Nobody Knows Anything



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The title of my 2016 Bloomberg column was lifted directly from William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade.

Goldman was the author of such seminal screenplays as Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy, and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, and was the “script doctor” for Twins, A Few Good Men, Indecent Proposal, and Last Action Hero.

Adventures in the Screen Trade excerpt:

Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess— and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.

They don’t know when the movie is finished: B. J. Thomas’s people, after the first sneak of Butch, were upset about their client’s getting involved with the song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” One of them was heard to say, more than once, “B. J. really hurt himself with this one.” The initial preview of Star! was such a success that Richard Zanuck cancelled any further previews and sent a wire to his father, Darryl, that said, “We’re home. Better than Sound of Music.”

The Sound of Music was then the most popular movie in history, and Star! went on to become the Edsel of 20th Century-Fox: No matter how they readvertised it or changed the logo or the title, no one came. And Richard Zanuck has as keen a mind about commercial films as anyone.

They don’t know when the movie is starting to shoot either. David Brown, Zanuck’s partner, has said, “We didn’t know whether Jaws would work, but we didn’t have any doubts about The Island. It had to be a smash. Everything worked. The screenplay worked. Every actor we sent it to said yes. I didn’t know until a few days after we opened and I was in a bookstore and I ran into Lew Wasserman and said ‘How’re we doing?’ and he said, ‘David, they don’t want to see the picture.’”

They don’t want to see the picture– maybe the most chilling phrase in the industry.

Now, if the best people around don’t know at sneaks, and they don’t know during shooting, you better believe that executives don’t know when they’re trying to give a thumbs-up or down; they’re trying to predict public taste three years ahead and it’s just not possible.

Obviously, I’m asking you to take my word on this and there’s no reason really that you should, because pictures such as Raiders of the Lost Ark probably come to mind. Which, I grant, was an unusual film.

Raiders is the number-four film in history as this is being written. I don’t remember any movie that had such power going in. It was more or less the brainchild of George Lucas and was directed by Steven Spielberg, the two unquestioned wunderkinder of show business (Star Wars, Jaws, etc.). Probably you all knew that. But did you know that Raiders of the Lost Ark was offered to every single studio in town— and they all turned it down?

All except Paramount.

Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars, a decision that just may cost them, when all the sequels and spinoffs and toy money and book money and video-game money are totaled, over a billion dollars? Because nobody, nobody-not now, not ever—knows the least goddam thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.

One additional anguish executives must cope with is that hot streaks don’t last. A recent newspaper article mentioned how the other studios were gloating over what was happening at Columbia.

Columbia had been sizzling, but then Annie went wildly over budget. And an expensive action film wouldn’t cut together coherently. And everybody knew that the set of Tootsie was not where you wanted to spend your summer vacation. And they had passed on E.T.

Columbia had had it, developed it for a million dollars, took a survey, and discovered the audience for the movie would be too limited to make it profitable. So they let it go. (Universal picked it up and may make back the billion they didn’t earn by dropping Star Wars.)

David Picker, a fine studio executive for many years, once said something to this effect: “If I had said yes to all the projects I turned down, and no to all the ones I took, it would have worked out about the same.”

In any case, do not send to know why studio executives have insomnia. It goes with the territory….


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