Sometimes if you don't know anything, that alone is knowing something
Nobody knows anything. But wait, are you sure?
Screenwriter William Goldman - the master who wrote such memorable blockbusters as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man and The Princess Bride - has a famous maxim, which sums up his 40 years in Hollywood.
"Nobody knows anything."
He delivers that pithy conclusion in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade, which is the best book ever written about show business. You know that has to be true because I've written two books about it myself, and if I could get away with it I'd say Goldman's book is the third best book ever written about show business, because, well, I'm a writer and we hate to give each other compliments.
But I can't get away with that because it is the very best book ever written about show business, not the least because in those three words he manages to say pretty much everything that needs to be said about Hollywood and the media industry in general. And probably every other industry, too.
But here's the problem: "Nobody knows anything" is one of those phrases repeated often enough that people start to think it's universally true, instead of contextually true. What Goldman meant was: nobody knows what makes a hit movie or television show, or what the public longs to see, or when it's time to zig when everyone else is zagging.
People in Hollywood preen and strut and pretend to know the secret formula - More explosions! More heart! - but that's just the pride that goes before the fall. Eventually, that kind of arrogance gets punished in a very expensive way. (That's true for other industries, as well. Ask any of the former executives at Lehman Brothers, AIG or Bear Stearns.)
But if you've got a script sitting over at a network - and right now it's what we call "pilot season", when networks are mulling over dozens of scripts, so that applies to a lot more people than you'd imagine - you may not know anything, but somebody knows something.
Those executives know if they're about to give you a green light and a chance at a hit television show and mega-millions, or if they're about to muster up a sad-sounding vocal tone and give you a call with the bad news.
Mostly, then, Goldman is right: we're all racing around frantically, in total ignorance, trying to capture a paying audience. But in pilot season, knowledge gets asymmetric. Somebody knows something, but that somebody isn't you. You don't know anything.
So what do you do when you don't know anything? You look for signs.
You think about when the executives called you when you turned in the first draft, to give you some notes and thoughts and guidance for the second draft. Who was on that call? The whole network team? That would be a good sign - it means the project has good buzz around the office, and everyone wants to be able to claim a share.
Or was it just a midlevel staffer working alone? That's not so good. Don't buy that new BMW just yet.
What they said on the conference call is also crucial. Were there a lot of notes and thoughts on every page? This is a good sign. It means they want it to get better, and more importantly, want to be seen to have improved the final product. (That's nonsense, of course, but you can't tell network executives that.)
But if there were a few vague, general notes, you're in trouble.
And if there were no notes at all, if they said: "Everyone loves the draft! We're really high on this project! We're thrilled with the script!" then you know that you're dead.
The signs, then, are all you have to go on. When the production order comes - or doesn't - on your project, you probably already knew, deep down, what the outcome was going to be. If you've been in the entertainment industry long enough to have a project at a television network, you've been around enough to sense - sometimes from very early on in the process - the network energy. You can just feel it.
And if you can't feel it, it's because it's not there. If you're genuinely in the dark about the reception the project is getting at the network, then the news is unlikely to be good. If you don't know anything, that alone is knowing something. Something you're choosing to ignore.
So Goldman's famous dictum is correct. But so is the opposite. Nobody knows anything, or everybody knows everything. There's not much in between.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood
On Twitter: @rcbl