Monday, February 6, 2017

"Some People Know Things"

Even truisms aren’t entirely true. 

In that, they resemble “kosher style” restaurants.  They bring to mind the genuine article but their menu includes ham hocks. 

Example show business truism:

“Nobody knows anything.”

A truism attributed to two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men.)  You can imagine him concocting this notable quotable after some dopey studio executive shot down one of his ideas.

He’d turn down Rocky!  He’d turn down Star Wars!  He’d turn down The Godfather!
Not the third one; he’d probably make that.  And he’d be wrong every time!  I bring him gold! – an Eskimo “love triangle” set in a punishing tundra terrain?  How does he know Snow Blind won’t be the next blockbuster movie franchise? 

“The man acts like he’s got this infallible crystal ball, but you know what?

“Nobody knows anything!”

And so, an iconic aphorism is born.

Which – I did the research on this; it took me twelve seconds –

Two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman immediately invalidated.

Check out the expanded quote:

“Nobody knows anything… Not one person in the entire movie field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.”

You see what he did there?  And by the way, that’s why it’s important to read the quote in its accompanying context.  Partial Bing Crosby Quote:  “A voice like Sinatra’s comes along once in a lifetime.”  Completed Bing Crosby Quote:  “Why did it have to be my lifetime?’ 

“Der Bingle” was going for something other than a compliment.  You read half of it, you would never have known.

Historical Example (adding a soupcon of gravitas): 

Complete Abraham Lincoln Quote“You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.  Though I did better than expected growing this beard.” 

You read the expanded William Goldman quote and you get,

“Nobody knows anything… for a certainty.”

Which, filled out, is less iconic aphorism than “Duh.”

There is no human endeavor I know of where they know anything for a certainty. Except religion, and that’s a dissimilar kettle of mackerel, religious certainty being impossible to disprove.

“Heaven awaits the righteous.”

“How do you know that?”

“Is there any evidence it doesn’t?”

Nobody knows anything “for a certainty” anywhere except religion and they’re playing with more forgiving parameters.  (Softening the skepticism, I throw in this P.D. James quote, which I kept, suggesting it struck a resonating chord:  (Concerning Religion:  “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”  And now, back to what I’m talking about.)

We like to slam studio executives because they are powerful people with questionable credentials.  Holding them to the unattainable “certainty” standard, however, brings even their battle-scarred disparagers to their defense.  That is simply not fair.  It’s justifiable payback, but it’s not fair.

As with all commercial enterprises, the best a film executive can do is to maximize their chances by sensibly playing the percentages.  What’s working now?  Who’s bringing me the project?  What does the audience testing suggest?  What is the likelihood of recouping our investment?  What movie would I like to see?  (As long as it’s not an Eskimo “love triangle” set in a punishing tundra terrain.  What movie would I reasonably like to see?)

Forget about “certainty”… which everyone asserting that Goldman quote inevitably does.  There are reliable methods for shortening the odds.  I offer, as an example, my Great-Uncle Manny, a former Hollywood executive, hired to choose the upcoming slate of pictures by the owners of a string of independent movie theaters in Buffalo, New York. 

Twice a year, Uncle Manny flew to the Coast, where, wined and dined by the major studios, he then screened their upcoming releases.  Based on the needs of his employers, whose holdings leaned more towards drive-ins than art houses, Uncle Manny, not with certainty but with an educated nose for what sells, selected the cinematic “product” that would appear on their screens.   

Uncle Manny had a simple formula for picking movies he felt would be profitable at the box office.  Again, not “sure fire” – it’s a highly speculative business – but the best available prediction.

“‘F and F’ pictures”, he’d proclaim.  That’s what inevitably does the trick.

What’s does “F and F” pictures stand for?

To relatives with more delicate sensibilities he explained,

“Fightin’ and… foolin’ around.”

“Nobody knows anything”? 

Uncle Manny knew something.

And he worked successfully into his eighties.

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Something can be obvious and yet still come as news to a lot of people. I love Goldman's writing about the industry.