I've used this famous quote, about how nobody in Hollywood has any idea what is going to work at the box office, many times:
I've used it, most often, to reapply to the publishing industry where it also seems to me to be manifestly true. Nobody in publishing has the vaguest idea how to reliably produce a bestseller. And I've always vaguely attributed the quote to some famous Hollywood guy. A studio exec, I thought, maybe.
Well it turns out it was actually said by William Goldman Hollywood screenwriting legend (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, The Princess Bride, The Ghost and the Darkness, Chaplin), and also, perhaps not incidentally, first a novelist. Perfect. I know this now because I found the quote while reading his rather fabulous book, Adventures in the Screen Trade. (I read a lot of screenwriting books. I'm actually reading three now Goldman's, and these two, both of which are also fabulous. Hat tip to Ian Hocking for the Goldman, by the way. What a great pointer.)
Anyway, the section the quote is drawn from is so brilliant, I thought it deserved a fuller excerpting. It's a bit of history now.
The "go" decision is the ultimate importance of the studio executive. They are responsible for what gets up there on the silver screen. Compounding their problem of no job security in the decision-making process is the single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry:
If there is a Roman numeral I to this book, that's it.
Again, for emphasis
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.
Raiders is the number-four film in history as this is being written. I don't remember any movie that had such power going in. It was more or less the brainchild of George Lucas and was directed by Steven Spielberg, the two unquestioned wunderkinder of show business (Star Wars, Jaws, etc.) Probably you all knew that. But did you know that Raiders of the Lost Ark was offered to every single studio in town
and they all turned it down?
All except Paramount.
Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars, a decision that just may cost them, when all the sequels and spinoffs and toy money and book money and video-game money are totaled, over a billion dollars? Because nobody, nobody not now, not ever knows the least goddamn thing about what is or isn't going to work at the box office.
Goldman was almost equally famous for the adage that "screenplays ARE structure." (I almost misquoted that as "story IS structure"…)
Update: It has been brought to my attention that in Hollywood and screenwriting circles this is actually know as “The Goldman Rule.”