Sunday, July 02, 2006

Hollywood genius

Physicist turned author and screenwriter Leonard Mlodinow has a nice article in the LA Times on the hit or miss nature of the movie industry. He recapitulates the myth of expertise as it applies to studio executives, whom he compares to dart throwing monkeys (a la fund managers in finance).

Mlodinow wrote a charming memoir about his time as a postdoc at Caltech in the early 1980s. Fresh from Berkeley, having written a PhD dissertation on the large-d expansion (d is the number of dimensions), he was in over his head at Caltech, but found a friend and mentor in the ailing Richard Feynman.

We all understand that genius doesn't guarantee success, but it's seductive to assume that success must come from genius. As a former Hollywood scriptwriter, I understand the comfort in hiring by track record. Yet as a scientist who has taught the mathematics of randomness at Caltech, I also am aware that track records can deceive.

That no one can know whether a film will hit or miss has been an uncomfortable suspicion in Hollywood at least since novelist and screenwriter William Goldman enunciated it in his classic 1983 book "Adventures in the Screen Trade." If Goldman is right and a future film's performance is unpredictable, then there is no way studio executives or producers, despite all their swagger, can have a better track record at choosing projects than an ape throwing darts at a dartboard.

That's a bold statement, but these days it is hardly conjecture: With each passing year the unpredictability of film revenue is supported by more and more academic research.

That's not to say that a jittery homemade horror video could just as easily become a hit as, say, "Exorcist: The Beginning," which cost an estimated $80 million, according to Box Office Mojo, the source for all estimated budget and revenue figures in this story. Well, actually, that is what happened with "The Blair Witch Project" (1999), which cost the filmmakers a mere $60,000 but brought in $140 million—more than three times the business of "Exorcist." (Revenue numbers reflect only domestic receipts.)

What the research shows is that even the most professionally made films are subject to many unpredictable factors that arise during production and marketing, not to mention the inscrutable taste of the audience. It is these unknowns that obliterate the ability to foretell the box-office future.

But if picking films is like randomly tossing darts, why do some people hit the bull's-eye more often than others? For the same reason that in a group of apes tossing darts, some apes will do better than others. The answer has nothing to do with skill. Even random events occur in clusters and streaks.

...If the mathematics is counterintuitive, reality is even worse, because a funny thing happens when a random process such as the coin-flipping experiment is actually carried out: The symmetry of fairness is broken and one of the films becomes the winner. Even in situations like this, in which we know there is no "reason" that the coin flips should favor one film over the other, psychologists have shown that the temptation to concoct imagined reasons to account for skewed data and other patterns is often overwhelming.

...Actors in Hollywood understand best that the industry runs on luck. As Bruce Willis once said, "If you can find out why this film or any other film does any good, I'll give you all the money I have." (For the record, the film to which he referred, 1993's "Striking Distance," didn't do any good.) Willis understands the unpredictability of the film business not simply because he's had box-office highs and lows. He knows that random events fueled his career from the beginning, and his story offers another case in point...

1 comment:

Hogg said...

I know some very skillful apes.

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