Nobody Knows Anything – Uncertainty Rules

14 06 2012

“Nobody knows anything.” It’s perhaps screenwriter William Goldman’s most famous quote (second only to “my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father prepare to die”). Goldman was referring the fact that prior to a movie’s release, studio execs really have no idea how it is going to do. The idea is that if people knew what would work and what would flop, there’d be no bombs. Well, outside of hilarious, Producers-style scheming intentional bombs.

What Goldman is really getting at is the heart of what it means to live and work in Hollywood. People sometimes ask me what, as an anthropologist, I’ve learned from ten+ years of studying the entertainment industry; and perhaps the number one lesson is that everybody, everywhere in the business, is plagued by Uncertainty. Studios don’t know whether their movie will be a hit or a flop. Screenwriters don’t know if their next script will be bought. Actors don’t know when their next gig will come. Actually, almost nobody knows when their next gig will come, not for sure.

Uncertainty hangs over the head of everyone, like the sword of Damocles. But uncertainty is the situation, what’s interesting is what behavior results from it: anxiety. This anxiety caused by uncertainty is one the hallmarks of Hollywood life. It’s this fear, for example, that can sometimes lead people to do things that seem odd to outsiders – like cancelling a new TV show before it’s even aired a single episode (this has happened at least 70 times in the history of television).

anthropology of hollywood

The myth of the Sword of Damocles.  Moral of the story: in positions of great power and prestige, there’s always a sharp, pointy piece of uncertainty hanging over your head.

Everybody seems to feel this anxiety, from the top of the industry food chain down to the bottom. But what do they do about it? Asa Boholm, writing about the anthropology of risk, said that people think about uncertainty along two lines: the probability that something will or won’t happen, and whether the stakes are high or low. So basically, if you look at a situation and decide that the stakes are low and the probability something will happen is high, you’ve got one response, and if the risks are high and the outcome uncertain, the reaction is different (he then details what those coping responses are; I won’t bore you any further with it, though). In most of Hollywood, the stakes are actually fairly well-known and pretty high: it’s your livelihood that are the stakes (or how well the movie or TV show you’re working on does, which affects your livelihood). What’s uncertain is the probability of the outcome – booking the job, whether the movie will be a hit or a flop, etc.

So people come up with coping strategies to try and manage that risk; you try to schmooze all your contacts to get the job; you try and advertise the heck out of John Carter so people will go see it, etc. That’s how this anxiety translates into actual behavior: the way many people act in the entertainment industry is based on trying to mitigate that risk – to lower their uncertainty.  What this means is that many people’s behavior in the industry seems to be driven, at least to some degree, by fear.

One big example of this is when studios hire stars for big movies as a way to try to mitigate the risk; Arthur De Vany and David Walls published an article analyzing statistically whether having a big-name star in your movie could reduce the uncertainty of an opening, and guarantee a hit. The answer, they found, is that stars can’t guarantee a movie will open big, but they do seem to statistically insure a minimum return; in other words, they can’t guarantee that a movie will be more successful, but they can make it fail less.

One of De Vany’s charts, showing the statistical analysis of whether stars matter to a movie’s bottom line. If I’d taken a statistics class, I’d probably understand this better (citation at bottom of page)

So in the end, while Goldman was pretty much right – nobody knows anything for sure, people do actually have coping mechanisms to make up for that fact. So maybe it’s better to say “Nobody knows anything; but they can still try and stack the deck.”

— Scott Frank

• Two lists of TV shows cancelled before they ever aired can be found here: (http://www.imdb.com/list/8E9XSxU6F34/) and here: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_television_series_canceled_before_airing_an_episode)

• Table from Artur De Vany and W. David Walls, “Uncertainty in the Movie Industry: Does Star Power Reduce the Terror of the Box Office?” Journal of Cultural Economics 23: 285–318, 1999.

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