Obviously, It’s Not Obvious

On Thanksgiving, for the first time in a long time, I saw E.T. on my television set. Xfinity brought our little brown friend back to life in a commercial and I felt like a child all over again.

E.T. became the fourth highest grossing movie of all-time thanks to the magical story telling of Steven Spielberg and the powerful music by John Williams. And yet, it was in no way clear to the studios or the audience that this movie would be tugging at our heart strings nearly forty years later. The evidence comes from William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade:

One additional anguish executives must cope with is that hot streaks don’t last. A recent newspaper articles mentioned how the other studios were gloating over what was happening at Columbia.

Columbia had been sizzling, but then Annie went wildly over budget. And an expensive action film wouldn’t cut together coherently. And everybody knew that the set of Tootsie was not where you wanted to spend your summer vacation.

And they had passed on E.T.

Columbia had it, developed it for a million dollars, took a survey, and discovered the audience for the movie would be too limited to make it profitable. So they let it go.

How did they let it go? Because as William Goldman said and as I’ve so often quoted, “Nobody knows anything.”

I’m currently reading this book, so you would think that I’d be sensitive to the fact that predicting which movies would be successful is not as easy as it appears in hindsight. Spoiler, I wasn’t.

Here’s Ben and discussing Todd Phillip’s financial deal in The Joker* (pardon our use of the word “obvious”).


I was wondering why Warner Brothers would be willing to give him a reported 10-13% of the back end in exchange for an upfront salary when it was obvious that The Joker was going to be an enormous success. Obviously, it wasn’t obvious.

Drew Dickson was on Ted Seides podcast last week talking about how people have become obsessed with behavioral finance to the point that it has almost lost its meaning. People are now biased to look for biases. On the one hand I agree with this take, and yet on the other we’re still as blind to our blind spots as we’ve always been.

I’m currently reading a book that has a whole chapter on how hard it is to determine what will be a blockbuster or a flop, and yet I couldn’t break the permanent illusion of hindsight bias. I acted as if it was obvious that The Joker was going to be a huge hit when I didn’t know it was going to be a hit even after I saw it. And this is how we can be biased to look for biases and still remain powerless to slow them down.

Involuntary mistakes are part of what it is to be human. Our brain was built a certain way, for better and for worse.

*Three of the biggest movies this year (The Joker, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman) left viewers with strong opinions on both sides. I don’t know if this is common or not, but it seems like these three in particular had people saying “it sucked” or “Oh my god what a movie.” Last night I saw Knives Out and I think this will be universally praised, similar to Get Out. Not sure if this is the type of movie that will do well in award shows, but it was easily one of my favorite movies this year.