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July 08, 2006

Chance picks Hollywood's blockbusters

A few days ago there was an article in the Los Angeles Times that is every Hollywood producer's worst fear laid bare. The article, by physicist and mathematician Leonard Mlodinow, shows how much the success or failure of movies depends on chance and chance alone. As Mlodinow points out, this is bad news indeed for Hollywood execs:

That no one can know whether a film will hit or miss has been an uncomfortable suspicion in Hollywood at least since novelist and screenwriter William Goldman enunciated it in his classic 1983 book "Adventures in the Screen Trade." If Goldman is right and a future film's performance is unpredictable, then there is no way studio executives or producers, despite all their swagger, can have a better track record at choosing projects than an ape throwing darts at a dartboard.

That's a bold statement, but these days it is hardly conjecture: With each passing year the unpredictability of film revenue is supported by more and more academic research.

Mlodinow's article is a great, layman-friendly explaination of how random chance works, how some producers can be hot while others have flop after flop without talent having anything to do with it, and why after a studio head gets canned the studio will usually do better no matter who takes over. This is one of the best general readership pieces I've seen on probability in everyday life in a long time. Here's a link to the article.

P.S. Book publisher Tim O'Reilly has also been talking about this article on his O'Reilly Radar blog. He doesn't buy into all of Mlodinow's arguments, feeling that positive word of mouth plays a very important role in a film's success or failure. (But of course, since you can't predict word of mouth it becomes just another random element).

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at July 8, 2006 03:31 PM