Nobody knows anything, but don’t tell the financiers

Reader Jack Ketch commented on Why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test something I think deserves more discussion:

William Goldman described the phrase “non-recurring phenomenon” in his book The Big Picture, a collection of essays discussing movies with studio execs during the 90s; any film that had success while challenging the prevalent assumptions was described as a “non-recurring phenomenon” by the studio execs to explain why they wouldn’t repeat what had been successful.

The primary example was The First Wives Club; Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn pulled in almost $20 million the opening weekend, and finished over $100 million domestic. There’s obviously an audience for films with older (by Hollywood standards), female leads, why aren’t the studios making more of them Goldman asked? Because that film was a “non-recurring phenomenon” was the answer.

Goldman’s explanation was that the studio execs, the moguls and big shots who decide what movies get made, are terrified that people will find out that they really don’t know anything at all; they can always explain away a failure, but a movie that succeeds when common wisdom says it shouldn’t truly threatens them. So they perpetuate the common wisdom by not making those films in the first place, not because they’re afraid that the films will fail, but because they’re afraid that they’ll succeed.

Typical business plan, a la South Park.

Typical business plan, as lampooned by South Park.

The reason why big shots would fear people finding out that “nobody knows anything” is simple: financiers pour millions into every movie that gets made. Studios aren’t sitting around with kajillions in the bank – they have to convince people with money to back their movies, and those people expect a good return on their investment. Movies are speculative ventures, and no one likes to speculate wildly. Investors like to hear what sounds like convincing evidence that a movie they’re backing will make them money.

The age-old example here is the original Star Wars. It wasn’t supposed to make more than a modest profit (and that, only because it was so low budget). Fox thought it was crap. To their amazement, it lined people up around the block on the first day. It launched a merchandise line that’s still churning obnoxiously (but so profitably) to this day. It launched an amazingly successful franchise. All because – despite being a rip-off of any number of artistically superior movies – it wasn’t quite like anything anyone had seen before.

Lucas had made a movie people didn’t know they wanted to see. If you’d polled them, they wouldn’t have promised to see it. If you’d made something similar to test the waters, it might have flopped laughably (many similar movies have). In short, there was no predicting the success of one of the most successful movies of all time.

Sometimes it feels like film execs have spent the last three decades just trying to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. And that’s basically what Goldman is saying: they are more afraid of having to explain a success that breaks the mold than of explaining a failure that fits it. Everybody knows at the end of the day no stock expert can guarantee you the right investments – no movie is guaranteed, either. But when a movie succeeds inexplicably, potential investors start to wonder if you really know what the audience wants to see.

You handle this by sticking to the formula and memorizing a lot of excuses that always back the formula. That way, when financiers – or half your young screenwriting class – ask why Aliens, Terminator, and Silence of the Lambs did well with men despite female leads, or ask why a ‘chick flick’ called Titanic still holds the record for highest grossing film of all time, or why First Wives’ Club did well, or why did Buffy and Alias perform well enough to make it the all-important five years, or why women clearly went to see The Matrix movies and the Star Wars prequels, you can rattle off the most appropriate of these “reasons”:

  • Because of the male leads.
  • Because of the famous male director.
  • Because of the special effects.
  • Because of the tightly paced story.
  • Because of the romance.
  • Because there was no competition that summer/time slot.
  • Because of the marketing.
  • Women only went because their boyfriends dragged them along.
  • Men only went because their girlfriends dragged them along (this one only really works on Titanic)
  • Women will watch anything, so they don’t count.
  • Dismiss the TV shows as not indicative of movie trends.
  • Dismiss the movie trends as not indicative of TV trends.
  • If all else fails, obfuscate, lie and say you’ve got to be somewhere else but you’ll finish the discussion later.

If you convince yourself only the formula is right and anything outside the formula is wrong, your logic warps, freeing you to come up with all sorts of rationalizations. If you sell them well enough, the financiers buy them and you get your movie made. If the movie flops, there’s a whole other bunch of excuses for that eventuality.

You can’t have marketing data that proves a type of movie is viable unless you make that movie. How can we prove what audiences want to see if we don’t have filmmakers trying new things? If every filmmaker who tries to make something new is stopped dead by an industry that’s convinced its backers not to try anything new?

And when’s the last time you saw a movie featuring a woman get a boost from the sort of marketing campaign most big (and therefore male-led) movies get? Even Silence of the Lambs was a slow starter. Is it that studios assume a female-led movie won’t make it, or that they don’t want them to succeed? And what about ‘chick flicks,’ which never get the kind of marketing big movies get, yet are consistently quite profitable because they’re so cheap to make (like ’em or not)?

With Sex in the City, we’re seeing once more that Hollywood is flabbergasted to discover women go to theaters without men:

Does this sound familiar? Didn’t we have this conversation with Hollywood already, on the occasion of the 1995 surprise hit Waiting to Exhale and the 2001 surprise hit The Princess Diaries and the 2002 surprise hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the 2006 surprise hit The Devil Wears Prada and the January surprise hit 27 Dresses? When industry professionals are rendered wide-eyed with shock by the same piece of information again and again, only two explanations (besides Botox) are possible: They’re either, for lack of a daintier term, stupid, or they’re deeply invested in pretending that the power of the female moviegoing audience is…surprising.

They’re not stupid. So what gives? ”Surprising,” in this context, connotes something that isn’t supposed to happen, something that, in a business that depends on predictability, may even be undesirable. But calling something a surprise is also a reminder that it constitutes an exception to the rule, and thus provides reassurance that the rule still exists.

I’ll leave you on that note, because you really should go read that article. He makes the point wonderfully.


  1. says

    They’re not stupid.

    *bruurrppp* This assertion is unsupported by the evidence. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that both the possibilities Harris presents are true: that the small handful of people making decisions in Hollywood are *deeply* stupid, and that they are personally and professionally invested in a level of misogyny that makes them *more* stupid.

    I have in the past called this Hollywood’s IQ-Suppressing Field, the effects of which are apparently amplified by testosterone.

    From what I’ve seen — and I too have been very influenced by William Goldman — Hollywood suffers from severely over-concentrated decision-making, especially on the movie side. The people who have risen to the top in this industry enjoy this over-concentration, they like the fact that there are very very few people who can green-light a movie. So there’s an extreme imbalance between the few people with power and the enormous number of people who want to be involved in Hollywood in any way, and the upshot is a whole industry organized around learned helplessness.

  2. says


    Two words – Please explain?

    I had a conversation about a year-ish ago with someone about the way the bulk of critics, who are male, will trash something that appeals to a primarily female audience.* (Hence that lovely phenomena of “let’s get two people to review the SatC movie! Because what really counts is how the menz feel about! But we have to have a girl in there, too, even if she’s not a SatC fan and even if she’s not a movie reviewer!”)

    See, I’m a big believer in acknowledging that some movies just aren’t meant to appeal to me. See: torture pr0n, horror flicks of any kind, anything with Adam Sandler. I can review them, I suppose, but what difference does it make?

    I contrast this with the Summer Blockbuster Movies, which I keep being told not to go to because despite what is supposed to be a broad appeal. By simply being part of the movie-going public, I’m who they are marketing too. But my opinion doesn’t count because I’m a girl, I guess.

    So, when a movie is aimed squarely at women, the male critics will go on about how they Just Don’t Get It, and yet when a movie is allegedly aimed at a broader audience, the only opinions who count are primarily male.

    * This conversation apparently made me sexist. We don’t talk much anymore.

  3. MaggieCat says

    Isn’t Jon Peters the dimwit producer who held up the latest Superman movie for nearly 20 years by trying to insist on things like ‘no costume’, ‘no flying’, and ‘a gay robot sidekick’ as well as his apparent fascination with giant mechanical spiders? (The man produced Wild Wild West and apparently even tried to stick one in the Sandman adaptation as well. Yikes.)

    I think Steven Spielberg even had it written into his contract that Peters and (his producing partner) Peter Gruber were banned from the set of The Color Purple because they always had “suggestions”. If their taste in suggestions is anything like their film credits would lead me to believe, go Spielberg. Nice to see someone using their influence for good.

  4. Patrick says

    Yes. Basically, Peters combines incredible immaturity with being easily influenced. If he sees something that he likes, then whatever project he’s working on has to have that in it. And for some reason he still has tremendous influence.

    For example, the “gay robot sidekick” was demanded because he liked Chris Tucker’s character in The Fifth Element. The polar bears and spiders were demanded because he had been on a nature documentary kick. He is essentially entirely driven by his own whims, with no consideration for anything else.

    If I ever sell a screenplay and Jon Peters becomes involved, I may have to forgo any further involvement, because I never, ever want to have to deal with him.

  5. Eileen says

    I think Steven Spielberg even had it written into his contract that Peters and (his producing partner) Peter Gruber were banned from the set of The Color Purple because they always had “suggestions”.

    Though I think a giant spider in Color Purple would have been amazing. Want my guess on their number one suggestion for Color Purple? “Make Celie prettier.” Just guessing.

    Kevin Smith’s long story about Jon Peters and his obsession with giant spiders is well worth seeking out, by the way. Oh, the insanity.

  6. Patrick says

    Oh, I loved Smith’s Jon Peters story:

    “Sean Penn should play Superman, because he has the eyes of a killer.” (So said because Peters loved Penn in Dead Man Walking. Once he saw another movie with a lead he liked, he decided that guy should play Superman. And so on.)

  7. says

    Doctor Science, I agree that stupidity can be a factor. There’s an amazing amount of nepotism in film – far more than in any other industry I’m aware of. When enough people get hired for who they know instead of what they know… they may or may not be underqualified (or stupid) but at the very least the industry will suffer for lack of diverse thinking and new ideas.

    I also still believe ego is a big factor. Practically, they want to convince investors their money will be safe. But film has always attracted people who have huge egos, and their attitudes filter down and shape the culture of the industry, making it hard for people who have a healthy self-image to compete. Hmm, this may also be part of what drives Hollywood to work to make women neurotic with body shame – shaming others is a favored tool in the arsenal of the ego-obsessed.

  8. says


    Yes, I’d noticed that Hollywood is extremely nepotistic, to the point of being more aristocratic than capitalistic. I don’t know if there’s any other way to explain why Jon Peters continues to have power & influence.

    I don’t really understand why an industry that so many people are absolutely desperate to get into should be nepotistic — surely they *should* be able to take only the most talented people. I wonder if it means that no-one actually knows what makes a movie or TV show work, so there’s no moderately objective measure of talent and probable success — or if it’s a side effect of the huge number trying to get into the industry, that the only way insiders can filter the people trying to get in the door is to look only at friends of friends.

  9. says

    I wonder if it means that no-one actually knows what makes a movie or TV show work, so there’s no moderately objective measure of talent and probable success — or if it’s a side effect of the huge number trying to get into the industry, that the only way insiders can filter the people trying to get in the door is to look only at friends of friends.

    I think it’s both. I’ve seen how agents get flooded with more query letters than they can possibly read – even with unpaid interns to do the reading – so they resort to throwing out some unread, randomly. Naturally, when you have a stack of query letters up to the rafters and someone you know and respect recommends a friend, you go for the friend.

    But another problem is that the only quantified method – which has been disputed as ridiculous for years – is to go by whatever the person’s last movie made as a benchmark for what the next one will make. It doesn’t work because it ignores so many factors (do movies with top actors/directors/writers keep doing well because of those individuals, or because of the great marketing campaigns their films get on the assumption they’ll more than pay it back, or is it simply that those individuals pick good projects?), but additionally it creates barriers for people entering the business who have no stats to make investors want to risk a movie on them.

  10. Jack Ketch says

    I’m not sure the studios are actually distinct from the financiers in any meaningful way; with the “big 6” all subsidiaries of global-scale conglomerates like General Electric and News Corp. I suspect that the people in charge think of movies merely as product. I doubt there’s any real desire on the part of the studio executives to be making different movies, from which they are prevented by the (perceived) inability to pitch those projects to the financiers; I think the studio heads themselves are indifferent to what movies get made beyond the ROI projections.

  11. says

    Jack, it’s my understanding that the big companies who own the studios don’t make money by risking it on movies – they make it by getting others to risk it on movies. That’s the advantage of being a middle man – someone pays you, and before you have to pay the money back, you get to both invest it (even a day’s interest on millions being quite a return) and hopefully profit on it.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the financiers are people who are very much part of the industry/corp conglomerate, which may be what you mean. But as far as I know, the studios don’t dip into coffers they perceive as their own very often, which means they’re still in a middleman position, which means their task is not to decide what’s worth a risk, but to decide what they can convince someone else to risk.

  12. Renee says

    I’ve heard several of those list of excuses from a couple of those closest to me (I’m happy to say that my husband isn’t one of them) and from an early age. I wonder about my peers who’ve also heard these excuses but still haven’t managed to break this toxic thought-pattern. Within the past year, I’ve been starting them with the Bechdel Test, and following up on their cinema experience after a sufficient amount of time has passed. They’ve grumbled at me for ruining movies for them, but we know it’s for the better. If they haven’t already, they have begun to see these excuses for what they are.

    On another happy note, not a single man in my family’s made any excuses for enjoying “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (which is great, because a few of them buy in to the list of excuses) and if anyone ever said anything snide about liking “The Princess Diaries” my brother would shrug it off and say, “It was a good movie.” The leads in both movies were relatable; what big equation do the financiers need to understand that?


  1. […] And he was one of the ones who wanted change. He just believed all the usual arguments about how the audience wouldn’t tolerate change. You know, the arguments about how the “right” audience wouldn’t go see a fantastic suspense/sci-fi thriller if it starred Sigourney Weaver instead of some dude, and so on and so forth. You know the examples we’ve all named that prove the dominant theories imperfect, at the very least. They were always dismissed as non-recurring phenomena. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *