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CHAOTIC: (ka at ik) adj. 1. in a state of chaos; in a completely confused or disordered condition 2. of or having to do with the theories, dynamics, etc. of mathematical chaos 3. how Hollywood really operates

July 02, 2006|Leonard Mlodinow | Leonard Mlodinow is the author of several books on physics and mathematics, including "Feynman's Rainbow," "Euclid's Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace" and, with Stephen Hawking, "A Briefer History of Time."

The magic of Hollywood success--how can one account for it? Were the executives at Fox and Sony who gambled more than $300 million to create the hits "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "The Da Vinci Code" visionaries? Were their peers at Warner Bros. who green-lighted the flop "Poseidon," which cost $160 million to produce, just boneheads?

The 2006 summer blockbuster season is upon us, one of the two times each year (the other is Christmas) when a film studio's hopes for black ink are decided by the gods of movie fortune--namely, you and me. Americans may not scurry with enthusiasm to vote for our presidents, but come summer, we do vote early and often for the films we love, to the tune of about $200 million each weekend. For the people who make the movies, it's either champagne or Prozac as a river of green flows through Tinseltown, dragging careers with it, sometimes for a happy, wild ride, sometimes directly into a rock.

But are the rewards (and punishments) of the Hollywood game deserved, or does luck play a far more important role in box-office success (and failure) than people imagine?

We all understand that genius doesn't guarantee success, but it's seductive to assume that success must come from genius. As a former Hollywood scriptwriter, I understand the comfort in hiring by track record. Yet as a scientist who has taught the mathematics of randomness at Caltech, I also am aware that track records can deceive.

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.

That's not to say that a jittery homemade horror video could just as easily become a hit as, say, "Exorcist: The Beginning," which cost an estimated $80 million, according to Box Office Mojo, the source for all estimated budget and revenue figures in this story. Well, actually, that is what happened with "The Blair Witch Project" (1999), which cost the filmmakers a mere $60,000 but brought in $140 million--more than three times the business of "Exorcist." (Revenue numbers reflect only domestic receipts.)

What the research shows is that even the most professionally made films are subject to many unpredictable factors that arise during production and marketing, not to mention the inscrutable taste of the audience. It is these unknowns that obliterate the ability to foretell the box-office future.

But if picking films is like randomly tossing darts, why do some people hit the bull's-eye more often than others? For the same reason that in a group of apes tossing darts, some apes will do better than others. The answer has nothing to do with skill. Even random events occur in clusters and streaks.

Imagine this game: We line up 20,000 moviegoers who, one by one, flip a coin. If the coin lands heads, they see "X-Men"; if the coin lands tails, it's "The Da Vinci Code." Since the coin has an equal chance of coming up either way, you might think that in this experimental box-office war each film should be in the lead about 10,000 times. But the mathematics of randomness says otherwise: The most probable number of lead changes is zero, and it is 88 times more probable that one of the two films will lead through all 20,000 customers than that each film leads 10,000 times. The lesson I teach in my course is that the fairness of the goddess of fortune is expressed not in alternations of the lead but in the symmetry of probabilities: Each film is equally likely to be the one that grabs and keeps the lead.

If the mathematics is counterintuitive, reality is even worse, because a funny thing happens when a random process such as the coin-flipping experiment is actually carried out: The symmetry of fairness is broken and one of the films becomes the winner. Even in situations like this, in which we know there is no "reason" that the coin flips should favor one film over the other, psychologists have shown that the temptation to concoct imagined reasons to account for skewed data and other patterns is often overwhelming.

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