Nobody Knows Anything

Advice from Hollywood, part 1
Back in the early ‘90s I was an L.A. girl working in television and writing screenplays on the side. Every single Saturday morning our screenwriting group would meet at my home (50 feet off the beachit was a rough life) and critique our weekly ten pages in excruciating detail. We took classes together, read the great screenwriting books, and studied the art of screenwriting in such depth that you’d think we’d all be making millions in Hollywood by now.

Well, not so much. Each of us went on to different careers. But the things I learned from those years of studying the art of the screenplay have stuck with me and been instrumental in my understanding of story, and my ability to (I hope) recognize good ones.

So it’s Hollywood Week on the blog! Each day I’ll share some Hollywood wisdom that can be helpful to novelists (and even non-fiction writers). Let’s get started.

“Nobody Knows Anything” – William Goldman

Contrary to what some people think, this quote was never intended to imply that Hollywood executives are unintelligent or don’t know their business. That’s not what we’re saying about publishing people, either.
What it means is that it’s impossible to accurately predict the success of a movie before it releases; likewise, we can’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.

Of course, publishing companies and Hollywood studios routinely produce works that they predict will sell based on past success of similar works. It’s an admittedly 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 project future success of an individual project, we are making an educated guess, no more.

A corollary to “nobody knows anything” is Billy Wilder’s famous tip: The audience is fickle. Sure, last year they may have gone crazy over vampire novels, but will they still be so enthralled next year? Nobody knows.

It takes just as much effort, time, 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, only bestsellers would be published and only blockbuster movies would be made. Instead, we have thousands of non-bestselling books published every year so that there are many, many great choices for those of us who like to read. The fact that nobody knows anything works in your favor if you’re a writer, and even if you’re a reader.

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.

Q4U: Based on what’s happening in books and movies today, what predictions can YOU make about the future?

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  2. arbraun on February 26, 2011 at 11:22 PM

    >I'm going to predict that vampires and zombies will keep selling like crazy because, even though most people should get tired of over-beaten tropes, they never do. The reason? People should've become bored with them years ago. This is a never-ending source of agony for yours truly.

  3. Susan on February 23, 2011 at 9:46 AM

    >I'm catching up here; I've been busy with my family.

    I'm so excited you're highlighting with "Hollywood Week".

    I love great books that turn into great movies.

    Who could have imagined that a movie about a King's speech could produce so many Oscar nominations!

    It's historic and people who have similar frustrations will be able to relate.

    I heard that movie was created in the area of $15 million.

    It just goes to show you that you in many cases a great story is all you need. Not all great movies have to have gigantic budgets.

  4. iheartya on February 22, 2011 at 2:15 PM

    >Another guilty confession: I would love to write a script one day. Okay, more specifically, I want to write for Donald Bellisariou (Quantum Leap, Magnum P.I., JAG, NCIS). The man is a genius. Not particularly literary, but a genius in my little world. 😉

  5. Lorelei Armstrong on February 22, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    >But everyone in the western tradition knows the hero's journey. It's like observing it's also a good idea to write in English.

    Go to film school and they'll teach you so much about structure that I can now tell you what needs to happen on page 22 of your screenplay. Afraid it takes more than that.

  6. Anonymous on February 22, 2011 at 11:22 AM

    >There's always been one story pattern, now known as hero's journey – see ; that's the way you write it and sell it in Hollywood.

  7. Jane Wells on February 22, 2011 at 8:19 AM

    >Oooh, so fun!
    I think Ron at CM is dead on when calling the future of distribution. I think even authors traditional length books will be called upon to write bonus materials as the book package becomes more like what we find on a DVD.
    For Ramona Richards and twittertales – "Hold On, I'm Comin'" *cue Motown horn riff*
    I'm so happy to hear at least two people call for what I'm having so much fun writing!

  8. Lorelei Armstrong on February 21, 2011 at 11:58 PM

    >Sending to those magazines I hope her last name is Proulx or Oates or equivalent.

    I did manage to get a novel legitimately published, and I am happy to report that while it seems impossible, it is at least 8,572 times less so than selling a screenplay. I needed no contacts, no nothing. I didn't even need a stamp, as it started with an electronic submission.

    Another advantage over screenwriting I can recommend— book tours are excellent fun. I was a speaker at the Southern California Writers Conference the year the book came out.

    I shall also confess that the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference is Epic. I've been going for fifteen years. I don't carry a grudge about non-screenwriting conferences, etc., mostly because there is no money in writing novels. We're all broke, and don't attract the same circle of vultures. We just like the writing part.

  9. Anonymous on February 21, 2011 at 11:51 PM

    >Amen, Lorelei!~ What about the MFA programs in Fiction and Creative writing? I took one course after college and it was brutal–those snobby know-it-alls can have their MFAs. One friend with TWO MFA's is so paralyzed and perfectionist–so afraid of making a mistake–that she spends YEARS on one short story, and has yet to be published because she only submits to the New Yorker or Harper's or the Atlantic.

    I think most (if not all) of these writers courses and conferences are a pipe dream for wanna be's who want to pretend they're wtiters…but what have they actually produced? And if you actually manage to write a novel, well, good luck getting an agent if you don't have any contacts!

  10. Lorelei Armstrong on February 21, 2011 at 10:35 PM

    >I ran off to Los Angeles and got an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA. And then I created a website to warn others against following in my footsteps. I recently had an agent ask me if I was interested in turning my website into a book. I told him that would rather defeat my goal to not become part of the parasite industry that tries to sell writers on the notion that they, too, might become Hollywood's Next Big Thing:

  11. Sean on February 21, 2011 at 5:25 PM

    >Timothy – I was kidding about unicorns and leprechauns. I meant chupacabras. My bad.

  12. twittertales on February 21, 2011 at 4:20 PM

    >Hi! I read all the comments and found them totally fascinating. . . then it was the very last one that mentioned what I was looking for: steampunk. I've been predicting a rise in steampunk (that is, Victorian-inspired fiction) for a while, and I know Richard Harland, Cherie Priest and Scott Westerfeld are doing very well, but I think the height of steampunk (and the inevitable slew of imitations) is still to come.

    Louise Curtis

  13. Ramona Richards on February 21, 2011 at 3:11 PM

    >Personally, I'm looking for that one life-changing Christian steampunk tale…

    I ALWAYS recommend new authors take a screenwriting class as soon as possible. Nothing will teach you faster how to develop a tight, succinct plot and perfect your pitch.

    Learned this myself from screenwriting. Once won an award at a film festival, which got me an agent but no sales.

    As to trends…think cross-genre.

  14. Dave Cullen on February 21, 2011 at 2:24 PM

    >Really good advice.

    I find it helps bouncing ideas off a lot of (smart) people. Some will interpret that as my suggesting I take a poll. Not even close.

    I'm not looking for a yes/no from people, I'm looking for a level of enthusiasm, looking at the questions it sparks in them–or lack of them–and what excites it about them. I go back and forth discussing what is starting to congeal and I hear lots of ideas, and lots of feedback on what lights them up, and what does not.

    No one person has the master prediction. But by talking to several who have a knack through seeing through the fog, it helps me see, too.

    (Step #1, of course, is surrounding yourself with interesting people who have that rare knack of seeing through the fog.)

  15. Timothy Fish on February 21, 2011 at 1:19 PM

    >Sean said, “At some point, the vampire/werewolf/shape-shifter thing is going to wear out its welcome.”

    That could be true, but I don’t expect they will be replaced by unicorns and leprechauns. Vampire and werewolf stories are largely about forbidden love—at least from what I’ve seen recently. Unicorns appear in stories about protecting the innocent. Leprechauns appear in stories about greed. Our innocence is so lost right now, I don’t think there are very many people who would feel comfortable reading a story about innocence. These days people don’t even recognize greed when they see it. If we are due for anything, I think it is books that ask us to draw a distinction between right and wrong. We are at that point both in need and in the bigger cycle of things.

  16. Jill on February 21, 2011 at 12:39 PM

    >I've never been good at predicting trends, but I'm hoping for books with more substance than entertainment value. I thirst for substance, long for it.

  17. Sean on February 21, 2011 at 12:38 PM

    >At some point, the vampire/werewolf/shape-shifter thing is going to wear out its welcome, which means it's probably time for mermaids and leprechauns to come back in style. Possibly even -though I hate to say it – unicorns.

    I agree with Ron's prediction that shorter works will perform better in the future as well. Not just because of costs, but because we are a generation with shorter attention spans, regardless of how much time we do or don't have. In fact, I'm already bored by my own comment. Way too long.

  18. Rachelle on February 21, 2011 at 12:32 PM

    >Um, Ted? Viewing the movie after it's already made, (or reading the book after it's already been published), is sort or beside the point, don't you think? The trick is to make an accurate prediction before you spend all the money and time to make the product. 🙂

  19. Brian Miller on February 21, 2011 at 12:23 PM

    >ooo i like A3writers thoughts…by the time you shift though to meet a prediction it has probably already paased though…its all a guessing game anyway…

  20. Ted Cross on February 21, 2011 at 11:59 AM

    >Can't accurately predict what will be popular or not? I think they just haven't found people with proper taste! They could hire me to view their films before they are released and I could tell them how they will do!

  21. crow productions on February 21, 2011 at 10:37 AM

    >I crave a good story and not a formula. That is why "The King's Speech" was so engaging. My eyes glaze over with so much of the same old thing. What gets produced into film is so often relying on what was successful previously. There's just so much garbage. I saw "True Grit" and "The King's Speech" because I knew they would be worthy of my spare entertainment dollar.

  22. gael lynch on February 21, 2011 at 9:24 AM

    >I'm glad we're talking Hollywood, and not t.v., Rachelle! It would certainly be difficult to picture novels with red carpet figures and orange figurines ala those spray-painted characters from the Jersey Shore (yick!).

    I think people will always crave human drama that horrifies them and pulls on their heartstrings in equal measure. Just look at two of the Oscar nominees, The King's Speech and True Grit. What is it here that we crave? I sat paralyzed at the end of each stammer, and mesmerized by the young heroine that could belt out all of that dialogue. Character driven novels with poignantly real plot lines…the inner workings of the ordinary and not so ordinary woman or man! I do believe that we're all looking for that element of ourselves inside! Great post, Rachelle! I love how you always leave me with something to think about!

  23. Ron at CM on February 21, 2011 at 9:20 AM

    >A resurgence of novellas and shorter works in the 30,000 – 50,000 word range in electronic formats due to the elimination of minimum printing and distribution costs.

    Works with shorter, tighter scenes that can be consumed on small format portable devices during minutes of available time during commutes, work breaks, etc.

    Bonus content such as author bios, character and location backgrounds, expanded experiences outside the main story lines. Snippets of prequels and sequels tied to a specific character, location, or story line.

    And even after all of this, nobody still knows anything.

  24. MaryC on February 21, 2011 at 9:16 AM

    >My daughter and I were having a similar discussion yesterday about the success/fail rate of Broadway shows. She's studying to be a Stage Manager and said that professors/industry people claim that the stage hands generally predict the success/failure of shows with amazing accuracy.

    We were trying to figure out what it is about them that enables them to be so good. Maybe because they're like the ordinary people in the audience so they know if they like it others likely will? Maybe just luck?

  25. Author Sandra D. Bricker on February 21, 2011 at 9:10 AM

    >This is a conversation that ignites my writer heart! Like you, Rachelle, I started out as an aspiring screenwriter in Los Angeles. There was film school and script critique groups, and a lot of wide-eyed enthusiasm about making our mark. In those early days, my first instructor told me, "This goes beyond a career choice, but you can't see it now. You've entered into a whole sub-culture of southern California living that will change the course of who you are." I attributed it to too many cigarettes and not enough sleep … but I soon found myself knee-deep in the truth of what he'd said. My peeps and I began dissecting market trends, digging around for unique ways to get our brilliance into the hands and slush piles of those who could recognize it. Years later, teaching my own class of wide-eyed newbies, I advised, "There is no way to figure it all out. All you can do is write what inspires you, and hope to find yourself in one of those right-place-right-time scenarios where your own passion will throw sparks and catch someone else on fire. Think of yourself as Ben Franklin, out there trying to fly a kite in a lightning storm. It might not strike you, but if it does … Magic!" They probably thought I needed to smoke less and sleep more. But I do believe the advice holds true. My prediction about the future of books and movies is this: Trends start somewhere. One lone guy in front of a computer screen (or in the shower, or in the drive-thru at the bank) had a silly, audacious idea that eventually found a home in the heart of someone just as bold. So writers, write what fires you up! And then put yourself into places and situations where lightning might strike.

  26. Heather Webb on February 21, 2011 at 8:56 AM

    >I LOVE Hollywood week, especially since my sister is jumping through hoops to live the actor's life. We have heated discussions about the trends pretty often. So let's see…

    Film: Middle-aged protagonists, more super heroes, remakes, & historical figures (Cleopatra, Emily Dickinson, etc.)

    YA Books: Teen romance, male protags, historical fiction, and dystopian

    Memoir-o-mania: Let's hope they aren't all diaries (GAG)

    Non-Fiction: Middle East related topics

    I'm looking forward to the next Hollywood topic. 🙂

  27. Nan on February 21, 2011 at 8:09 AM

    >Not a prediction particularly, but I so want to agree with Katy McKenna's view about AGING protagonists. One of my favorite Harlequin imprints was the NEXT books that featured older heroines with peri-menopausal and menopausal 'tudes and fun interesting situations. We're not all twenty-somethings with hot bods and power careers, but we're still romantic and we still have a story to tell…I'm really hoping AEs will take a long look at what's out there and understand that most women over 45 would appreciate stories about their peers.

    February 21, 2011 8:08 AM

  28. Sue Harrison on February 21, 2011 at 7:41 AM

    >Love this look into your past, Rachelle. Thank you for the chance to glean wisdom from your experiences. My prediction for the future: Hollywood week is going to be awesome!

  29. M.E. on February 21, 2011 at 7:31 AM

    >If you are an author, write that which inspires you. If you are passionate about a certain topic, your audience might also be hoping for your WIP! 🙂

  30. Timothy Fish on February 21, 2011 at 7:21 AM

    >I read that as many men are buying books on Kindle as women. Based on that, I predict less pastels, fewer mushy love scenes and more action as publishers try to capitalize on more men buying books.

  31. Katy McKenna on February 21, 2011 at 5:57 AM

    >Love Hollywood Week already, Rachelle!

    I predict a coming coup for the brilliant, funny, seasoned, sexy AGING protagonist and supporting cast. Think of the great Betty White and the comeback she's made. Some of her most loyal fans had never heard of her till the big facebook push to have her host Saturday Night Live. And yet she's one of my mother's (age 81) long-time fave actresses!

    Look for some terrific novelists to be writing multi-faceted characters whose first kiss is a half-century behind them, but who have plenty of kick left to carry a great story.

  32. A3Writer on February 21, 2011 at 2:53 AM

    >Paranormal works are giving rise the the superhero genre, especially in film, which may bleed over into the publishing industry. Superheroes will reign supreme as Marvel, DC, and the popular indie comics take center stage for a time.

    This will give rise to a new era of science fiction as many of the superhero genre move more towards the gadget-laden super sciences more than they do the paranormal. It's already begun with movies such as Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Even Captain America with its call to the past still hearkens the triumph of scientific experiments which produce a Super Soldier.

    Paranormal will continue to be popular as franchises such as Thor and Wonder Woman will provide staying power.

  33. Aimee L Salter on February 21, 2011 at 2:44 AM

    >I'm with Tana – Hollywood Week? (cue Sing-song voice) Awe-some!

    I watched Mr. Goldman talk about this on the Princess Bride DVD extras. A very well considered opinion, I thought. Ha!

    Looking forward to further posts!

  34. Anonymous on February 21, 2011 at 2:06 AM

    >I predict that Ann Voskamp is going to alter the style of Christian women's writing the way Jim Carrey influenced the male comedian.

    I have nothing against the dear woman and I think her call to gratitude is the need of the hour, but the flowy-metaphorical-cathartic-journey-speak is hitting the internet hard, or rather, like the tendrils of a summer vine wrapping, winding, finding…

    I suspect some humor will be in order. The smarter the better.

    Lea Garner

  35. Jodi Langston on February 21, 2011 at 1:03 AM

    >I see the same old, same old in Hollywood and publishing. I see remakes, reality TV and worn out novel characters that need to be put to rest.
    It's all about sure things and the bottom line which effectively keeps a lot of great talent on the outside looking in.
    I stopped going to movies a while ago and get most of my books from the library because I got tired of being disappointed. There are new ideas out there and someday maybe they will listen to the new voices. If we bang at the door long enough maybe they will let us in!

  36. Tana Adams on February 21, 2011 at 12:54 AM

    >I’m going to love Hollywood week. Awesome already.

    I think people do like more of the same. It varies genre to genre but I do think things that are popular now, will be so in the not so distant future. I think instead of jumping on bandwagons, unless we happen to be driving them, authors should write whatever their heart desires. Who knows? Today’s WIP on ninja butterflies might just be tomorrows next bestseller, turned blockbuster, turned unstoppable money machine. But if ninja butterflies are not your thing, by all means write something that is. Truth comes through in storytelling. Passion burns up the pages. The reader sees all. People are going to get out of a novel exactly what the author put into it. As writers we should fight to make it the best.

    And yeah, I agree with Cacy. More aliens please.

  37. Cacy on February 21, 2011 at 12:44 AM

    >More alien books in YA? Oh please oh please oh please? I always loved aliens stories as a kid and into my teens, but it seemed there were never many YA alien stories for me to find.