Blogger: Rachelle Gardner
“Nobody knows anything…… 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.”
― William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade
William Goldman was one of the greats, as both a novelist and screenwriter. His screenplay credits include…
- The Princess Bride (based on his novel)
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
- Marathon Man (based on his novel)
- All the President’s Men
- …and many more.
In honor of Goldman’s passing this week, I wanted to repeat this post I wrote several years ago. His book Adventures in the Screen Trade was originally published in 1984 and has always been one of my favorites because it’s so full of wisdom. The quote at the top of this post is from that book, and I love it because it’s so true—and it applies to publishing, too. Nobody knows anything. We don’t know how a book will do until it goes on sale, or sometimes, until it’s been on sale several months or even years.
Publishing companies and Hollywood studios routinely produce works they predict will sell based on past success of similar works. It’s a flawed method of decision making, but it’s the best we’ve got.
Besides analyzing past experience, what can we do to predict future success of a book or movie?
We watch the market; we pay attention to the cultural zeitgeist; we look at what’s going on in the world and think about how that might affect people’s choices in how to spend their leisure time; we look at what people are enjoying in the other arts.
But predicting the future based on the past is an inexact science.
Not really a science, even, but an art. Anytime we’re trying to predict future success of an individual project, we are making an educated guess, no more.
“The audience is fickle.”
A corollary to “nobody knows anything” is this famous quip from legendary writer/director Billy Wilder about the unpredictability of the audience. Sure, last year they may have gone crazy over vampire novels, but will they still be so enthralled next year? Nobody knows.
It takes the same effort and money to create a movie or a book that’s going to bomb as one that’s going to do well.
This underscores the truth of “nobody knows anything” because if we knew—if we were able to make accurate predictions—then perhaps in the pursuit of the bottom line, we’d only publish bestsellers and only make blockbuster movies.
Instead, we have thousands of non-bestselling books published every year, which is a great thing. We have so many great choices. The fact that nobody knows anything works in your favor if you’re a writer, and even if you’re a reader.
It’s pointless to try and follow the trends.
Anytime you ask an industry professional a question that has to do with predicting the future (Will Amish fiction ever go away? Is paranormal going out of style or will it still be hot next year?) just remember that the answer they give you is not gospel, it is simply their informed opinion based on what they see around them. It could be completely accurate… or dead wrong.
Only time will tell, because nobody knows anything.
One thing we do know is that William Goldman was a brilliant writer, and we’d all do well to study his screenplays. Mr. Goldman, I salute you.
Based on what’s happening in books and movies today, what predictions can YOU make about the future?