Hollywood’s mantra: “Nobody knows anything”

Hollywood’s mantra: “Nobody knows anything”

September 18, 2021

Originally published at notes on cinema

James McMahon

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


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.