous risk to business strategies; a consumer might and might even “form attachments to specific film ‘markers’ such as stars and genre” and might even “seek a degree of familiarity in their film consumption experience”–but, nevertheless, “consumer tastes in film are ultimately unpredictable” (Pokorny & Sedgwick, 2012, pp. 188-190). Consumer unpredictability, on its own, is certainly a relevant factor to a film business. However, confusions about risk grow because neo-classical approaches, particularly the competitive branch of neo-classical economics, elevate consumer sovereignty and ignore the role of power in Hollywood’s business strategies. For instance, to suggest that, in the film business, economic actors are in a state of perfect competition and too small to change the historical circumstances of risk (De Vany, 2004, p. 270), the sizes of the dominant firms in Hollywood have to be ignored. One also has to ignore questions about the abilities of dominant firms to affect the ideologies of its consumers. If Hollywood has ways to manipulate consumer attention, it is hardly straightforward to argue that the sovereign consumer is an unalterable arbiter, possessing the “economic” freedom to always be fickle when the next film is released (Garvin, 1981, p. 4).

Throughout my research on the political economy of Hollywood, opening theatre data has been key to demonstrating that Hollywood can have an effect on so-called high risk environment of moviegoing. Opening theatres is key because it is a decision that is made before theatrical revenues begin to flow. Risk comes from uncertainty about giving only some films a large set of opening theatres. For example, not every high-grossing film is the product of a wide release strategy. A platform release can, over time, become popular and consequently earn a relatively high level of gross revenues. For example, Schindler’s List, which opened in only 25 theatres, ended up the ninth-highest-grossing film of 1993.

Risk reduction occurs when the probability of expected outcome rises. Historical data on opening theatres enable us to see the history of risk reduction by comparing the differences in opening strategies (films sorted by opening theatres) and the outcome (films sorted by theatrical gross revenues). We can show an example of how this comparison works with a series of tables. In Table 1, we use data from boxofficemojo.com to rank the very top films by their box-office gross revenues. The table also provides the number of opening theatres for each film. Table 1 is interesting for a few reasons. What first stands out is Platoon, which only opened in six theatres but eventually went on to become the third-highest-grossing film of 1986; this success makes Platoon a good example of a highly successful platform release. The second and perhaps more important point is that there is no one-to-one match between revenue rankings and opening-theatre rankings. For example, the two top-grossing films–Top Gun and Crocodile Dundee–did not have the two widest releases of that year. Even on this abridged list, we can see five films that had wider releases in 1986.

TABLE 1: Films Released in 1986, Ranked by Box-Office Gross Revenues
Film Box-Office Gross Revenues Opening Theatres
Top Gun $176,786,701 1,028
Crocodile Dundee $174,803,506 879
Platoon $138,530,565 6
The Karate Kid Part II $115,103,979 1,323
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home $109,713,132 1,349
Back to School $91,258,000 1,605
Aliens $85,160,248 1,437
The Golden Child $79,817,937 1,667
Source: www.boxofficemojo.com for US theatrical gross revenues and opening theatres.

Table 2 offers a different view of the same year. It sorts films released in 1986 not by box-office revenues, but by opening theatres. Aside from two films, Back to School and The Golden Child, none of the films in Table 2 appear in Table 1. The films in Table 2 had the widest releases in 1986, but only two of them were able to even reach the $50 million plateau. The table also does not have any of the five films that broke the $100 million barrier, which is what separates the five biggest films of 1986 from the rest of their cohorts.

TABLE 2: Films Released in 1986, Ranked by Opening Theatres
Film Box-Office Gross Revenues Opening Theatres
Cobra $49,042,224 2,131
Police Academy 3: Back in Training $43,579,163 1,788
Raw Deal $16,209,459 1,731
The Delta Force $17,768,900 1,720
The Golden Child $79,817,937 1,667
Friday the 13th Part VI $19,472,057 1,610
Back to School $91,258,000 1,605
Poltergeist II: The Other Side $40,996,665 1,596
Source: www.boxofficemojo.com for US theatrical gross revenues and opening theatres.

Taken together, Tables 1 and 2 compare the top-performing films (ranked by gross revenues) to what Hollywood expected the top-performing films to be (ranked by opening theatres). In this case, Hollywood’s expectations via opening theatres were inaccurate; the largest grossing films came not from the largest openings, but from , from opening release strategies that were closer to platform releases. To quickly dispel any doubt that this uncertainty is unalterable, let us look at Table 3. It reproduces for 2007 an abbreviated version of Tables 1 and 2. As we saw, only two films appear in both tables for 1986–Back to School and The Golden Child. As Table 3 demonstrates, five films appear in both rankings for 2007. Furthermore, the same five films of 2007 occupy, although in different order, both top five spots. The benefits of increased predictability at the box-office pay off: in 2007 the gross revenues of the top 10 per cent of films accounted for roughly 75 per cent of all US box-office revenues. Moreover, risk reduction in 2007 extends further down the list of film rankings. For example, of the 50 widest releases of 2007, 39 films or 78 per cent, went on to become part of the 50 biggest grosses of 2007.

TABLE 3: Rankings in 2007
Ranked by Gross Revenues Ranked by Opening Theatres
Spider-Man 3 Pirates of the Caribbean: At …
Shrek the Third Harry Potter and the Order …
Transformers Spider-Man 3
Pirates of the Caribbean: At … Shrek the Third
Harry Potter and the Order … Transformers
I Am Legend Fantastic Four: Rise of …
The Bourne Ultimatum Ratatouille
National Treasure: Book of Secrets Bee Movie
Source: www.boxofficemojo.com for US theatrical gross revenues and opening theatres.

Predicting financial success based on opening-theatre strategies is more likely in 2007 than in 1986. Figure 1 provides a more detailed picture of the example above. The figure analyzes the dependence of revenue rank on theatre rank. For each year from 1982 to 2019, films are sorted and ranked by opening theatre size, where the largest opening is first and so on. Each film is given a rank for its position in opening theatre size and then for its position in yearly gross revenues. If, for instance, a film had a theatre rank of 1 and a revenue rank of 6, the film would be the first largest opening of its year and would have achieved the sixth largest gross revenues.

Even if a few wide-release films still do poorly, confidence about the wide-release strategy comes from greater predictability overall, whereby the largest openings will, in general, become the highest ranked films. The four panels in Figure 1 show that Hollywood has had a considerable boost in its confidence about saturation booking. Each of these panels isolates a period of years and plots the hundred widest releases against their revenue rankings. In the most recent period–the panel in the bottom right–the relationship is tightest; this would translate into higher confidence that the widest releases will become the biggest hits.

Figure 1: Revenue rank versus opening theatre rank, US market
Sources: http://www.boxofficemojo.com for yearly gross revenues and opening theatre
sizes of individual films.

Further reading

McMahon, J. (2013). The Rise of a Confident Hollywood: Risk and the Capitalization of Cinema. Review of Capital as Power, 1(1), 23–40.

McMahon, J. (2019). Is Hollywood a risky business? A political economic analysis of risk and creativity. New Political Economy, 24(4), 487 – 509. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/13563467.2018.1460338

References

De Vany, A. S. (2004). Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes the Film Industry. New York: Routledge.

Garvin, D. A. (1981, June). Blockbusters: The Economics of Mass Entertainment. Journal of Cultural Economics, 5(1), 1–20.

Pokorny, M., & Sedgwick, J. (2012). The Financial and Economic Risks of Film Production. In M. Hjort (Ed.), Film and Risk (pp. 181–196). Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

#90 Kwaidan. Dir. Masaki Kobayashi

Kwaidan is comprised of four Japanese ghost stories, each inspired by one of the stories in Lafcadio Hearn’s 1904 anthology, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. At the time of filming, Kobayashi’s Kwaidan was the most expensive Japanese film ever produced. Its high cost of production is up on the screen. As the film plays you see in vibrant technicolor the massive sets that were built in an airplane hanger. Kobayashi also does not let the large scale of his design substitute for attention to small details. A camera will never capture every small detail of its object, and in the case of Kwaidan, no better capture of the mise-en-scène would have made the audience believe they were watching anything other than something artificial–impossible because the horizon is always an unnatural color or matte painting. But Kobayashi surely spent money to assure that even the little pieces of his cinematic imagination felt like our most vivid dreams.

Take, for example, the second story, “The Woman of the Snow”. Much of the story takes place in a forest in wintertime. Access to an airplane hanger allowed for long shots to frame hills, a small lake, and two characters wandering in a snow storm. Unblinking eyes float on the painted horizon, and for this fantasy to seem real, the reeds around the lake and the snow that blew in the (indoor) wind were as realistic as they could be. (I would guess that in some corners of the set the fake snow must have accumulated to become snow drifts several feet deep.)

Kwaidan is often presented as Kobayashi’s respite from moral issues. Compared to the subject-matter of The Human Condition (which I have yet to see) and in terms of plot, Kwaidan is hardly asking moral questions. Yet at least two of the four stories–the first two–show individuals with the freedom to decide on outcome, but while also believing they will not suffer negative consequences from selfish decisions. The samurai in the “The Black Hair” leaves his first wife to marry another woman for higher social status. After attaining wealth and social privilege, he grows unhappy and fantasizes about walking through the gate and hallway of his old home, to see his first wife contentedly weaving with her spinning wheel. His arrogance is that he dreams his abandonment did no damage whatsoever.

“The Woman of the Snow” is a pure example of someone ignoring a clear truth. In the setting of a character actually experiencing a ghost sparing him and killing his friend, the truth of the ghost’s demand to never speak of this event is real as a law of nature. Thus, when years pass and the man tells his wife about the woman of the snow, who is played by the same actress that plays the wife, the return of the ghost feels almost deserved justice. She did say should would kill him if he said anything, so what did he expect?

The third story is called “Hoichi the Earless”. Hoichi plays the biwa and one night his playing attracts the attention of a spirit. This spirit is a samurai and brings Hoichi to a square to sing for a dead Emperor and his retinue. The spirits request Hoichi to sing about a 12th-century battle, named the Battle of Dan-no-ura. This recounting of the ancient battle is beautifully composed with a rotation of three shots: the Emperor and other ghosts sitting absolutely still as they listen to Hoichi; a slow pan over a Japanese drawing of the battle; and, warriors in dozens of boats that rock in the waves of red-colored water (the blood of those who died and fell overboard?). While the title of the story describes the injury Hoichi suffers from a mistake the priests make in trying to protect Hoichi from further visits from the biwa-loving spirit, the story is just as much about the tragedy of fading memory in history. The frozen faces in the audience of ghosts shows how distant everyone is from understanding the reasons for the ancient clans to kill each other in battle.

“In a Cup of Tea” is the last story in a film that is over three hours long. Sitting through to the very end takes a little patience. The fourth story is not of lesser quality than the other three, but the experience of it could feel unnecessary. By the end of the third story, Kobayashi has fed the viewer dozens of stunning visuals by having actors slow or stop their movement in long or medium shot. We get more artistic beauty from “In a Cup of Tea”–in this case from faces floating in water and from a swordsman fighting a ghost in his lord’s compound–but the anthology style of Kwaidan can let one feel little guilt for stopping early.